Recent Work By Matt Stewart

Why My Phone Is Probably More Interesting Than You

Skynet was supposed to attain self-awareness last week.

Yep, that Skynet, the fictional global grid of linked computers featured in the Terminator films that started as an automated global defense network intended to reduce human error and swiftly evolved into a renegade global power that fired nukes against Russia, launched a protracted war against human threats and sparked the only cinematic franchise which featured a governor naked. Three times.

The story in my debut novel, The French Revolution, takes place over thirty years, beginning in 1989 and ending in 2019. This put me in the unenviable position of envisioning the future. As I wrote the book from 2005 to 2008, I had to update several storylines—replacing DVDs with web video, adding the Obama campaign, reducing the influence of newspapers. And as much as I tried to keep the story timely, after the book went to press I knew my educated guesses would wind up making me look like a bozo. After all, the weather guy can’t tell you if it’s going to rain with the aid of the world’s most sophisticated technology; how the hell am I, a lazy, research-inhibited, professional liar, supposed to prognosticate anything past breakfast?

I could have finished National Novel Writing Month. Seriously. I pounded out 43,492 words with four days left, leaving me a mere 6,508 words to go to hit the “winner” level of 50,000 words by midnight last night. That’s a spittle-soaked couple’s squabble, or a wild weekend road trip, or a dimly lit barstool meditation on the meaning of civilization.

It’s Election Season across the USA,  which means there’s a lot of terrific television programs on to distract you from voting. Complicating matters, the howling ads interrupting those terrific television programs often distract from the real issues at stake: how exactly is the government wasting your hard-earned money this time around?

This handy guide attempts to clarify the tangible benefits of government programs to you, the humble internet-faring, presumably young/hipsterish taxpayer, via three basic categories: government programs that help, government programs that are probably screwing you over, and government programs that nobody understands.

GOVERNMENT PROGRAMS THAT HELP

Emergency Services

I’ve always romanticized being a cop, so when a life of office work snared me I turned to 911 to vicariously live my dream job. In the past three years, I’ve used 911 to call in a Mexican teen receiving a blowjob in the children’s park across the street from my house (in broad daylight on the Fourth of July), a Mexican covered in blood leaning against a elementary school wall, and another Mexican writhing on the sidewalk with cuts on his arm and a hospital band on his wrist. Not to make unfair generalizations, but the nation of Mexico owes me a few tacos on the house.

Department of Defense

You can’t ignore the DoD’s perfect record of preventing foreign invasion of American territory, Pearl Harbor notwithstanding. Also, we could be drafted at any time—Iran lobs one nuke at Tel Aviv, and the laws will change overnight—so I’ll use the remainder of this space to underscore my nearsightedness, flat feet, lengthy track record of conscientious objection, extreme allergy to gunpowder, and heartfelt affection for United States military personnel.

Health Care

Seven years ago, Blue Shield rejected me because I’d had a wart on my thumb two years prior. I had to go without formal health care for a year, instead procuring medical advice from night-shift pharmacists, hippie free clinics, and the internet. It was a thrilling experience, in the same way climbing up a sheer rock face in a thunderstorm while juggling chainsaws is thrilling. Pretty much anything would be an improvement.

Roads

Until you get that jetpack up and running, you’ll likely take roads to get around. Personally, I find that while my local Northern California roads are ranked among the worst in the nation in terms of quality, they should be ranked first in the nation in terms of breathtaking scenery. Moreover, my regional snow-removal teams are second-to-none, making premium powder skiing accessible even in a blizzard. Here’s to roads for making it happen.

Arnold Schwarzenegger

Did you see that picture Arnold posted making fun of Sarah Palin looking for Russia from Alaska? I totally retweeted it.


GOVERNMENT PROGRAMS THAT ARE PROBABLY SCREWING YOU OVER

Social Security

It’s an open national secret that Social Security won’t exist in forty years, right about the time we’ll need it. However, my generation is getting accustomed to living shittier, and we aren’t putting up much of a fight on this one. Thus, I toss Social Security in the same pile as pensions, reasonably priced health insurance, three-martini lunches, regular churchgoing, four-week vacations, affordable concert tickets, and marriage for life—myths invented by our ancestors and passed down over the generations to pacify the masses.

Subsidies

On the one hand, Doritos and gas are cheap, fostering a nation dominated by lazy flab-asses. On the other hand, organic vegetables and solar panels are expensive, fostering a snooty elitist minority that isn’t much fun at a Super Bowl party. I won’t rest until everyone in American can enjoy a lively Super Bowl party dip of organic guacamole at a fair price.

Bank Bailout

Let’s say you’re at a casino. One distinguished gentleman—let’s call him Charles Barkley—steps to the high-roller table and proceeds to lose a fortune on Pai Gow Poker. As a result, the casino asks all the other patrons to float Charles a loan to cover his bartab, hotel suite, steak dinners, and escort services. Just another reason why I consider the NBA unwatchable.

Iraq

All that fighting, the lives lost, the nations in turmoil, the enormous expense—and we didn’t even get the oil. Plus, Avatar totally should’ve beat The Hurt Locker at the Oscars.

Investment in Innovation

Think of all the terrific advances of recent times, everything from the iPod Nano to the iPhone and even the iPad or—could it be true?—the Verizon iPhone. Not a single one was invented by the government.


GOVERNMENT PROGRAMS NOBODY UNDERSTANDS

Taxes

An unimaginably boring topic, especially for a nation lagging in math and science as badly as this one. Thus, we primitively revert to the Law of the Limbo Stick: lower is always better, unless you’re really rich and about to die.

Medicare and Medicaid

Always remind me of Tweedledum and Tweedledee.


Incognito was a California fusion restaurant, steaks and sweet potatoes cooked with expensive wine and Asian seasonings, so pretty much anything flew for dessert. Upon landing the job, Esmerelda introduced a menu of fried green tea ice cream, eggplant tiramisu, papaya gelatin, Japanese plum cakes, cardamom shrikhand, and, on Sundays, raspberry fortune cookies with home-cooked haikus rolled up inside. Her profiteroles were made of thousands of choux pastry strips woven together, layered squirts of Swiss chocolate cream oozing within; her handmade ice cream was cool on the spoon and warm in the mouth, thick as mashed potatoes; her apple pie cracked with ripe fruit and fresh cinnamon, a dash of saffron spicing the crust.

I didn’t give a shit about baseball until I turned 25. Hot days, slow games, the mundane repetitiveness of a guy throwing a ball at a guy with a stick. I’d rather sleep than sit through a round of glorified golf.

Then, three things changed.

One, I moved to a city with Barry Bonds on the team. I’ll fully concede he’s a cheater, a bad teammate, and a jerk. However, he was the best in the game, a lethal clutch hitter, and violently entertaining. I’d plan evenings around Bonds at-bats, lest I miss something fantastic.

Two, I figured out I could get tickets to the best baseball park in America for free. I simply make a little handwritten sign that says “Free Ticket Please” and stand in front of AT&T Park in San Francisco, usually landing a free ticket in less than five minutes. (Try it, it works.) My seat always has a view of the Bay, often with sunset crackling pink across the horizon. The garlic fries are delicious and affordable; bike parking is free. It’s a magical way to catch up with friends.

Three—and the most important variable—I started listening to baseball on the radio. The announcers’ descriptive powers are immense, and took me beyond the mindless commentary of television and into the characters’ heads. I learned the pitcher-batter chess game, how the history of pitches between players affects future pitches and future swings, how the balls-strikes count deeply skews the confidence of pitchers and batters, how fouling off a lot of balls slowly tilts the at-bat to the batter’s advantage. The importance of batters waiting for a pitch to hit and the beautiful talent of pitchers when they never dish up that pitch. The mental funk of a slump, the electric clarity of a hot streak. When to yank a pitcher and play the rookie. The endless joy of clutch play.

Finally, I got it. Beneath its placid surface, baseball cooks a cauldron of mental strength and emotion and guts. It’s the best of the novel in sport form.

Consider the characters. If you fall in with a team, like I have, you probably spend more time with the players than you do with your family—almost every day of the summer, for three hours a pop. Players are usually funny and likeable, and rarely speak in soundbite. My team, the San Francisco Giants, features an overweight Venezuelan nicknamed Kung-Fu Panda; an upgraded minor leaguer who needed ten years to make the big leagues for good; a two-time Cy Young winner called The Freak whose recent pot possession arrest may have made him more popular than his accolades; and a mohawked closing pitcher who dyes his beard and colors his spikes with Sharpies.

Consider the plotting. The season is a marathon, 162 games in which few games truly matter but all of them somewhat do, enough time for storylines to unwind and split and evolve into a saga that usually ends in dismal failure, softened slightly by the hope of next year.

Football’s more popular, the Hollywood blockbuster of our culture, loaded with violent spectacle and huge marketing budgets, invading our home theaters with surround sound body crunches. Their stories are epic and magnificent, D Day and Waterloo outfitted in pads. There’s still nothing bigger than the Super Bowl, a sporting event so huge I was seriously tempted to refer to it as “the Super Bowl of football” so you’d get just how massive it is.

Whereas baseball unlocks the quiet moments. The small adjustments of changing characters, the patience to let a player fight through mistakes and evolve. Hot breezes on a summer day. Incremental improvement over time slowly changing everything. As there is no page limit in novels, there is no clock to race against in baseball—only obstacles to beat. It’s so damn human it hurts.

This week we enter the postseason, the final act. With the pressure to win condensed into a five or seven-game series, strategies shift. Ace pitchers come in as relief; a cold streak can sink a team; every move matters more. Built-up pressures come to a head, capping the ride of the season with a genuine resolution.

It doesn’t get any better than this.

Nobody’s writing novels about fat people confronting their weight. And that’s a problem.

I started waddling down the heavily reinforced road to Fat Fiction Town when a journalist asked me about the protagonist in my debut novel, The French Revolution: a wildly overweight former pastry chef/current copyshop cashier who’s surly, stubborn, hilarious, slightly evil, and by far my favorite character.

It’s happening again. The generational turnstile is clicking forward a third-rotation, sweeping from mystic Generation X to the text-message tapping, social-media snorting, Obama-loving, Gaga-blasting, vampire-lusting gang that goes by Millenials.