Recent Work By G. Xavier Robillard

The Walt Disney Company has announced a ban on a variety of junk foods that can advertise on the Disney Channel. Nutrition guidelines that will prevent ads include high sodium, sugar, and any food brands owned by Disney’s rivals.

Our detractors suggest this is a cynical gambit, that the company enters the nutrition business to license “Mickey-approved” foods, but this isn’t it at all. Studies show that children who eat healthy will end up living longer, and have more disposable income to spend on a variety of Disney products, such as Eldergarten, Disney’s fun-filled adult themepark and retirement community.

Before I rode my bike downtown to the kickoff march for Occupy Portland I scoured my office for a press pass. Although I’ve worked for several large media conglomerates ( I think they’re separate but may have merged into VerizonDisneyFrance) I’ve never remembered to ask for one. Three years at AOL News and it didn’t occur to me. What about my press badge from Comedy Central? It’s four years old and expired but I thought it might work like Doctor Who’s psychic paper. If only I could locate it.

The only thing I could find was a laminated badge from the 2009 Oregon Country Fair. Inside its swirling psychedelic border is my photo and the name “Hunter.” In light of all the suggestions from my lawyer friends  about this march, like “don’t take weed,” “don’t make eye contact with the cops,” and “don’t take weed,” I nixed that one.

It was important for me to attend the protest march as a journalist, or at least an observer. Not that I really have a problem with being arrested in the general sense, but our lame duck mayor was suggesting people stay home and the Portland Police is notoriously, um, colorful in the “accidentally shooting people” way. OccupyPortland didn’t get the proper demonstration permits beforehand and also: I had a thing later that night that I didn’t want to miss.

Not that I was entirely unprepared for arrest. As a canny protester I had sharpied the phone number of a local attorney named Bear on the back of my hand just in case. Yeah, his name is Bear. Shut up. In college I knew a kid named Stargazer, who was the son of the guy who provided acid to the Grateful Dead. Stargazer became a veterinarian, but sadly, not mine. In my world only the dealers have proper names.

If I appeared as a journalist at Occupy Portland, or at least an embedded protestor I could attempt to witness the  event objectively. Not from a political standpoint, because I’m with most of these folks 1000 percent of the way. Or at least 99% of the way. But philosophically I’m ambivalent about protests.

In a personal sense I like them. Exercising my right of free speech and freedom of assembly are important to me. A march is like voting, but with exercise! The day before the Iraq War started I was part of the Portland protest that shut the city down and cut off freeway access. It was a great democratic cluster fuck! I knew the next day that the bombs would still drop over Baghdad but it was important to put my body on record and say that this was wrong, that no weapons of mass destruction would be found and we would be in this for a very long time.

Protests are part of our democracy and my eyes fill with small-d democratic tears when I see a multiracial, multi-age group of people chanting together, a grandmother with a “Legalize It” poster and a toddler with a sign that reads “Corporate Personhood Subjugates the Constitution.” I’m not kidding. They start chanting, I start weeping. So much for objectivity.

But I’m not sure that there’s a point in Occupy Portland. Even if the cops don’t beat the piss out of the occupiers and make them vacate their camp, if it becomes a wintery Northwest version of Tahrir Square, will it accomplish anything?

Then I become annoyed that I’ve become conditioned to ask that question.Nobody questioned the efficacy of protests when the Tea Party was doing it. But now centrists and the media are asking “what’s the point of these protests?” Don’t you remember that the Tea Party practically had Obama over a barrel over health care a few summers ago? Why is it that only left-of-center  protests deserve scrutiny?

When conservatives say “we should build a wall at the Mexican border,” the media accepts this at face value, even though large sectors of our economy, such as tourism and agriculture, are totally dependent on this work force, or if America could curtail its thirst for Mexican drugs (buy local, people) and we stopped allowing gun show operators to arm Mexican cartels, we wouldn’t have a need for a wall.

And when liberal protestors say, “we want our government to regulate derivatives and tax hedge funds at a higher rate,” the media hears, “after we put LSD in the water supply we will teach mandatory knitting in schools which everyone knows is code for lesbianism and we’ll replace our kids lunch box Thermoses with big black dildoes.”

So I went to see it all for myself. What were these people demanding? Were they just the kids from Reed College on a study break?

There were people from all walks of life. It was not all dirty hippies. Okay, there were some dirty hippies, people in dreads on double decker bicycles in circus costumes, but these are people who own homes and walk their kids to school in my neighborhood. There were the young marching along with the elderly and people of every ethnic background. Guys in hard hats stickered with their local union number.

There was one well-dressed white man with a Ron Paul sticker on his bullhorn but he looked a little uncomfortable. Perhaps his libertarian friends sent him there on a dare.

As we marched around downtown the protest put a gum in afternoon traffic but many of the drivers trapped in their cars got out to cheer, as did some of the strippers working at Mary’s Club (All Nude Revue), showing off their long legs for democracy. Chants included “This is what Democracy looks like,” “We are the 99%,” and “Good Jobs for a Good Wage.” Nobody appeared to plot to overthrow the government. Yes there were the oh so stylish Guy Fawkes masks but they were outnumbered by grandmothers holding toddlers, faces in full view.

Most of the signs were what we’ve been seeing all along from Occupy Wall Street. Things like “Tax the 1%,” “End Corporate Personhood.”

This is Oregon, and under the bongwater gray skies there were plenty of “Legalize it” posters. And there were a few disappointed teenage Blazers fans holding “End the Lockout,” signs. Even basketball players are union men! My personal favorite sign: Krugman’s Army. Unlike certain Tea Party events, everything was spelled in the traditional manner.

A few days ago I was in a coffee shop debating issues around Occupy Portland with the owner and another customer, because apparently I live in eighteenth century France. We talked about the possible impact, and another friend of ours had just left for New York to take part in Occupy Wall Street. Half kidding I said that I’d believe it would only make a difference when the rural poor started to occupy the parking lots of Walmart.

This is why I was excited to see one skittish Ron Paul fan. Until protests make it to rural and conservative Congressional districts, movements like Occupy Portland won’t create change. Portland’s a relatively small city and the state’s Congressional delegation is 6/7ths Democratic and largely progressive.

What’s at stake here needs to be solved by both legislative and judicial processes. Legislative, because among the demands of the 99% are higher taxes for the 1%. This isn’t going to happen with the current House of Representatives and we can only hope that ongoing protests could trigger a political sea change, like the Tea Party election in 2010, might swing the House back to the left in 2012. Also it would help if any of the elected Democrats had backbones but now I’m just spewing like a schizophrenic gorilla.

The second aspect of the Occupy Wall Street movement is judicial, because there are people at Goldman, AIG and other financial institutions who belong in jail and there’s enough evidence to send them there. If protests around the country go long enough, some young New York DA with the prosecutorial zeal of a pre-hooker Eliot Spitzer will start moving against these financial criminals.

I’m still ambivalent about the larger impact. I’m not too cynical to believe that the movement will bring results. The Portland protest was about solidarity with Occupy Wall Street, a fist bump from 3000 miles away. While I was updating Twitter at the protest I noticed a status message from a friend at the Occupy Boston site. I responded, “You’re at Occupy Boston, I’m at Occupy Portland – on the count of 3 turn west and wave!”

We are the ninety-nine percent.

Man oh man oh man oh man. It’s what, FOUR months until the first primary and the Republican field has been bludgeoning itself like a bunch of  tweens at a razor party listening to My Chemical Emo-mance.

When we last met I thought it was the clash of the titans, more specifically, the clash of the V05 hair Product between Mitt Robotney and Rick Perry. But this was not to be. Rick Perry falls apart in debate!  His iron-clad hair shield has been tainted by the Massachusetts I mean Michigan I mean where does Mitt Romney live now anyway?

*answer: he lives in any one of the following states:  California, New Hampshire, Massachusetts
But he is another wealthy regular man-robot hybrid just like you and me.

I was disappointed by Perry’s recent performance. Sure the guy is dumber than a can of paint but he’s a canny politician with a long winning streak, and he was trounced by a guy who makes the GPS voice in your car sound authentic. And Mitt Romney, the most pretend of all pretend Republicans, attacked him from the right on immigration.

We’ve only lost one candidate so far, rendering the debates crowded and pointless. Nine people yapping on stage isn’t a debate. It’s a Facebook wall. And nine people times fifty-eleven debates is not doing anyone any good.

If Sarah Palin has taught us anything, aside from remembering to keep the receipt when we buy a half a continent sparsely populated by lunatics from Russia, it’s that constant media exposure may actually harm one’s chances for the presidency. The continued debates threaten to turn the candidates to caricature, aside from Newt Gingrich, who is a cartoon, and Ron Paul, who’s actually a character from an Ayn Rand novel.

Can anyone tell me where these audiences come from? Were they stocked entirely by Democrats working to make Republicans look bad? I’d say yes if a) Nixon were still alive and switched parties, b) Democrats were organized or c) James O’Keefe  would return my phone calls. This audience was the real deal. First the Republican pro-lifers cheer “Let ’em die” in a question about health insurance and second the Support Our Troops Pro Military party boos at a gay soldier after he asks about the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.

You can at least rest knowing that legally married gay partners of veterans are not allowed to receive pensions after their spouses die. As a personal note, I’d like to mention that my mother, who had been divorced from my dad for over twenty years, is still qualified to receive his Naval pension. Because straight divorce is all about American values.

Straw Polls Suck

These straw poles: enough. They cost the candidates a lot of money and time and they’re meaningless. Kind of like baseball’s All-Star game. Or the Move-on.org petition you just sent me.

On the plus side, the straw polls add some fake drama, because they let an unhinged outlier win something, so political journalists can pretend to write serious articles in which they imagine Herman Cain, who won the Florida straw poll, will take over the world until they notice that the Pizzafather has no money or endorsements. He does have a sweet tax plan though, which is abbreviated as 9-9-9, and is something as likely and sensible as the Nine Ringwraiths of Mordor playing Nine innings of baseball against Nine Inch Nails.

Mitt Romney won the Michigan straw poll, because that’s where he’s from. He’s also from Maryland, Massachusetts, Montana, Maine, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri and the Moon.

Nothing more than a sad seventh place in Florida for my personal fave Jon Huntsman, who has said that he believes in crazy talk like global warming and evolution and at this point to garner any traction in the polls he’s going to have to set fire to Rick Perry.

The essential problem with straw polls is they  waste resources. The candidates owe more favors to party hacks in each state and need more money from new donors. I don’t mind the GOP blowing its cash on these things, and it serves their own brand of social Darwinism, the only Darwin they let into the room. Survival of the richest. But in a larger way these straw polls are bad for democracy. As much as I enjoy cataloging the village idiots who are on the stage, as an engaged citizen I’d like the guy in the Oval Office, regardless of political party, to be competent enough to do the job.

“Mr. President we’ve confirmed that terrorists have stolen nuclear material from Pakistan. The poverty rate hit 25%, bacteria have developed a resistance to TB drugs and a tornado has leveled half of Kentucky.”

“Is this when I get to abolish the Departments of Energy, Education and anything else that starts with E?”

“That’s not going to help. What should we do?”

“Nothin. Government is not the solution.”

“What about the nukes, sir?

“I’ll let the states handle that.”

Next time: Why President Obama needs a primary challenge.

What a wild few weeks it’s been in the Republican Presidential primary race, AKA America’s Top Celebrity Presidential Candidate Rehab Survivor’s Got Talent!

First, a certain vote against raising the debt ceiling came back to haunt us. That vote was cast in 2006 by the junior senator from Illinois, Barack Obama. Sometimes even symbolic votes cause actual pain. You play politics with our ability to borrow money and pay bills and you get egg on your face. Did I say egg, or is that vomit being sprayed during the last week by investors suffering stock market motion sickness?

Because the Tea Party’s insistence on deficit reduction, just a mere eight months after everyone in Washington agreed to extend the Bush tax cuts, international trust is US debt has been downgraded from the Visa BlackCard to Diners Club. Sure it was a slight downgrade, given by those same criminals who just a few years ago gave AAA ratings to toxic assets, but still, don’t you just get sick when America isn’t the most awesome at everything? And then the US Women’s national soccer team loses the World Cup to Japan and isn’t this just the Summer of Shit?

If nothing else, this debt downgrade could spell the end of the dollar as the world’s reserve currency, in favor of the euro or the renminbi. I’ll admit to having a C-minus understanding of macroeconomics, which is why I write suppository jokes instead of running for public office, but Tea Party Congressional Caucus, if you don’t understand the previous sentence you should go back to complaining about President Obama’s birth certificate instead of reducing our economy to that of Kenya. Where Obama’s from.

Ames, Iowa played host to the debate between eight republican presidential candidates last week. The biggest point of the night: all eight pledged not to raise taxes never ever ever, not to lower the deficit, not even if the revenue increase were matched ten to one by spending cuts.

Democrats, sniffing out a chance to go on the defensive, offered a compromise of twenty to one spending cuts to tax increases. Then they offered a fifty trillion percent reduction in entitlement spending for no tax increases and threw in the state of Vermont.

The high point leading up to the Ames debate was when that far-out lefty Mitt Romney, munching on a plate of acid-laced “Fried Obesity on a Stick,” announced that “corporations are people.” I love that song from Free to be You and Me. But all of his perfect hair and free love could not win him the 2011 Straw Poll, where he came in at an awesome 7th place, just behind write-in candidate Rick Perry. The real winner, though, at the Iowa State Fair, was Fried Butter on a Stick. Rebuilding America, one pound at a time. We don’t need Medicare. We need wider ambulances.

It’s no real surprise that the Iowa Straw Poll’s winner was Sarah Palin I mean Michele Bachmann. Bachmann won a not critically important poll in the state where she was born which is right next to the state where she now lives. I’d like to now spend some time riffing on Michele Bachmann’s Yoda-like syntax, but save that for freedom liberty links in the freedom chain of liberty the right candidate for are I will in a later column.

But this spring training win cements her in the top tier group of candidates, along with Romney and Rick Perry. This is either a compelling narrative or more likely the media enjoys every chance they get to put the word “3-way” into the title of their articles to increase web traffic. Here at the Hustings Hustler I’ll keep watching Michele Bachmann, even though she’s not likely to make it to the Big Show, mostly because I’m fixated on her maniacal, Joker-like smile.

Have you ever looked at someone’s wedding pictures and noticed that the bride flashes an identical smile every in every single photo, because she’s obviously practiced it in front of a mirror since she was a little girl? That’s Bachmann’s smile, the ecstatic bride, but twisted slightly with the mania that says I KNOW HE’S GAY BUT I’M GOING TO MARRY HIM ANYWAY.

The one casualty of the current field was T-Paw. Tim Pawlenty put all his eggs in one cow stomach (I’m not very good with the rural metaphors) and came up three rooster cocks short.

But like the Hydra, you cut off one head and another grows in, now featuring the face of Governor Rick Perry, who just announced he’ll run. Now everything gets exciting, because I get to use more rural metaphors like “all hat, no cattle.” You think America won’t rush to elect another conservative Texas armadillo-smoking nut job? In 2012 the George W. Bush presidency will have ended four years ago. We remember how bad that was, right? The most brutal terrorist attack on American soil ever, two foreign wars, a five trillion dollar shopping habit, criminal negligence that led to the destruction of New Orleans and the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression? We wouldn’t make the same mistake because America Never Forgets.

Amount of time between the IPO for Pets.com, a San Francisco dot-com that actually sold stuff and the IPO of LinkedIn.com, a website that lets total fucking strangers send me their useless resume? Eleven years.

Amount of time between the collapse of Enron, when politicians demanded more regulation so it wouldn’t happen again and the collapse of the banking industry because of the appalling lack of financial regulation? Six years.

Amount of time between the popping of the speculative dot-com bubble to the beginning of the speculative housing bubble? Three years.

Amount of time it took for Twitterers who were irate that people were making fun of Amy Winehouse’s death to completely forget there was such a person as Amy Winehouse? One week.

So yes, it’s entirely possible that we will hand the keys to the ship of state over to a guy who holds giant prayer rallies to make it rain.

Just so we can all agree how ridiculous this nominating process is to the political junkies I’ll share with you this bit from the Times’ Caucus Blog, which felt it super important to spend column inches on the official sighting of Rick Perry’s new tour bus, the NASCAR Suppository, which will let me end with the following question: what’s black, blue and red all over?

[for lack of a better name I’ve decided to dub my sporadic political column the “Hustings Hustler.” Because I adore alliteration.]

The second GOP debate took place this week in New Hampshire, also known as the Granite State, which is a peculiar name, considering that you could carve seventeen full size New Hampshire sculptures out of the granite in California and still have some stone left over to add Barack Obama to Mount Rushmore.

New Hampshire is important to the Republican Party both because it holds the first primary and takes a serious anti-tax stance. You might believe the state’s motto is “Live Free or Die,” but it is in fact “Live Fee or Die.” The state makes up for lost tax revenue by imposing fees on everything. It’s a crucial difference: with taxation, the government takes money from its citizens. In the fee system, the government takes money from its citizens. New Hampshire also derives income from beating up Vermont for its milk money.

Mitt Romney has solidified his position as GOP front runner, which is pretty easy to do when several candidates have yet to enter the race and it’s a whopping eight months from now until the New Hampshire primary. Do you know how many penis pictures Anthony Weiner could tweet in eight months? I don’t know. More than you could shake a… never mind.

Since we last met there have been some minor changes to the field. Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum are definitely in, Mike Huckabee and Donald Trump are out.

The highlight of the Granite State Debate was T-paw attempting to weasel his way out of prior statements concerning the mutant hybrid “ObamneyCare,” a hard-to-pronounce sleight against both the President’s and Mitt Romney’s health care plans. T-paw has a point: it’s totally fair to question how Mitt Romney could be against Obama’s health care plan even as he signed into law its very model as Massachusetts governor. When Pawlenty was asked at the debate if he would “come and say that to my face,” the former Minnesota gov ran away with his big bushy squirrel tail between his legs. That’s right: he ran away from Mitt Romney, who has never done anything worse to anyone than naming his son Tagg. If T-paw’s plan to differentiate himself from Romney was to establish that a) he’s a former governor from a different state that starts with M and b) he’s a coward, Mission Accomplished!

Herman “The Godfather” Cain skirted around his prior demand for loyalty tests for Muslims in his administration. It’s too bad that he was caught showing off both his prejudice and his inability to waffle effectively when he should have talked about the economy. Cain knows about the economy because he used to sell pizza. To reduce unemployment Cain plans to offer pizza delivery jobs to every unemployed man and woman with a 1981 Toyota Cressida and a solid weed connection.

Wait. Ex-governor. Ex-senator. Ex-governor. Ex-House speaker. Ex-pizza magnate.* Of the seven people on the debate stage, only Michele Crazyboots Bachmann and Rowdy Ron Paul have jobs. That’s right: you know who’s going to fix our economy and give everyone jobs? A bunch of unemployed people.

Meanwhile, Newt Gingrich’s entire staff decided to spend more time with their not Newt Gingrich. Apparently they realized what I could have told them months ago if I wasn’t busy tweeting junk pics around the internet: Newt isn’t really running for president, he’s running so his ideas can be injected into the greater Republican debate. The big reason Newt’s people have departed en masse is they don’t believe his social media-heavy campaign strategy, which looks something like this: “vote for me and I promise not to tweet you a photo of my penis. Which is called Big Newt.”

At least, unlike Gingrich himself, his campaign staff didn’t wait until he was hospitalized with cancer to dump him.

Former Ambassador John Huntsman plans to announce his campaign plans at New York’s Liberty Park, which most likely means he’s in the running, otherwise he’d make his statement at Who Gives a Fuck Field, which is home to the New York Mets. I didn’t include Huntsman in my writeup last time. He’s a moderate Republican from Utah and his face keeps freaking me out.

We’ve all been there: you see what you think is a beautiful woman from behind, she turns around and you hear the staccato reak reak reak sound from Psycho and she has the face of Freddy Krueger but he’s been burned with acid and run over with a lawnmower. You know what I’m talking about. And she still rejects you because you’re so goddamn superficial.

All I’m saying is that I first saw Huntsman’s face in profile and I thought damn, you’re JFK-handsome. Then you see his face straight on and he’s got all the inhuman charm of a baby wombat.
But the wombat face is the least of his problems. His most recent job has been as the Ambassador to China for President Barack Hussein Obama.

They will just call him Huntsman-Chinabama.

You might think that moderate Republicans have no place in the primaries but you have to realize that historically, the GOP has been much more likely to nominate the traditional old guard (no taxes, loves big business, only pretends to give a shit about abortion) than the crazies. Nixon and George H W Bush were definitely on the moderate side, as was John McCain, that is, until he and George Bush kissed and made up and Bush replaced his brain with a Bible and some oat bran while nobody was looking.

Hell, between Huntsman and Romney and the Book of Mormon winning its Tony, it’s a great year for the tribe of Joseph Smith. If people stopped confusing them with Scientology they’d be set.

The last shadow candidate is Rick Perry, who is the guitarist from Aerosmith, and used to play Dylan on Beverly Hills 90210, but since Aerosmith is on hiatus while Steven Tyler offers his enormous lips as shelter for contestants on American Idol, Rick Perry is now moonlighting as governor of Texas.

Governor Perry has been hinting that he might run for president, and kicked off his non-campaign with a prayer event which “received criticism,” according to the New York Times. A negative article in the Times for Perry’s fundraising team is like winning the big high school game, the chili cook-off and banging the entire cheerleading squad on the same day!

The gist of the article suggests it’s not appropriate for a sitting governor to hold a giant evangelical prayer rally to psyche people up for when they get to heaven so they can roast the bones of non-believers. Side note: Perry’s Houston prayer rally is co-sponsored by the gay-bashing group International House of Prayer. Yes: IHOP.

Rick Perry has become more likely to announce his candidacy for several reasons. The current field of candidates is unimpressive. Sorry Mitt, but you are boring. You don’t even say any crazy Mormon things! Also, there are signs that the economy is slowing, due to lots of circumstances outside the President’s control (see Japan), and the economy could easily crater again and then Barack will have to apply for Jimmy Carter’s job as “guy who became awesome after being president.”

The Texas Governor will rely on a tried and true script:  he will turn to God and ask him if he should run, and if God answers in the form of large campaign donations from oil companies, look to Rick Perry to crash the party. In which case I’ll have a good time writing about how as a sitting governor he wanted Texas to secede from the country.

*Romney, Santorum, T-paw, Gingrich, Cain. If you got all these right you get a gold star.

Last weekend I gave a short improvised speech to fiction, poetry and non-fiction students at the close of the first Atheneum, a new writing program run by the Attic Institute in Portland. For the last eleven months I mentored four fiction students working on novels and short story collections. The following essay is a better herded version of my thoughts.

Your Mental Dojo

The Writers’ Dojo is a writing studio and community center in North Portland. The space has an open floor plan and draws the writer in with great lighting, couches, writing tables and the requisite full bookshelves with their requisite books. Large color photographs in frames provide visual commas on each wall. There isn’t too much art so you feel it’s been over designed or curated, but enough to provide the unexpected writing prompt. I’ve given workshops at the Dojo, my writing group occasionally meets there and I pop in for readings. Several writers I know work there every day. But for me the Writers’ Dojo is unobtainable, a mirage. It’s a twenty-minute freeway drive from my home in Southeast Portland, and since I define my world by where I can easily commute by bike, the Dojo might as well be in the Yukon.

But we need spaces like this, the clean, well lighted spaces, the rooms of our own. We need quiet places to write and reflect. Those rooms must be internal, rooms that you can carry with you.

Too many writers complain about where and why they cannot write. Your apartment is too cluttered. The cafe is too loud. This is all fine when you’ve had a certain amount of success, both with the printed word and in achieving a daily practice of writing. I have a friend who will not write on the ground floor of any building: that she has several books published and writes every day grants license to her eccentricity.

The clean well-lighted place, the Dojo with its stillness and sturdy wooden tables, some of which look like they were hacked off an old fir so recently you can smell the sap, these are spaces we need to recreate in our minds.

Because we’re all busy, with families, friends, lovers and/or the procurement of love, social obligations, that yoga class that we paid too much for to focus our minds, out of town visitors and the pushy charming devils of the digital age, the barrage of email and IM and SMS: acronyms that aid and abet our ADHD.

Two months after I started writing my novel Captain Freedom my first son was born. He had colic, a form of sleep torture developed in a North Korean lab. The parenting books suggested it would last three months. An early Tiger Baby over-achiever, my son’s colic lasted for eight months. It’s not that we didn’t sleep at all. He slept sometimes, but he was more likely to sleep between seven and midnight than say, three to five. Each night on several occasions we would be jerked out of our sleep, ripped awake by inconsolable wailing. Many pre-dawn mornings found me catching up on The New Yorker, pacing around the kitchen with him in the Baby Bjorn, reading aloud at two and/or three and/or four.

Colic is not particularly good for writing or healthy living, especially when it lasts for eight months, but regular writing had always been key to my sanity. So I woke up and wrote between five and seven-thirty in the morning, because this was the one time my boy was guaranteed to sleep. It was so early that I had tricked myself: I got up, made coffee and forgot to question how much better I’d feel when I had to go to work at nine if I’d slept those two and a half hours. Each morning my dog looked up from her bed and did not stir, only cocked up one ear which asked “are you fucking kidding me?”

That small dark recess, that fringe of the clock between five and seven-thirty became my clean well-lighted place.

I wouldn’t recommend it for everyone, but you need to find that space that’s yours alone, free from friends and kids and wives and husbands and partners. You need to say sorry, this is my time. And then you need to defend that space and time as if it were the Holy Land.

Talismans

You are all so very brave. Brave and fierce, all for different reasons. In prose and poetry you have confronted very different dragons. You have grappled with death in your families, with coming out after a lifetime in the closet, with translating stories between Malayalam and English, with your first public readings of your work, and you have met each request from your teachers with power and grace.

But we are often not so brave, especially alone at our desks, without the fortitude of our peers and mentors. Which is why I encourage you to seek out talismans. You will know what they are when you find them. I have encouraging emails from other writers printed out and tacked on the walls of my office. Whenever I give a reading, or comedy performance or I’m about to teach new material I hide beforehand and listen to the same psych-up song. Inside my black binder, where I keep many of the comedy essays and shorts I’ve written over the years, the binder which I take to every reading and performance and workshop, I have a photo of my older son. He was three months, right in the depths of colic, but he had just learned to smile. I put the picture in my binder when I gave my very first reading, almost seven years ago.

Along with art and maps and plots scrawled on butcher paper that clutter my office walls is a print-out of a quote from Samuel Beckett. Even though I’m nearsighted the words are in a font big enough so I can make them out from any point in the room without my glasses.

Ever tried.

Ever failed.

No matter.

Try again.

Fail again.

Fail better.

Find your own talisman to keep you brave. Sometimes you need to believe in magic.

Scaffolding

I grew up in and around New York City and when you live there you have to deal with scaffolding. The scaffolding is everywhere for building repair and window washing and it’s hideous: it’s like they’ve given braces to the buildings and sometimes the braces stay on for years. In New York you don’t need anything to increase your claustrophobia, but scaffolding crowds you in because the support poles take up significant room in the sidewalk. In the summer unidentifiable drops of moisture condense on the metal and find their way to your nape and if you are very fortunate they are colorless and you can pretend they are water drops.

There are a few advantages. Sometimes there will be scaffolding connecting your apartment all the way to the subway, and if you’re lucky all the way from the subway to your job, so you don’t need an umbrella for when it rains or spits out that horrible frozen brown they call snow.

Eventually the scaffolding comes off and you don’t recognize the building anymore. You’re surprised the building doesn’t topple.

Your mentors for the past eleven months were scaffolding. You didn’t need me to teach you to write fiction, you didn’t need your other instructors to teach you non-fiction or poetry. We gave you deadlines, you gave us pages and we met and worked through them, one-on-one. But you were the ones who wrote those pages, who met our arbitrary deadlines. Never once did I sit down and type those words for you.

Now eleven months later the scaffolding comes off. You will form new writing groups, you will mentor others, you will make your own arbitrary deadlines and meet them. You will keep writing, editing and questioning your work. The building does not fall.

One final thing: we are all peers. We are all students. We are all teachers.

As a veteran political reporter I’m always excited for the Republican presidential primaries. You like candy, right? The bright packaging and sugar rush. Let us say you combined the candy of Halloween and Easter, and threw in some edible underwear from Valentine’s Day. That’s a lot of candy, sweetness. Then instead of a kid in a candy store you had a bunch of meth-addled armed guerrillas in a candy store. And then you changed that word from CANDY to CRAZY. Then you have the Republican primaries.

The primaries for nomination against an incumbent make 2012 even sweeter. True, the bloodsport of 2008 was delicious in its gladiatorial rage, but ultimately the Democratic primaries are a little boring. You have a bunch of stiff suits, all terrified that they’ll be painted as more liberal than Dennis Kucinich, plus Dennis Kucinich, whom I want to run for president every year because of his hot, hot wife.

There is no crazy in the liberal wing of Democratic presidential candidates to compare to the sheer asinine conservatism of Ayn Rand acolytes you’ll find among the Republican candidates. If you don’t believe me then point out one mainstream Democratic candidate in the last twenty years who a) is an atheist, b) promised to completely dismantle the Department of Defense and the armed forces, c) wants to raise the capital gains tax to 95% (the Eisenhower threshold) d) will strip tax-exempt status from all religious organizations AND e) supports fully equal gay marriage and adoption. There certainly politicians this liberal, Bernie Saunders, I’m looking at you, but they don’t run for President.

But when the Republicans run they want you to see the crazy. In the name of placating the base they hide nothing, and they all position themselves to out-crazy the guy before them. The spectrum looks something like this:

Candidate One: I am against abortion.
Candidate Two: I am against abortion even in the case of rape and incest.
Candidate Three: I believe incest should be legal like it is in my home state.
Candidate Four: I believe we should allow people to take loaded, concealed weapons to town hall meetings while we debate these issues.
Candidate Five: Why are we letting these liberals in Warshington prevent me from finding a mate, clubbing her unconscious and dragging her back to my cave by her hair?

These people won’t last very long in the process, and have almost no hope of being elected. I’m not predicting an Obama reelection because of the death of Osama Bin Laden – remember George H W Bush kicked the crap out of Noriega AND Saddam Hussein but lost in 1992 because of the economy and Ross Perot? But since the economy is slowly improving I imagine Obama will win a tight reelection, though the Dems in the Senate will get their august asses handed to them.

Most of the possible Republican presidential candidates aren’t really running for President. They are running for the position of Fox News Talk Show host. Since these candidates will not be around for ever, because they’ll run out of money and their passes out of the asylum will expire, so I’d like to preview my total fascination of the awesome and totally unhinged lunatic fringe that appeared in South Carolina for the first Fox News Presidential Debate.

Rick Santorum
Rick, I’m so glad you’re going to be in the news again. Actually, can I call you Dick? It’s better than what Dan Savage calls you (NSFW but OMFG LOL). Dick’s a member of the arch conservative Catholic group Opus Dei, which Dan Brown made look like a bunch of cub scouts in the DaVinci Code, he happily equates homosexuality with incest AND he possibly plagiarized a Langston Hughes poem for his campaign slogan.

A gem of a line came this winter, when Santorum described he didn’t understand President Obama’s position on abortion: “I find it almost remarkable for a black man to say, ‘we’re going to decide who are people and who are not people.'”

Because I’m a racist who is secretly inside the brain of black people, like Mel Gibson in What Women Want.

He also takes a firm position on entitlements: “Close your eyes, like you’re listening to a drug dealer outside a school yard. They see entitlements as a way to make you dependent, weaker, less of a person than you are, drugging you into submission to a government who promises a high to take care of you.”

Santorum home-schools his seven children and thinks that he is entitled to government vouchers. Fair enough.

Ron Paul
Last year in Tennessee, a local fire department sat and watched as a family’s home burned to the ground, because mom and dad hadn’t paid the annual fee to pay for the local fire department. This is the libertarian dream. Libertarians are a fantasy baseball team with all sorts of unintended consequences. Sure they’ll legalize weed, but you wouldn’t be able to drive to your dealer’s house because the government will stop building roads.

Here’s one of Congressman Paul’s quotes:

“The most basic principle to being a free American is the notion that we as individuals are responsible for our own lives and decisions. We do not have the right to rob our neighbors to make up for our mistakes, neither does our neighbor have any right to tell us how to live, so long as we aren’t infringing on their rights. Freedom to make bad decisions is inherent in the freedom to make good ones. If we are only free to make good decisions, we are not really free.”

Which makes sense that he’s pro-life, because you aren’t really free until you give the government the freedom to make your choices for you. Freely.

Herman Cain
This is a black Republican businessman who was happy to be on stage in a state where they still fly the Confederate flag over the statehouse. Also, according to this Fox News screenshot, his birthplace is “Republican,” which should clear up any problems people might have with his birth certificate, which is bound to come up if you’re a black man running for national office.

Gary Johnson
He’s a libertarian, former governor of New Mexico who climbed Mount Everest and is for legalization of marijuana. So he’s like Ron Paul, but with no name recognition. Don’t expect him to ascend Mount Rushmore anytime soon.

Tim Pawlenty
Pawlenty was the only A-list candidate to appear for the South Carolina debate. He is the Mitt Romney of Minnesota, that is the boring right-of-center Republican who isn’t a Mormon former governor of the most liberal state in the universe. This should take him far. Tim is your typical conservative: against Obamacare, pro-life, pro-defense, blah blah blah wake me up when he runs out of money.

He also calls himself T-paw, which is what you get when you cross a rapper with a squirrel.

The No-Shows

Several prominent names are missing from the debate. They are often called “likely front runners,” “presumptive front runners,” or, in the case of Newt Gingrich, “a festering sore.” They want to watch the back bench tear each other apart from a safe distance.

Michele Bachmann
You might say that Sarah Palin is the thinking man’s Michele Bachmann. Let that sink into your brain. Then cry, then vomit, then cry again.

She makes Sarah Palin look like Hillary Clinton. If you search her online, you are going to get a whopping number of hits for “Craziest things Michele Bachmann ever said.” And those quotes won’t necessarily overlap.

Bachmann is as close as you can to winning the trifecta of conservative values: Tea Party darling, Birther, and Biblical fundamentalist:

“So, I just take the Bible for what it is, I guess, and recognize that I am not a scientist, not trained to be a scientist. I’m not a deep thinker on all of this. I wish I was. I wish I was more knowledgeable, but I’m not a scientist.”

The Presidency is a demanding job, that’s for sure. But does it require a deep thinker?

Sarah Palin
Plenty of ink has been shed on behalf of Sarah Palin. Remember: just because her daughter, an unwed teen mother, has received over a quarter of a million dollars to speak about abstinence, does not mean you get to talk about her family. The family that regularly appeared on her reality show. About her family.

Donald Trump

The Donald’s most serious success is that he’s gotten the state of Hawaii to produce the President’s long form birth certificate, both confirming what most regular people believed and taking away ammunition from the Birther fringe.

The problem with Trump is he’s a flip-flopper. First he was going to run an Indy 500 pace car, now he isn’t? First you’re for dangerously fast death traps and now you’re against them?

Newt Gingrich
Newt is a lot like my step-father*: he hasn’t had a new idea since before there was an Internet. I give Newt credit for serving his first wife divorce papers while she was hospitalized for cancer, but people have been pulling that stunt forever.

*totally kidding Mom!

Mitt Romney
Aside from the fact that he’s hysterically running away from his record, having created in Massachusetts a working, successful model for Obamacare, on the stump in 2008 he bolstered his conservative cred with a story about being on a road trip and strapping his dog’s cage to the roof of his car for twelve hours, where the panicked animal repeatedly soiled itself, obviously pandering to Michael Vick fans.

I don’t wish to discount Mitt Romney’s chances but no matter how hard he tacks to the right, the evangelical Christian base of the Republican party isn’t going to go for a guy who believes in an angel called Moroni. It sounds so… ethnic?

To begin I have absolutely no place peddling love advice to anyone. In college I had my fair share of trysts, long distance relationships, one-night-stands but that was less romance and more “young horny people doing it.” There’s no trick to that, other than confining yourself in a small town with an unlimited supply of alcohol and surrounding yourself with people between 18 and 22 who don’t live with their parents.

I wouldn’t say I’ve been lucky in love, but I have been lucky once, lucky enough to realize I had a good thing and mature enough not to fuck it up. I’ve been married for ten years, but I’m not cocky  enough to call that success. Should longevity be the only standard? What about variety? Would I be more successful if like the late Liz Taylor I had seven marriages? Longevity in a marriage can mean many things aside from success in love, such as inertia, you’re too lazy to divorce, or busy enough with careers and kids to bother thinking about it. Wow, that was harsh. Minor reactor leak. We’re fine. We’re all fine here, now, thank you. How are you?

To quote from those masters of the persuasive arts, the infomercial writers, I know my Star Wars advice is effective because it works.  I have seen it. And more importantly the inverse fails every time.

This astonishing advice pertains specifically to men. Though ladies, if you want to jump on the band wagon and woo a mate by dressing like Slave Princess Leia, I will not stop you. But first a caveat. I have been to ComicCon. There are precious few body types that work with Slave Princess Leia: elven maids, dryads and anyone with the special effects support of Industrial Light and Magic. And Kristen Bell. It’s very easy to be either too fat or too thin to successfully occupy the outfit. The outfit looks a little better if you have a few extra pounds; if you’re too thin people will suspect you are actually one of Jabba’s slaves in real life. And they will worry.

My advice is for guys who have realized that they are too nice. You know who you are. You’ve all of a sudden been run roughshod in a string of relationships, your heart has been pulled violently from your chest on too many occasions, women think of you as a friend, that really safe friend with feathered dirty blond hair, a love of khaki and two quirky robot sidekicks.

The Star Wars advice for you Sensitive New Age Guys, those who actually like Ani DeFranco instead of just pretending to like her to get laid (and come on, who hasn’t?), is this:

Turn down the Luke. Turn Up the Han.

Learn it. Embrace it. Become it. (Yes, t-shirts are available).

Most guys who see Star Wars for the first time at a young age originally identify with Luke. He was the ultimate good guy, the farmer turned ninja/priest who could move stuff with his mind. The naive teenager who eventually brings his successful and powerful father back from his really busy corporate job so they can finally play ball together. The last Jedi, who blew up the Death Star not once but twice because come on, George Lucas doesn’t have time to think up new stuff.

When I played Star Wars with my friends during kindergarten recess everyone wanted to be Luke. But as we got older though we no longer whined to go Toshi Station*. We wanted to be the cool space cowboy who shoots Greedo at point blank range. Mal Reynolds, the Sergeant who called himself Captain in Joss Whedon’s Firefly is a clear homage to the cult of Han. The series was not at all harmed by a lack of Luke, and believe me: if Joss Whedon doesn’t need Luke, neither does your girlfriend. Even George Lucas realized the dangerous sex fountain he’d unleashed with Han Solo and tried to take it back, digitally editing Star Wars to make it look like Greedo shot first, and Han shot back in self-defense.

This is not to say that “you should start out like Han and end up like Luke,” because every girl is secretly attracted to The Bad Boy but wants to marry the Good Boy. Nobody ends up with Luke. Because seriously, even though Luke Skywalker is the chosen one and has enough midi-chlorians to fill an Olympic swimming pool, he lacks the kung-fu to realize immediately that Princess Leia is his sister? That dude is not on the lady wavelength and I don’t care if it was a long time ago in a galaxy far away: you do not bang your sister, Jedi.

To the Lukes out there, I feel your pain because I used to be one of you. You’re the guys who fall in love too quickly and too deeply, who pine away then can’t believe that anyone would deign to sleep with you much less go shopping with you for power converters. You are prone to jealousy, your wounded deer over-sensitivity eventually drives them off and you don’t know why you’re constantly nursing a broken heart. When women are with you they say “you’re so nice.” Behind your back they say you’re too nice.

It took me nineteen years to transition out of the Luke costume. I was in a stalled relationship, living with a girl with whom I held a mutual dislike. At a Berkeley Halloween party at twenty-five I dressed as Han Solo, and one night in his big leather space boots made all the difference. I noticed a new girl. We started flirting. There was risk, sure, and it led to more than a little heartbreak. The new girl was who I married ten years ago.

It’s not that you shouldn’t be a gentleman. But if you turn up the Han you’re an honorable scoundrel and a gentleman, you’re self-assured enough drive a shitty car without worrying what other people think. Turn down the Luke, turn up the Han and don’t be afraid to shoot first.

[Nerd Flame Bait: yes I recognize that there are two spellings, Toshi and Tosche, to describe the Anchorhead general store Luke whines about in Episode IV. If you don’t like what I’m selling buy your power converters elsewhere. But don’t give into hate.]

Just after the new year began my agent called to tell me that Harper, which published my first novel and had a right of first refusal on my second, had indeed exercised this right.

They said no to Novel Two.

Portland Oregon is a city of overeducated, underemployed white people who have forgotten to leash their dogs.

It’s true, and absurd, and there are a thousand other true and absurd stereotypes that fall short of capturing the city.

IFC’s “Portlandia” is an attempt at sketch comedy based on the peculiar nuttiness that emanates from the City of Roses, which is a difficult proposal, because the people who best reflect that nuttiness are offended, and everyone else is annoyed that their particular tribe wasn’t included. Then there are those things that only outsiders find funny. Yes, in Portland 30-something men ride skateboards to take their kids to school. I only notice this as part of the natural landscape, like a resplendent fall Chinook, writhing its way upstream to spawn and die.

Several media outlets have revealed that the US Army has been administering a “spirituality test” to determine whether soldiers are fit to serve. The Army has argued that people who are spiritual have better morale and are more likely to recover from severe trauma. This could have some merit, and the Army would rightly be attracted by the cost savings of prayer over, say, paying for lifetime psychotherapy and mental health care for wounded and disabled veterans.

Every year one of my Jewish friends will try to explain how lame Chanukah is and how it couldn’t possibly stand up against the awesome power of Christmas. With a junkie’s conviction they tell you how much they love all of it: snow! Reindeer! Stop animation TV specials and the mountain of presents under that glorious tree, with the needles that smell like they’ve been hauled out of some magical forest just yesterday!

In the beginning of last year The Government Accountability Office, which is the investigative arm of Congress, released a report on offshore tax havens. It was long. I knew it was going to be long because it was a PDF that took nineteen hours to download.