A List of Books I Read in 2017 (in [Basically] No Particular Order)

THIS WORKS THE SAME as it did last year. The list includes all the books I read in 2017 (unless I forgot one or two), and each entry has a brief synopsis to give you an inkling for how I feel about it. If the title and author of the book are bold and in italics, that means I recommend the book. If not, either I didn’t like the book or I don’t feel it is accessible enough to recommend to everyone. The synopsis should clarify this. Here we go.



  • On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft — (Stephen King)
    • This is an oft-touted work that is simultaneously a sort of autobiography and a how-to on the craft of writing. I admit, I read it far later than I should have. It’s very good, and I recommend it to writers or aspiring writers, but I haven’t bolded or italicized this one because it isn’t the best work on writing I read this year. And, frankly, like all how-to works, this one is a mixed bag of advice, IMO.


  • The Hidden Machinery: Essays on Writing — (Margot Livesey)
    • Ok, this one is the best book on writing that I read this year. Livesey confines herself to very strict goals in her essays, a very limited scope or theme in each one, and this really serves to make her advice more easily digestible (if not easily followed… writing is difficult). If writing is your thing, check this one out for sure.


  • The Fear: Robert Mugabe and the Martyrdom of Zimbabwe — (Peter Godwin)
    • The Fear is a tale that centers around author Peter Godwin, a journalist, returning to his home country of Zimbabwe after Robert Mugabe lost his first election in 30 years in 2008. A harrowing story of corruption, violence, and confusion, this book is even more relevant now that Mugabe has been ousted.


  • Eclipse: Journey to the Dark Side of the Moon — (Frank Close)
    • In light of the eclipse that saw totality track across the United States in 2017, Frank Close (an eclipse chaser) wrote this book to describe the allure of the phenomenon and to encourage others to chase totality as well. It’s a good book, partly a memoir of his adventures chasing eclipses and partly a science-y breakdown of an eclipse’s mechanics. However, it felt a little too in-between for me, as if the book (and author) was not sure what it wanted to be.


  • The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code — (Margalit Fox)
    • Margalit Fox hits gold with this one. She details the unraveling of the ancient Linear B script, which was a triumph of the twentieth century. Not only that, but she honors both Michael Ventris (the eventual code-cracker) and Alice Kober (the somewhat unsung hero whose meticulous, almost obsessive work made the solution possible). Treat yourself to a well-written historical tale while simultaneously learning the intricacies of the Linear B problem and its elegant solution.


  • How to Mellify a Corpse: and Other Human Stories of Ancient Science and Superstition — (Vicki León)
    • León tries to weave together a raucous romp through history with her unique humor, but frankly I’m not so sure it works. The idea was very good, and seemed right up my alley with topics like ancient mechanical engineering, Pythagoras and his mathematical discoveries and odd quirks of habit, and much more. However, the book simply isn’t as interesting (or as much of a page-turner) as the title would suggest.


  • Sin Bravely: My Great Escape from Evangelical Hell — (Maggie Rowe)
    • Maggie Rowe used to have a problem worrying, obsessively (like, clinically obsessively) about going to hell. This is her raw, personal story of spending time in a Christian mental health facility and, eventually, overcoming that fear. It is a brave work that anyone who identifies, or has ever identified, as an Evangelical should read.


  • Both Flesh and Not: Essays — (David Foster Wallace)
    • I agree with some reviewers that this posthumous collection of previously unpublished Wallace essays suffers from the usual posthumous malady: these pieces were never intended by the author to go together, and they sometimes feel odd at the seams. However, I mean… it’s David Foster Wallace.


  • Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception — (Charles Seife)
    • This is an interesting analysis of the way in which modern media uses numbers unscrupulously to promote whatever idea they want viewers to believe. It’s a look at the way the human mind treats numbers and a primer against being taken in by faulty or misrepresented mathematics. This is very important in the modern age, and Seife does a serviceable job explaining these things, but the book does suffer somewhat from its position between popular nonfiction and academic work. If this stuff interests you, you’re probably going to gravitate toward more dense works.


  • Perfect Rigor: A Genius and the Mathematical Breakthrough of the Century — (Masha Gessen)
    • Perfect Rigor tells the story of Grigori Perelman, who in 2006 solved the Poincare Conjecture (a topological problem so complex that I don’t even understand its question, much less its solution). The PC remained unsolved for more than a century and was thought by some to be literally unsolvable. After Perelman solved the problem, he refused the one million dollar prize and became somewhat of a recluse. Perfect Rigor details, with clarity and with the appropriate amount of compassion, his early life in Russia’s mathematical schools as well as his eventual solving of the PC. None of this synopsis gives justice to how interesting the book is. I couldn’t put it down.


  • The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction — (Neil Gaiman)
    • Alright, this is blasphemous, but I didn’t really enjoy this collection from Gaiman. Maybe I’m souring on his style, or maybe the stories and essays felt too mashed together and incompatible… I don’t know.


  • Chasing the Sun: the Epic Story of the Star That Gives Us Life — (Richard Cohen)
    • I’ve never read Cohen before, but I plan on reading more of his work after this. Chasing the Sun is perhaps my BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR, though I have trouble declaring such superlatives. The book is the culmination of eight years of research and covers the sun’s influence in science, physics, art, food, culture, clothing, music, etc. etc. etc. I cannot recommend this book enough.


  • Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief — (Lawrence Wright)
    • It’s been in the news a lot lately, but guys: Scientology is weird and bad and you should stay away from it. This is an excellent analysis of the “religion’s” history and philosophy. Check it out.


  • A Palette of Particles — (Jeremy Bernstein)
    • This short book is an interesting primer on particle physics and its history, but I think it suffers from a few fatal flaws. First, it’s too short to cover anything in the sort of depth that something as complex as particle physics requires. Also, its diction is too academic for the book’s goal. If the diction is right for you, you probably already know what’s in the book and don’t need to read it. The book also seems unsure of what it wants to be: historical analysis, physics textbook/primer, memoir, etc.


  • Confessions of a Young Novelist — (Umberto Eco)
    • Eco is very hit-or-miss for me, and in this short work he misses the mark. The idea behind the book is to combine a few “confessions,” essays, and speeches made by Eco over the years regarding his thoughts on the craft of writing. However, I find much of Eco’s thoughts too, dare I say, pretentious. Of course, he’s a genius. But there is too much self-congratulation in the work, too much self-praise. Perhaps in his native Italian it comes off as more explanatory, but in the translation he seems more concerned with showing his genius.


  • Mop Men: Inside the World of Crime Scene Cleaners — (Alan Emmins)
    • This one is very straightforward. Emmins spends time with the professionals who clean crime scenes (and, yes, it does get gory and gross at times) and details his experiences. There’s a complicated man at the center of the business, and I’m not sure how I feel about Emmins’ portrayal of him, but nevertheless the book retains interest well and shows the reader a rarely-glimpsed corner of society.


  • Lewis Carroll in Numberland: His Fantastical Mathematical Logical Life: An Agony in Eight Fits — (Robin J. Wilson)
    • Don’t let the title scare you off. This is another contender for BOOK OF THE YEAR for me. Incredibly accessible and incredibly fun, this work details the life of Carroll in a compassionate manner. Don’t believe the rumors of Carroll’s odd behavior around kids, this well-researched book says. Instead, let Wilson show you Carroll as he was: a brilliant, loving man who made great strides in both mathematics and literature and who is every bit as interesting as his zany characters.


  • Einstein’s Dice and Schrödinger’s Cat: How Two Great Minds Battled Quantum Randomness to Create a Unified Theory of Physics — (Paul Halpern)
    • On the back of the recent confirmation of the Higgs Boson, Halpern details the story of Einstein and Schrödinger and their quest to arrive at a Grand Unified Theory of physics that eschewed the random dice in Einstein’s famous quip. The book does not shy away from these controversial characters and is a delight to read for anyone interested in physics who, like me, is worse than a layman.


  • Poetry Notebook: Reflections on the Intensity of Language — (Clive James)
    • An unbelievably well-thought-out catalog of the poetic arsenal, James’ book has given me much to think about regarding my own use of language in my writing. A must-read for writers of all shades.




  • The Best American Poetry 2007 — (ed. Heather McHugh)
    • I have to say, with a sigh, that almost all poetry collections are going to go unrecommended from me. There are gems in all of them, but alas, there are far too many that seem like linguistic masturbation. With poetry, usually, the key is to find a poet you love rather than a hodgepodge of poems.


  • Best of the Best American Poetry — (ed. Robert Pinsky)
    • See above comments.




  • Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage — (Haruki Murakami)
    • This was, I think, my first Murakami book, and I was not impressed. Though perhaps the translation can be blamed, the language seemed dead and detached. The titular Tazaki seemed by turns foolish, pitiable, and evil, and the plot itself seemed disjointed and odd in an unintended way.


  • The Strange Library — (Haruki Murakami)

This is what I imagined Murakami to be after hearing his praises for years. Here, he seems like a master of language subtly crafting a story that is bizarre and, well, strange in ways that seem utterly intended. He maps a dream world that often doesn’t make sense, but it’s not about the making-sense. It’s about the feel of the thing, and Murakami is writing a concerto for the way dreams/nightmares feel. Highly recommend.



  • The Pleasure of My Company — (Steve Martin)
    • Yes, that Steve Martin. Honestly, he has no right to be this good at writing. He’s already had a great comedy career and is super into art or whatever. Leave some for the rest of us, Steve. (If you’re interested, his novella is about a man with clear OCD issues overcoming all of his harmful obsessions to fully realize himself, and it’s damn good).


  • Normal — (Warren Ellis)
    • This one is tough. Warren Ellis is a legendary figure on the comics front, but this is my first foray into his novels. Normal is… anything but. It’s weird and philosophical, insular and kind of oddly stilted and compressed in its scope. The story of a man who previously worked for the government being placed in a sort of camp or secluded retreat (involuntarily), Normal goes to weird places and waxes philosophical about the future of humanity. It’s very good, but I’d reserve a recommendation only for those who are familiar with Ellis’ previous work. It feels very much of a piece with Transmetropolitan.


  • Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? — (Dave Eggers)
    • 2017 was, it seems, a year of firsts for me. This, my first Eggers book, is a story told entirely in dialogue that features a man who decides to kidnap an old classmate of his who became an astronaut. From there, it only gets weirder, but Eggers manages to make the plot seem somehow reasonable and human.


  • The Familiar, Vol. 4: Hades — (Mark Z. Danielewski)
    • Danielewski continues his 20-some-part epic about a young girl, her cat, and her city. This volume returned to a slower pace, but it was still incredibly readable and enjoyable. If you haven’t started the series yet, get on it. It represents, for me, a return to form for MZD.


  • Numero zero — (Umberto Eco)
    • I said earlier that Eco is hit-or-miss for me, but this one is somewhere in between. Extremely short by Eco standards, Numero zero has some truly interesting and mind-bending ideas and historical puzzles, but it ultimately falls flat in its plot and remains forgettable. I’m having trouble remembering a lot of it, which does not bode well for a recommendation.


  • The Name of the Rose — (Umberto Eco)
    • This book, with which Eco originally burst onto the authorial scene, is simply a masterpiece. A mystery set in an ancient monastery, the level of detail and complexity is staggering. It’s a thinking person’s thriller, a page-turning dissertation on medieval life. It’s a lot of things, and one of them is “good.”


  • Cold Hand in Mine: Strange Stories — (Robert Aickman)
    • Lent to me by a friend, this collection was my introduction to Aickman. He is a master of the craft and weaves unsettling tales better than pretty much anyone I’ve read. From a strange hotel from which guests cannot leave to creature-horror set in a European castle’s lake, this collection shows Aickman at what I can only assume is his best.


  • The Marvels — (Brian Selznick)
    • Selznick is the award-winning author/illustrator of The Invention of Hugo Cabret, and he returns to the same kind of half-written, half-drawn storytelling M.O. in this book. For my money, though, The Marvels is more intense, more emotionally gripping, and an all-around better book. Selznick deserves all the praise and awards he’s earned.


  • A Confederacy of Dunces — (John Kennedy Toole)
    • A classic, this book was one I had never read until this year. More’s the pity. It is hilarious, snide, cutting, interesting; its characters seem real and fleshed-out; its plot moves along steadily, retaining interest. Though it does flag a bit at the end, the novel is a work of art that I think everyone should read at least once. Practically every sentence drips with sarcasm, and I believe I actually laughed aloud while reading it.


  • The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer — (Neal Stephenson)
    • This was originally suggested to me by Hugh Howey, who cites it as one of his favorites of Stephenson’s. I tried to start it a few years ago and got bored, but now I don’t understand how that was possible. The book features Stephenson (who is probably my favorite extant sci-fi writer) at his world-building best. The tech and geopolitical realities are superbly wrought. Though, as usual, Stephenson seems not to care about wrapping up his stories and resorts to Deus Ex Machina type devices to end things, the novel is still excellent and provides an interesting commentary on ideas like the education system, politics, the speed of technological advancement, and more.


graphic novels


  • SAGA, vol. 4 and 5 — (Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples)
    • I mentioned this last year when I started SAGA. It’s a wildly cool story about interspecies war and love, childhood, parenthood, kindness among strangers, meaning in the universe, etc. Expertly written, its equally stunning visuals are drawn by Staples at the absolute height of her power. Do not miss out on these works.


  • Swamp Thing, Vol. 1-6 — (Alan Moore’s run; with John Totleben and Steve Bissette)
    • I’ve been a fan of Moore since his Watchmen brought me into graphic novels and comics (I know, I know, so original, Mike). I own Watchmen, V for Vendetta, and some of his League of Extraordinary Gentlemen work, but this is my first time reading his highly acclaimed run on Swamp Thing. Needless to say, it’s a work of staggering genius. Moore may be a weird dude, but as a writer he is nearly unrivaled.


  • Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth — (Chris Ware)
    • Okay, so I recommend this one, but only as long as you go into it knowing that it’s unbelievably depressing. That said, it’s a monument to the struggles of the average modern man and is at times poignant and emotionally cathartic. We pull for Jimmy; we weep for Jimmy. We are Jimmy. It’s just… Jimmy’s very sad.


bonus book I didn’t know how to categorize


  • The Paleblood Hunt — (Redgrave)
    • Just as last year featured the genre-bending work “Darths and Droids,” so this year features a “book” that many might say doesn’t belong on a list of this nature. The Paleblood Hunt is kind of a blend of scholarly work and fan fiction. It’s author, a man whose online alias is Redgrave, is one of the leading lore historians in the Bloodborne community (yes, yes, the video game). The Paleblood Hunt is his synopsis of Bloodborne’s often obscure and difficult to parse story, and for my money it is the best working theory of the game out there. The length of a novella, TPH should be required reading for anyone playing the game who wishes to join the greater lore community.

Why We Protest


It’s the day of the Muslim Ban protest at Raleigh-Durham International Airport, and I’m pacing around the parking lot of my apartment complex, reading a book about Robert Mugabe’s dictatorship in Zimbabwe. The weather is chilly, which I find fitting. The cold helps keep my blood from boiling.

Eventually my friend Chris picks me up. He’s got long Jesus hair and drives a Prius, and even though it’s cold enough for me to put the hood of my jacket up, he’s wearing flip-flops. I slide my book into the backpack I’m bringing (which is loaded up with a water bottle, grapes, tortilla chips, and dip courtesy of my wife) and climb into the car. Chris seems at peace, calm. We exchange pleasantries and then get to talking about what it is we’re about to do, why we’re doing it.

We are both of us disillusioned. It has become nearly impossible to have any faith in representative government. The foreign policy and unchecked drone strikes of Barack Obama were bad enough, the election of Donald Trump worse, and the first ten days of Trump’s presidency worse yet. Chris leans back in his seat as he drives and tells me that one of the things he’s most dismayed about with Trump’s recent executive order is that there are several mayors of various “sanctuary cities” who have expressed the desire to fight Trump’s rhetoric and policies, and yet none of them are outright sending their local police forces in to keep the TSA from detaining people. In other words, like so many other moments in the history of America, the liberals are rolling over to the radical Right. The GOP, says Chris, know that all they have to do is stonewall any compromise and the Democrats will inevitably cave to them in the name of maintaining order and smooth governmental function. In this way, the nation continually moves farther and farther to the Right, inevitably leading us to this crucial moment in history: a President Trump whose right-hand man is the detestable and fascistic Steve Bannon. He tells me of a quote from Julius Nyerere, the first president of Tanzania: “The US is also a one-party state. But with typical American extravagance, they have two of them.”

We stop at a gas station to fuel up, and before Chris heads inside to grab some snacks he hands me a chunk of cardboard, a marker, and his knife. I cut the cardboard shabbily in twain while I wait for him to return, all the while wondering what I’ll put on my makeshift sign. This is my first protest, and I realize that I’ve thought of no catchy phrase. I’ve been too angry, too viscerally upset. So instead I set the cardboard aside and wait for Chris.

Back on the road, we continue our discussion of the state of the Union, its many faults, our disillusionment with the whole system. I bring up my favorite book of last year, Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, and we discuss how Piketty’s chief fault is that he spends the entire book showing why capitalist-based democratic social states don’t work, and then finishes with a solution that is essentially a modified capitalist-based democratic social state. The problem is that we are trained in this system from the moment we’re born, trained to calculate everything based upon the monetary value it will bring us, not realizing that this value is a construction. We discuss how, back in the day, half of Americans were farmers. Now something like two percent are, and we produce a surplus of food every year. There is no reason for widespread hunger to exist on this planet. We have the technology to solve it. We have the technology to eradicate many diseases. And yet we don’t, because there is not enough profit in it. This, it seems to me and Chris, is the most damning evidence that our entire system is flawed beyond repair.

Then we pull into the parking deck at RDU and it’s time to make our signs. Now, all of a sudden, the reality of what we’re doing sinks in for me. President Donald Trump has just signed an executive order that has become widely known as the Muslim Ban. Because of this, many families have been separated from relatives who had just gone on vacation, and many green-card and visa holders have been detained at airports around the country. This is fascism, plain and simple: it is the restriction of liberty and compassion (as the order would mean refusal of access for refugees fleeing the unconscionable violence of the Islamic State) in the pursuit of comfort and safety. This country, which while no bastion of morality in the past at least proudly defeated the Nazis, has now grown closer to fascistic, militaristic government than ever before. I could go into this more, and show why it’s more than just this single action of Trump’s that leads me to this conclusion, but that would be too long.

So Chris and I settle down and take out the marker. Still at a loss, I decide to keep it simple with the statement “Refugees are PEOPLE; kindness is STRENGTH.”

Chris has been to the Women’s March, and he’s a veteran of this kind of protest. He pens the much better “ADMIT ANYONE WHO WILL PUNCH RICHARD SPENCER.

We walk toward the designated protest area, blending into a trickle of latecomers like ourselves. There are some barricades and police standing by, and we’re herded down to the back of the protest crowd. This area, unfortunately, is well away from the departure zones. We’re not impeding or making difficult the normal operations of the airport, and that’s problematic. A protest only really works or has meaning if it causes discomfort. It is only effective if it shuts something down or makes the normal business of everyday life difficult. Only then is any point made.

But we sit in the back as many more people pile in behind us, and a handful of younger ladies in hijab make some chants. Soon they are joined by a black woman with a hand-made bucket-drum and a skinny man with a tambourine that I can barely hear over the voices. I have noted before that the problem with the Left is that everyone thinks his own solution is the only solution and that compromise is unthinkable, and so while we’re all in agreement that, say, fascism is bad, we’re split on how to combat it. This idea also proves true in our protests. The chants are disjointed, often two or three happening at once, and even when we all chant the same thing half the crowd is offbeat. As a former percussionist, this greatly bothers me. The drummer and the tambourinist continue to try to keep time, though, unperturbed.

But then I remember marching band, and I realize what this means. It means that there are so many people around (and no one brought a megaphone, oddly enough) that we’re all reacting to each others’ sounds, which throws us all off. This is a good thing. It means we are legion.

I later learned that though the protest permit was administered for 150 people, more than 1,000 showed up.

At one point a group of green-and-black clad hippies with beards and multiple piercings show up, each of them wielding cigarettes. Chris thinks that they’re probably with some political group or another, maybe PSL or something. They start trying to get the crowd on board with some more intense chants like “Fuck your borders, fuck your wall. America was meant for all!” and “Who shuts shit down? We shut shit down!” My favorite was the simple “Fascists out; Refugees in!” because of its clarity and brevity. But eventually this peters out and the group moves on.

Eventually we start moving forward, which is an unplanned part of the protest. I briefly wonder what’s going on before Chris and I are swept along in the tide of protesters. We pass the police car that marked the end of the designated protest zone. When we’ve stopped moving, the 1,000-strong protesters are now in front of the departure area, and I’m glad that we’re finally in a position to cause a bit of nonviolent shock to the powers that be.

(I would later find out that these people were responsible for the movement, and that it was probably why the protest got shut down early).

At some point the police form a line and start slowly condensing the crowd. Unbeknownst to the majority of us, the protest is over; it has been called off by the airport almost an hour and a half ago, when it became clear that way more than 150 people had shown up. So we slowly condense and leave in small groups, and though it feels great to be part of such a massive turnout, I am left to wonder the same thing I always wonder about protests: have we really done anything to bring about any real change?

Before we leave, one last person comes up to give Chris a fist-bump over his sign. “Nonviolence protects the State, man,” the guy says as we start to walk away. I am reminded of something else Chris told me in the early stages of the protest: usually, if someone is directly inciting you to violence at one of these things, that person is probably a cop.

We drive out of the airport in an orderly fashion, directed by police officers. And then we’re on the road, driving back to my apartment complex. I haven’t even touched the food I brought with me.

In the car, we talk about the heightened anti-immigrant rhetoric that has become increasingly prevalent on the Right. Moreover, we commiserate in our distaste for much of the Left’s counter-rhetoric on this issue (i.e. “immigrants and refugees bring so much to our communities… Steve Jobs was the son of a Syrian immigrant!”). No, we say to each other, we don’t save refugees or welcome immigrants because one of them might be a Steve Jobs. We don’t give homeless people houses for free (as Utah has done in an ongoing social experiment) because it’s a more cost-effective solution. We do these kindnesses because we’re dealing with human fucking beings. This, Chris says, is a symptom of our indoctrination into capitalism: every human is seen through the eyes of potential (monetary) value.

And then Chris says something else that truly blows my mind and makes me forget what I was just about to say (which, if you know me, is quite a feat). He says that this is essentially what social media has done to us. Social media, with its retweets and shares and likes and comments, has given a numeric value to your very thoughts.


So much of our lives are now spent on social media, farming for likes and retweets and Facebook interactions. And while I’d classify this as amoral, it is still a way in which harmful capitalist dogma injects itself into our thought processes. It is a way in which we dehumanize people, even if slightly, and condense ourselves into a series of “engagements,” as Twitter analytics call them.

As Chris pulls into my apartment complex to drop me off, we talk about all sorts of historical problems with our nation, how it could be better, and how all of this is contingent upon the people taking personal responsibility for the nation’s direction. Still, in the back of my mind, I’m worrying about that social media idea. I have been planning, throughout the day, to write a blog post about my protest experience. I brought along a notebook to record important moments or thoughts. And now here you are, reading them. Giving me feedback and engagements.

Is that what this protest is, when it comes down to it? I mentioned earlier how good it felt to be around people who were vocally supporting immigrants and refugees, how comforting it was to know that folks are just as upset as I am and are willing to fight an increasingly authoritarian government to show compassion to suffering humans. Yet is this not merely a form of “engagement”? Earlier I mentioned that over 1,000 people came to the protest. Is this not, like social media shares, a way of giving the protest numeric value? In this sense, have we really offered a new paradigm here, or were we just pretending?

And then, of course, I came home. And I logged onto my computer to assure people that I was safe, to look for news about other protests around the country, and to see how people are responding. Also of course, many people are aggrieved over the protesters. Many people are aggrieved at flight delays or minor traffic disruption, or merely at “whiny liberals.”

In short, many people are more upset about the disruption of their own normal everyday routines than they are about the prospect of shutting off entire swathes of this planet’s population from much-needed help.

We are the most prosperous nation in the history of the world. As far as we know, we–you and I, right now–are the most prosperous group of beings in the history of the universe.

And we’re too scared of the prospect of dying by terrorism to help people in war-torn areas. Though the risk of such a death is lower than dying from a lawnmower, we remain afraid. And we hoard our riches from those who are suffering.

So no, I don’t think the protest did much. Even after a federal judge put an emergency stay on Trump’s executive order, reports are that the stay is going unheeded in many airports. We haven’t solved the problem, and may not have brought about any change at all.

But we fight. We continue to fight. Not because it brings us value or social media likes. Not because we will change the dreadful policies or change the direction of our government.

We fight because these are human beings we’re talking about. Human fucking beings.

Keep fighting.


Why Writing Nonfiction Feels Wrong, But Isn’t



My uvula is forked, but not my tongue. That little dangly bit at the back of your throat? Yeah, mine has a bifurcation in it (likely the result of my palate closing late-on in my mother’s pregnancy). The kindest way to describe what this looks like is to say that it resembles a sort of upside-down heart. The way I end up having to describe it, inevitably, is that it basically looks like a tiny ballsack in my throat.

I know about the forked-uvula thing because I was told about it by my family doctor literally every time I visited him when I was growing up. We’d have almost the exact same conversation every visit, verbatim.

Doc: “Say ahh.”
Me: “Ahh.”
Doc: “Hey, did you know you have a bifurcated uvula?”
Me: “Yes.”
Doc: “How did you know?”
Me: “You tell me every time I come in here.”
Doc: “Well, it’s a pretty rare thing. Pretty neat, Michael.”
(an awkward pause)
Doc: “Hey, it’s better than having a forked tongue!”

And every time, this cheered me up. Even when I was sick. Maybe my mood lightened because of the humor of my doctor’s confusion (though certainly not his corny joke); maybe I felt better because of the sheer familiarity of the routine. Most likely what lifted my mood was something different, something bigger than all of that.

Most likely what lifted my mood was the doctor’s sincere interest, his wonderment, at a part of me (even such a small thing as a uvula that no one ever sees, that has no effect on anything, really, whatsoever). As if something about me was worthy of note.

I grew up a good Christian boy, regularly attending church as many as three times a week, listening as patiently as I could to sermons and Sunday School lessons. From the age of nine until the age of twenty-five, when I left the faith, I was relatively diligent in my beliefs. What I’m saying is that I heard a lot of sermons and talks and testimonies and messages. Understandably, plenty of these talks get lost in time, and it’s interesting to note the ones that I remember.

One such moment from my religious past that has stuck with me is a talk that was given to my youth group by our youth pastor, Brad. The talk concerned humility. Trying to drive home the fact that remaining humble is a constant process that requires serious dedication, Brad gave us this little quip that I think has some profound implications: “If I were to give out a trophy to the most humble person in the room, I’d have to snatch it back the minute someone came up here to take it.”

Obviously Brad’s point was that humility is one of those slippery qualities that put you in a Catch-22 situation. If you think you have it, you probably don’t. And this was meant as a way for us young folks to start to think about our actions and our attitudes, to strive even more toward behaving in healthier, kinder ways toward other people. It was meant as a sort of admonishment and encouragement to us, a command to esteem others above ourselves. And this, of course, is a good and noble purpose.

However, I have grown up to be a writer. I have discovered that I feel most comfortable and alive when I am crafting some kind of written work. It is, to borrow jargon from my religious past, my calling. And one of the most important lessons to learn about writing is that the most powerful pieces resonate on a personal level. As all of my teachers hammered into me in college: write what you know.

But I don’t like writing too much of what I know. I don’t like writing creative nonfiction about my own past. For one, it feels less revelatory than my fiction (which, paradoxically, often winds up showing me something true about myself that I wasn’t even aware I was writing toward). Yet I think the worse issue with nonfiction, at least for me, is that it feels terribly unhumble. Writing fiction feels like I’m creating something new, making a thing that wasn’t there before. Perhaps I’ve been trained by an upbringing that urged me to join in the work of the Creator, that told me art and creation were things that proved I was made in the image of God, and perhaps for this reason fiction seems much holier, much safer. With fiction, I create whole realities out of thin air.

Writing nonfiction feels like screaming at the world LOOK AT ME, THESE ARE THINGS THAT HAPPENED TO ME, READ THEM AND BOW BEFORE MY WORDS. It feels uncouth, somehow almost dirty, in a way that writing fiction simply doesn’t. It feels like esteeming myself before others.

It feels like sin.

But it is not.

Writing nonfiction can be poignant or aphoristic; it can be a way to categorize your own life, even only for yourself (like a journal); it can be useful in finding others who have had similar experiences, useful in helping them through those experiences when needed, useful in bonding. Even if it weren’t important in all of those ways, writing nonfiction would still be important simply for the reason that it often does feel less safe, less holy than writing fiction. What better way to stretch yourself in your art than by doing that which is difficult for you to do? What better way to learn?

Above all that, writing nonfiction is important and good and righteous for this reason: it affirms that everyone has some feature that is interesting and worthy of note.

See, you may not have some harrowing drug-recovery story that you think will sell a lot of books. You may not have met tons of famous people or traveled to exotic locations. Hell, I went out of the country one time over a decade ago and I still try to milk those stories as much as I can. But even so, you have something within you that can serve as a story, that can and must be told. As the great Flannery O’Connor once said: “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.”

You have important things to say. You are interesting and worthy of note.

As for me, my name is Michael Candelario.

My uvula is forked, but not my tongue.

Nerf-Nerf: Thoughts on the Angry Christian Mom’s Reaction to Vince Staples


The world, when it comes right down to it, is a large place. There are more than seven billion human beings covering the face of this planet, and as a result there are innumerable cultures and subcultures. We split ourselves along racial divides, economic classes, religious ideologies. If there’s one thing we’re good at as a species, it’s boxing each other into easily digestible packets. You want a quick snapshot of this phenomenon? Check out your nearest high school’s cafeteria at lunch time. I guarantee you, the kids there will be able to point out the nerds, the jocks, the band geeks, etc.

For a longer, perhaps more emotionally complex example, I urge you to check out the latest viral video that has swept the internet. In it, a concerned mother reads out the lyrics to Vince Staples’ rap song “Norf Norf” and becomes increasingly distressed and upset–to the point of tears. At the end of the video the unnamed mother declares, teary-eyed, that “that was on our Top Hits radio station.” Unable to continue, she pauses to cry for a moment. But she has already said enough.

I think I know who the “our” is in her sentence. I think I know which clique she’s referring to. See, most middle-class white children don’t have to deal with the kinds of horrors that Vince Staples describes in the song. So, in that moment, the lyrics became a window for this woman into the hard life of a young black male in modern America. In that moment, “Norf Norf” provided her with a glimpse of the kinds of lives that are led, daily, by Americans who are less privileged than she is. Now, I know that’s a weighty word in today’s discourse. I know it angers a lot of people. But privilege is exactly the term that is needed here. Because her life has been (thankfully) sheltered from the type of gangbanging experiences depicted in the song, Angry Christian Mom (as the internet has named her) immediately reacts negatively to the lyrics. Because she is privileged, she completely misunderstands the message of the song. Because she is privileged, she becomes outraged over the lyric “I ain’t never ran from nothin’ but the police” instead of becoming introspective about the kind of systemic fear that might make someone who boasts of never backing down flee from the police. Instead of lamenting that the very existence of the song means that someone’s children have gone through these things, she becomes enraged that her children might simply hear about them.

This is silencing at its finest, folks.

This woman would rather try to change the fact that the song is on the radio than change the realities it describes. Pay attention to the kinds of things she says in the video. It is clear that she’s upset that her children (or “our” children, as that pesky word returns) were exposed to a song like this. And that is totally fine. I am a parent, and as parents it is our responsibility to curate the kinds of media we allow our children to digest. Personally, when I hear a song that I deem too mature for my children, I turn the radio station and move on. This woman, instead, chose to make a video denouncing the evils of the songwriter.

I want to make this a quick post, but before I wrap up I must discuss one crucial thing. The issue with me here is not that Angry Christian Mom is emotional about her children. Heck, I get emotional about my children. All parents do. The issue is that she quickly vilifies Vince Staples for his art, ignorantly drawing the conclusion that the song glorifies these activities. The song is undeniably a lament. Staples is painting a picture that we should not be happy about. He is shining the light of his art on a dark reality of his life. The song is called Norf Norf because it is supposed to be a description of what someone from “Northside Long Beach” deals with. Just from reading the lyrics, ACM should have understood that Staples himself was upset at the prevalence of the pain he describes. In the first few bars, he declares “Just don’t move too fast; I’m too crazy.” The narrator is a psychological mess from the killing he has done in his gang wars. Listening to the song, Staples’ voice is clearly saddened. Add to this the music video (which I admit the mother in question probably did not watch), and there can be no doubt that Staples is not glorifying cop-killing or abortions or anything else she cried over. And even if he was singing about killing police officers, I have to say it:  so what? It is music. It is art. One of my favorite groups, Run the Jewels, have a plethora of lyrics about killing policemen. Those lyrics are there not to encourage actual murder, but to make political and intellectual points about the system in general. You know, much the same way that Johnny Cash’s lyrics about a burning ring of fire were not actually about a literal ring of fire. Art is supposed to be provocative. Nevertheless, I maintain that “Norf Norf” is not a pro-gang-violence song. Staples is an artist painting a picture of what his life has been like, and the proper response is to be spurred to action to fix the system that breeds such lifestyles. The proper response is anger and sadness, but the Angry Christian Mom directed those feelings at the wrong object.

Vince Staples said it best when he tweeted: “No person needs to be attacked for their opinion on what they see to be appropriate for their children. They have a right to it.”

I just wish Angry Christian Mom’s opinion had been more thoughtful.

My First Live Experience of an NFL Game: Panthers vs. ‘Skins


The sky is black; the roads are empty; and I’m driving five hours across my home state, riding west toward Charlotte—the Queen City—to see my first-ever live NFL game. I’ve taken my wallet out of my back pocket, which is something I do on long car rides—otherwise the wallet’s bulk cuts into my bony butt and makes me sit at a slightly tilted angle, which isn’t necessarily noticeable in everyday life, but which can cause extreme discomfort after five hours. Every thirty minutes or so, I change up the music: it’s all Big Boi and Run The Jewels and FKA Twigs tonight, with a bit of NPR thrown in and, much later when the talk shows have gone off-air, classical music. There’s some quality about long car trips taken by yourself at night—it’s a bittersweet feeling. Alone and sometimes lonely, yet not totally isolated from everything. Maybe it’s just that you get some time to yourself without it being so long that it wears on you. When I drive, I do this weird thing where I clench my teeth whenever the front of my car touches that dotted white line in the middle of the highway. So I’m just doing that, listening to the controlled sounds of my car, and trying to find that comfortable speeding zone in which you drive fast enough to feel like you’re shaving time off your trip, but slow enough to escape the cops’ interest.

My plan is to meet with my good friends who live in Charlotte. They’re housing me for the night so that I can go to the game tomorrow by my lonesome. They just recently bought—and started remodeling—a house in Charlotte, and I’m pretty keen on seeing it for the first time. I’m at that age where my friends are buying houses. This is something new for me. Though I was the first to get married amongst my friends, my wife and I have two children and my degree is in English—Creative Writing. So we’re not exactly at the house-buying phase yet.

About halfway through the trip, I get a text from my friend saying that he and his wife are going to their local game store to play Dungeons and Dragons, and I should meet them there. If you’ve never played D&D, rest assured that it isn’t demon worship like you’ve heard. This is D&D: a bunch of nerds (and I use that term as one of them, endearingly) sit around a table with paperwork that describes each of the characters they’ve created while one of them (the Dungeon Master / DM) gives them all a scenario. It’s a roleplaying game in which you imagine that you’re this other character and you try to do cool things. Battles happen, mysteries get solved. It’s basically just a form of group story-telling, and it can be incredibly fun.

When I arrive at the store—which is named Your Local Game Store, and I find this somewhat funny and yet also somewhat pandering to the current “ironic” temperament of my generation—the clock tells me it’s slightly after midnight. I made decent enough time, given that I stopped for gas and for food. My friend is outside. He’s been on the phone with me for the past mile or so, directing me. I’m notoriously terrible with directions. Probably the only reason I’m able to make trips like this at all is because some genius invented smartphones and decided to give them GPS capabilities. Inside, my friend’s wife is DMing the one-off campaign in the far corner of the store. There are like six players altogether. I’m invited to join up—the store clerks apparently have some character templates at the ready for anyone who wants to play—but I’ve been driving for five+ hours and I just need some mental rest.

Perhaps it’s a bit rude, but I spend some time alternately sitting at the table and walking around the store, browsing the aisles. They have some cool boardgames here—some that I’ve been eyeing for a while now—but Christmas is coming up and I’m not supposed to be spending too much money on myself. So I just look. At one point it becomes apparent that we’re going to leave the store and head back to my friends’ house to play some games for several hours, and so I’m going to need some energy. I purchase a small can of Coke—like one of those half-can things—and since I’m paying with my card and there’s a four-dollar limit for card purchases, I use this to justify buying the Batman version of a card game called Fluxx. When I return to the table, the gentleman to my right is wearing a rubber horse mask and a beanie. So things are going well. I will later learn that his name is Aaron and he’s one of my friends’ Charlotte friends. He knows a lot about boardgames. He’s kind of a connoisseur.

I have several games in my car, but we decide (when the D&D session ends around one in the morning) that we’re going to take advantage of the store’s new boardgame rental system to play some new and exciting games. It takes a while to fill out the necessary paperwork, and then I have to get some gas and we need to do a beer run—because if there’s one thing I know about late-night/early-morning gaming sessions, it’s that you need at least a little bit of alcohol. Charlotte at one a.m. is a lot quieter than I have imagined. Charlotte’s a city, and since I come from a small town, cities in my mind are alive and thriving at night—there should be crazy neon lights and hobos walking around or something. We see none of that coming back from our Walmart beer escapade, but perhaps we’re just in a residential part of the city. (Although we do see, a few blocks from my friends’ house, a car that obviously has taken a curve a bit too quickly and is lodged—upside down—in the center of a church building. It has taken out a big chunk of wall, and the area has about eight cops and firetrucks surrounding it. The yellow tape is already out.)

I tell you all of this now, reader, because I want to emphasize that it’s late. I have kids. I get up early to take my four-year-old to Pre-K every day. I’m not used to staying up super late anymore. Those days are almost over for me. But my friends and I—and my new friend, Aaron (he of the horse mask)—stay awake until the sun starts coming up around seven a.m. We play several sessions each of superb games called Cosmic Encounter and Coup. I contemplate just staying awake all night, but I know that I have a five hour drive awaiting me after the three-ish hour football game, so I should at least get some sleep. Reluctantly, we put the game boxes away, Aaron decides just to drive home since it’s already seven-freaking-o’clock, and I cozy up on the couch for four hours.

When I wake, I have about fifteen minutes to take a shower and get ready. Absentmindedly, I pull from my backpack—which is all the luggage I’ve taken for this one-day trip—some bluejeans and a black V-neck. This will later be a source of unease for me—even though I’m a native of NC, my wife’s family first sparked my interest in football, and sort of adopted me into Redskins fandom. The game I’m attending is the Panthers (my hometeam) versus the Redskins (the team I support), and oddly enough—through no strategic planning—I’m wearing Panthers colors. But I don’t think about that at the moment. I just grab my clothes in the painful haze of a four-hour sleep and head to the shower. I’ve forgotten some of my toiletries, so I surreptitiously use my friends’ shampoo and toothpaste. I figure they’d rather I did that than have stinky hair and breath when I have to wake them up. They’re driving me to the game so that I don’t have to pay for parking. There’s an added bonus to this setup, because as we’re cruising down the highway minutes later (having been freshly groomed), I learn that Charlotte has some of the worst traffic in the country. Literally. They’ve done studies on it. Even so, the streets have the gameday air of royalty. The Panthers are currently 10-0, one of only two teams who are left undefeated this season—the other being the reigning Super Bowl champions, the New England Patriots. I think about this as we pass street signs that have little crowns painted on them. Charlotte is the Queen City, but today the crowns are for the Panthers.


The crowd around a sporting event is amoebic and imposing. I don’t like crowds anyway, so it is possible that my distaste for moving en masse colors my view of the proceedings. My friend has dropped me off next to an art gallery downtown. His parting words are something akin to “just walk toward the big stadium.” I follow the crowd, getting absorbed by it, and strange tidbits of conversation assault me. I hear stuff about ticket scalpers, broken relationships, the outrageous price of beer and food in the stadium—normal discussions for people who have been pregaming for a while and are already quite buzzed before they hit the stadium’s doors. I try to check my wallet without looking like I’m checking my wallet. I’ve heard that touching the pocket in which you hold your valuables is a dangerous move in a crowd, because pickpockets will spot you checking and then they know exactly where the goods are. So I try to be careful.

At one point—when I’ve found the stadium but am looking for the will-call booth so I can present them with my information and get my ticket—the crowd thins and parts and I see several street musicians spaced out along the middle of the street. There’s no traffic here other than foot traffic, of course, so the performers have set up in the turning lane. The first guy seems the most professional—he’s got a sound system set up playing some accompaniment while he croons on his saxophone. Most of the folks around here are clad in Panthers colors (other than the occasional burgundy and gold of a ‘Skins jersey) but this gentleman is decked out in a nice black overcoat. It’s cold out, but I can’t see my breath or anything. Some of the women are wearing sheer leggings that seem to me to be far too cold for this weather, but then again many of the folks out here are already warmed by alcohol. The second two street musicians are drummers whose sets consist of various buckets and household items. Drummer #1 is blaring on a whistle as he swivels from bucket to bucket. I can smell marijuana in the air, which I find interesting because there are plenty of cops around here. They seem not to care.

The ticketing process is a bit of a hassle, but a lot of that is probably my fault. Though there are plenty of yellow-jacketed stadium attendants with whom I could converse about what I’m supposed to do, I am reluctant to engage. I feel dumb for not knowing where to go or what exactly to do, and being within a crowd amplifies that emotion. So I walk around three-fourths of the stadium before I work up the nerve to ask a man about my ticket. “I’ve got confirmation on my phone,” I say, “but I don’t know where to go to pick up the ticket.” He’s helpful but brusque, the man, and he directs me back through the shambling crowd toward the will-call booth—where, after standing in line for a few minutes, I’m told that since my tickets are through ticketmaster, I have to go over to Customer Service. In other venues, I’d feel upset about this sort of thing. My time is being wasted (though, sure, I should have arrived earlier). I can hear the roar of the crowd inside the stadium as someone scores the first touchdown—the game has already begun. And yet I’m not upset at all. I feel like I’m getting The Real Experience here, which is going to be just great for my essay. I stand in the Customer Service line next to a couple who are loudly discussing the pros and cons of buying light-up Panthers decals for their car, or something along those lines. I tune them out after a while. The woman has to repeat herself about a dozen times, because the man is drunk and doesn’t understand. He blames it on her “whispering,” which is funny because she’s speaking at a normal volume, but we can still hear the weed-drenched-whistle/drum-guy from here, so I give the man the benefit of the doubt.

Now it’s time to head inside the enormous Bank of America stadium—that’s something you don’t really understand until you’ve been to a game, how incredibly large these sports arenas are. I walk as briskly as I can through the turnstiles; I get wanded with a metal detector by a skinny white woman who looks as if she’s seen some shit. She’s a very no-nonsense sort of woman, I can tell. My seat is in the nosebleeds around the bend, so I try to book it up the escalator and down toward my section without seeming too eager (more of that crowd-induced anxiety). It’s creeping toward 130 p.m. at this point, so I decide to stop at a Bojangles counter to get some grub. I order my usual chicken supremes (like chicken tenders, but spicier, I guess is the difference), thinking that the $7.50 pricetag is a bit more than the combo usually costs. And then I find out that that money is only for the chicken itself. This is no combo. I’m paying more for some chicken by itself than I normally pay for that same chicken, fries, and a drink. Suddenly all that crowdtalk about ridiculous prices seems less like drunk-speak and more like rational griping. I skip the fries and order a sweet tea. And then I have to make the dreaded trek up the coliseum-like stairs to my seat, holding my food and drink, trying not to make eye contact with any of the thousands of people around me who I know are watching the game and yet I can’t fully believe they’re watching anything other than me. I wilt beneath the stares and find my spot right in the middle of a group of fellow Redskins supporters (who, oddly enough, did not come to the game together… I guess we just got lucky).


Games are much more theatrical in person. It feels different and somehow closer to see the real-life Cam Newton down there on the ground, doing his dab thing or his Superman shirt rip, than to see him doing the same thing on TV. This is a bit of a shock to me, because the players are very far away. I can only make out which player is which by their shirt numbers and where they line up. Don’t get me wrong. I went to college and have attended plenty of football games. Heck, I used to be in the drumline in both high school and college, so it was mandatory to go to those games. But this is simply another scale.

For a while, I contemplate how fun this is—how much fun we’re all having in here, in this stadium, watching two groups of grown men hit each other for millions of dollars. It’s not logical in a world that is combating ISIS. It’s a bit surreal to be reminded that it isn’t wrong to have a bit of fun even when the world is falling apart. But more on this in a minute.

About halfway through the second quarter—when the Redskins are getting thoroughly spanked—one of my seatmates gets up and walks silently down the stairs. I figure he is going to the restroom, so I pay it no mind. The guy has a fake moustache on his upper lip to make him look like a certain old football coach, which I find pretty funny. When the half ends, my other seatmate also skedaddles, but I’ve been talking with him intermittently about how my family are ‘Skins fans and so he tells me he’s going to get something to eat. (Note: it’s going to be difficult for me to distinguish the two of these dudes in this essay because there is a sort of tenuous comradery among fans at a football stadium and names are not important. I never got these men’s names. I just talked to them and shook their hands after the game, and we went our separate ways.) When ECU’s marching band is done performing their halftime show for us, the second guy—the one I’ve been actually talking to this whole time—returns. He hands me a Bud Light, which normally I don’t drink. But what the hell, the guy’s being super generous here (I know how much these beers cost at this stadium) and I’m probably too tired from last night to tell the difference between a good beer and garbage. So I take it and we sip and talk for a while.

We start to get a bit worried about our mustachioed friend in the third quarter. By this point, the Redskins have never recovered from a bad “pile-on tackle” call made in the second quarter, and it seems like every time Kirk Cousins steps up the line of scrimmage, he gets sacked and fumbles the ball. So we’re just relaxing at this point. We know the Panthers are about to go 11-0. But Mustache Guy isn’t back yet. Did he get mugged or something? Did he decide to leave the game in disgust? That seems a bit harsh, since tickets aren’t cheap and he drove from Virginia to be here. This question is in the back of my mind in a weird way through the third quarter. I don’t know why I care so much about answering it. Like I said earlier, there are so many terrible things going on in the world. But here I am genuinely worrying about some guy I never met before. Like he’s my friend, when really all that I know about him is that he likes the Redskins and makes strange costume choices.

Remember when I said “more on this in a minute?” We’re to that point now. See, Mustache Guy comes back after a long absence, and my worry subsides. We don’t ask where he’s been. All we talk about are all the terrible plays by the Redskins that have transpired while he has been gone. I look out over the lip of the stadium’s bowl and all I see is blue sky and a few wispy clouds. I can see no other buildings, no landmarks. See, it’s not that we forget everything else in the world when we go to sporting events—it’s not that we don’t still grieve for the ongoing tragedies. It’s just that, for those brief three-ish hours in that isolated stadium, you feel like nothing else exists. You see nothing but the game; you hear nothing but the game. It becomes your world. And now I have a confession to make to you all: I used to sell timeshare for a few months in my life. I got out when I realized just how twisted that business is. But one thing I took away with me is that there are a few industries that thrive when the economy goes into recession. One of these industries, paradoxically, seems to be the vacation industry. It’s like people need an escape when times are hard, even though they know ultimately they’re just throwing their money away. I wonder if, during times of tragic news, sporting event attendance rises. To see the screaming fans, joy and spittle plastered on their faces… it’s almost a balm to the numbness that sometimes takes hold of you in troubled times. It’s vibrant and tactile and real and alive.


Toward the end of the game, the Panthers’ mascot—Sir Purr—travels up to the section a few rows behind me. He has a sign that proclaims “Happy Birthday, Myles,” which he holds aloft for all to see. Then, when we have all engaged in a mangled version of the Happy Birthday song, Sir Purr takes a few bottles of Silly String and unloads on the laughing kid, who I assume is Myles. It’s a moment that fills me with happiness, because that kid seems genuinely fulfilled in that moment. I don’t know what else to say about it, so I’m just going to move on. But at the time it seems somehow important and significant in a way that, after the game, I am unable to articulate.

Just before the final whistle, the cameramen seem to get bored with the game’s outrageous scoreline. The Jumbotron alternates between quick snippets of gameplay and crowd shots in which middle-aged people flash peace signs and other outdated “cool” hand signals to the rest of us. When one young lady is shown on the screen smiling, I hear an obviously much older man behind me say something along the lines of “Unf, she’s a cutie,” out loud to anyone who cares to listen. So I can tell that the game is wearing off and we’re back to our messed up little world again. The three-ish hours of Just Football are winding down, and the people are starting to filter out of the stadium. The guy’s gross outburst reminds me that I’ve had my fun, but the real world beckons. Or maybe it’s just that my Bud Light is wearing off and I’m starting to dread a drive home that will be longer than the time I have slept today. It could be that.

It’s something like 415 p.m. when the game ends, and I start the long, slow trek down the stadium’s ramps with thousands of other spectators. Many of the people must have spent fortunes here, because they’re stumbling drunk, held up only by partners’ gentle hands. Most of these are men, for some statistical reason I don’t understand. The one interesting thing I see is a couple in front of me, hands locked together, wearing red and gold jerseys that are just off enough for me to suspect that they aren’t actual licensed Redskins jerseys. Then I read the names and numbers on the back, and my suspicion is confirmed. His says “King,” hers says “Queen,” and both of their numbers are 69. So, like, I don’t know if they’re really parading around what I think they’re parading around, but it weirds me out a bit. Like I said: I don’t like crowds. I surely wouldn’t want to advertise my sexual prowess to a crowd. To each his own, I guess.  Other than that, though, the walk out from the stadium is quite boring. The same musicians are out there playing—I wonder if they ever stopped. Did they have tickets? Probably not, right?

The smartphone saves me again, as I coordinate with my friend who picks me up in the middle of the road downtown. Traffic is at a standstill. I tell him a bit about the game, who won, etc. He tells me that the Panthers’ undefeated streak is really good for the city. There is a sense of cohesion among the people who live in Charlotte that hasn’t been there in previous years. Everyone seems to be a Panthers fan—and while “bandwagon-ing” is frowned upon, it’s still neat to see an entire city bond over a team. As he says this, he yells at some car that is holding traffic up, which I think is another one of those funny juxtapositions that sports brings. You bond, but that bond is kind of severed after the game. Will the win streak have any lasting effect in the city, I wonder. Who knows? We sit in traffic for a long time.


The sky is black; the road is stuffed bumper-to-bumper with cars—many of which have Virginia license plates or Panthers decals; and I am silently raging to my smartphone. I’m notoriously bad with directions, and so I wanted to stay on the I-85 to I-40 route I took to get to Charlotte, figuring that retracing my steps would be a lot easier for me than navigating some new route on little sleep. My smartphone had assured me that though my route was longer than the alternatives, the traffic situation only resulted in a fifteen minute difference. And now that I’m stuck in traffic, literally not moving for minutes at a time, the phone is telling me in red letters that the route I am on is three hours longer, then two hours longer, then fifteen minutes longer, then an hour and half longer. It seems just as confused as me, my phone.  So I call my wife and tell her that I will be super late, and I call my mom to arrange for her to take my son to pre-K in the morning (since that’s usually my job). And then I plug in my iPod and listen to some Nerd Poker—a podcast about a group of comedians who play Dungeons and Dragons. Weird, I think, that my football trip is bookended by something so other than America’s most popular sport. Then again, we all need that escape from reality sometimes. Maybe my beloved nerdy games are my own version of football. Or maybe—for the people in the stalled out cars around me—maybe football is their D&D.

Justin Lacy and The Swimming Machine – An Album Review

First thing: some caveats:

1. I have never written a review for a band before, so I imagine this is going to be clunky. Don’t be surprised if you find some flowery language in here, since most reviews are like that I’m using some professional people as models.
2. I don’t know much about music. I mean, I played percussion in middle school, high school, and college, but that consisted mainly of beating things with other things. So you won’t find lots of music theory and explanation in here. It’s just me hocking a friend’s album.


3. That’s right – I have known Justin Lacy since we were Boy Scouts together, so I just want everyone to know that going into this thing. I think I have enough distance to be unbiased, though. Here we go.




According to their website, Justin Lacy and the Swimming Machine started when Mr. Lacy and a group of friends played together at one of those “anything goes” open mics, performing some songs that Lacy had written. They did strange things: substituting a tap dancer for snare, using muted trumpets in tandem with synths and electric guitar, and even employing upright bass and whistling into their songs. The group enjoyed playing together, and so continued. However, this band is not your conventional band. Its main members (numbering around 8ish), are joined by various “moving parts,” making the total number of instrumentalists and vocalists connected with the band a cool 18. It is very much a machine, and as a person interested in words and their usages I find it remarkable that the band’s name manages to capture both its unusual nature and musical vibe. You feel, listening to them, that you are moving through a form of audial water: lively and cool and sort of casual, but at the same time rife with musical rip currents, little twists and inversions of the expected sounds that keep the songs tirelessly interesting.  But that’s enough about the band itself. I’ve already started to get into the music. For more information on the Swimming Machine’s formation and history, click on this picture I have conveniently placed below.


Justin Lacy and the Swimming Machine sound as strange and amazing as their backstory would suggest. Lacy’s vocals are rough and husky, and remind me of Johnny Cash in a lot of ways. Hold on, I know that’s high praise, but I think he sort of pulls back on the beat as he sings, creating a Cash-like slowness that blends nicely with the upbeat music behind him. His lyrics help create a connection with the mainstream folk and bluegrass music that is taking people by storm right now (especially in songs like Bottom Feeder that showcase a man dealing with raw emotion). And let me just spend a few seconds here talking about the ladies in this group. Led by core member Sophie Amelkin and including vocalists Christa Faison, Whitney Lanier, and Heather Bobeck, the female members of the group are, in my opinion, a huge part in giving the songs their edginess. The backup vocals provided by these ladies remind me of (and I hope they take this as a compliment, because it is) my favorite soundtrack of all time: the soundtrack to the Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater video game. They give the group a fifties-esque backup singer Motown vibe at certain times, further adding to the musical dynamism and eclecticism of the Swimming Machine. Take a listen to In Chiaroscuro or Bottom Feeder and you’ll  know immediately what I’m talking about. You’ll fall in love with these voices.

Okay, now for the instruments. Like I said in the band bio section, the group has a lot of strange instrumentation going on. But for me, this odd assortment of sounds and melodies rarely detracts from the overall feel of the song. I don’t think I was ever distracted by the choice of instruments. Rather, new sounds would emerge and felt strangely right, like I should have known somehow that they were coming round the bend. The muted trumpet, the mandolin, the synths and whistling. It all melds together into an apt feeling that you’ve stumbled upon, well, a swimming machine moving deliberately and wetly through the ocean. I felt at points a definite steampunkiness. All metal and rubber and perpetual motion. You get me? No? Then perhaps you should check the band out.




Any of this sound interesting to you? Good. Perhaps you’d like to saunter over to the band’s website and purchase their debut album, Overgrown. It’s available in three ways: a name-your-own-price digital copy, a $9 CD, and a $15 Limited Edition 12-inch Vinyl. Oh, and did I mention that these guys are mostly UNC-Wilmington graduates from the school’s music program? And that the album art is by a Wilmington artist named Kate Winchell (which, by the way, the album art is absolutely perfect)? So go out and support a local, NC-based band making great music and art and giving back to the community. Do it.


Audience Feedback #2


Q1.      Do you prefer stories where the “bad guy” is clearly defined, or do you like ambiguity concerning who is really good and who is bad? And if you clearly outline who is the antagonist, do you ever tell the readers how the said “evil” character became that way, or trust that they will accept that the character is inherently bad?

Q2.      Do you find it easier to write stories that you can use actual historical events as a backdrop, or do you prefer to create an entire fictional universe to use as you want?

Q3.      Which perspective is it easiest to write from? Do you find it easier to write a story where you don’t have to provide a character’s mental justifications for their actions, or do you want your readers to know the “why”?


A1.         Okay, I’m going to go ahead and admit something about my writing that needs lots of improvement: the absence of a real villain. Most of my stories don’t really have a set villain. They tend to be introspective and villain-less for two reasons.

First, I use my writing to deal with facets of myself, and so there is lots of ambiguity there since real life doesn’t delineate the heroes and the villains so clearly. I mean, in an election year like this one we get to see just how ambiguous things are: each side is trying to slant everything so that its own candidate is the hero and the opposition are the villains. However, both sides contain good philosophies and both sides misuse and abuse power. So life doesn’t delineate things like stories do. And since I try to use my stories to talk about real life, the war tends to go on inside the characters rather than being fought between them. That said, there has to be some sort of good vs. evil going on in order to maintain interest in the reader and in order to set the stakes high. So I’m working on making that clearer in my writing (especially in my forthcoming novella, lovingly referred to as The Dwarf Story in lieu of a title, which is a fantasy story and thus needs to better adhere to that genre’s expectations).

Secondly, my thinking is largely defined by my philosophical and religious views, and therefore so too is my writing. Specifically (as I have stated on this blog a few times), I am a Calvinistic-type Christian. Which means, among lots of other things, that I believe man is unable to truly choose goodness over evil apart from the grace of God. This doctrine is referred to as Total Depravity, and basically it means that I do not think anyone is ultimately good apart from God. Therefore, characters in my work are constantly doing bad things, or even good things for bad reasons. For example, I wrote a short story (and am still editing it and getting it ready to eventually send out to publications) called Desperately Sick in which the protagonist is a sex addict who ends up (*spoiler alert*) impregnating an underage girl who lives in the same rehabilitation compound as he. The story does not have a happy ending, and it features a pastor who tries to help the man out of his sex addiction by preaching false theology. Anyway, the man is supposed to be viewed as a villain, but not one who is monstrous. The reader is supposed to realize that he is just a man like any other, who happens to have fallen into sinful sex addiction and adulterous habits, and is unable to escape his own sin through his own power. This is part of the belief system to which I subscribe, and it is a doctrine that I philosophically struggle with, and so much of my more “serious” stories deal with it.

So there you have it. I prefer ambiguity, but ambiguity not in the sense of “what is right and wrong,” but more in the sense of “everyone is constantly doing both good and bad things.”


A2.         I’ll be honest. I like to create entire fictional universes. This is for a multitude of reasons, but most importantly these two:  1. It’s fun and cool. 2. Research sucks. Being brutally honest with myself, it’s probably mainly the latter. I struggle with anxiety and depression, and so for me it is difficult to tell myself that doing the hard work of research-based novel-writing is going to pay off for me. I would not be opposed to setting stories in historical backdrops in the future, when life is a little less hectic than it is now (starting a family, trying to start an online magazine, working a regular job, trying to write, etc.). But yeah, basically I’m lazy and don’t want to spend all that time researching. However, I have spent a good amount of time creating the world of the Dwarf Story and of another untitled novel I have on the shelf, so the time saved is probably mostly in my head.


A3.         First off, I do want my readers to know the “why.” For me, writing is all about communication. So ideally everything I write encapsulates some point  or idea that I want to get across to the reader. I haven’t spent a lot of time reading philosophical essays on literary analysis, but I think the idea that it’s all up to the reader is ridiculous. The point is always communication, and communication only works when the author has some message that he or she gets across to the reader. If the message is missing, or if the reader fails to receive it, communication hasn’t taken place. Now, the best art allows for multiple interpretations and inspires discussion, so I’m not saying the reader should not have his or her own views on a particular story. But I do try to get some kind of statement across to the reader, and therefore knowing the “why” is often important (unless, of course, the message I’m trying to communicate is something like “reasons don’t matter,” or “the universe is meaningless,” etc. – although even in those cases the lack of an explicit or implicit “why” is itself getting the point across to the reader).

To answer the first part of your question, I think it’s really difficult to truly deal with justifications using any perspective. Even using first-person is tricky (it might be the trickiest to pull off, actually) because it can easily slip into hokey declarations of why the character did what she did. It becomes easier, at least for me, to tell things instead of showing them when using first-person. I tend to gravitate toward what a teacher of mine (and renowned author) David Madden calls “Third-Person Central Intelligence.” It’s third-person, but the author is not omniscient. Rather, it’s like a camera right behind the shoulder of the protagonist, showing everything from his or her perspective, but outside of his or her mind. I like that style because it allows me a safety net against telling instead of showing. I am forced, since I’m not inside the characters’ heads, to use description of the surroundings and actions, etc. to help the reader understand what’s going on and why. This is kind of a convoluted answer, but basically there is no easy perspective. I do prefer, though, to write from a 3rd person Central Intelligence.


There are the answers to some more reader questions. Thanks to Hannah Lundy for asking tough questions and making me think hard about some important stuffs. I plan on restarting the weekly blog post thing, so look for a new post every week. I can’t designate a specific day because my current job is not on a consistent schedule, but I can say I’ll try to have one up every week. Thanks for reading!

Audience Feedback Time!

Welcome to the first-ever Audience Feedback post on this here blog! Okay, that’s basically just a way of saying that for the past week I haven’t had a clue what to write for this week’s post, so I have used my vast network of Twitter followers and Facebook friends (read: my “audience”) to suggest some topics. After receiving a whopping two (read it: 2!) suggestions, I have decided to just go ahead and answer both of them. Actually, the first can probably be broken down into two separate questions, so I guess there’re three questions to answer. Prepare yourselves for some deep thoughts.

Question 1: Why do you write?

The easy, somewhat pretentious way of answering this question would be to say that I write because I have to. And that’s true in a lot of ways. I think there really is an internal drive in most writers to jot down their stories. Even when I’m not writing a story, I’m jotting down ideas for stories; or I’m jotting down poems; or I’m jotting down titles of stuff, character names, etc. etc. I like to write. I can’t not do it. But that’s not the only answer, and it probably isn’t the most satisfying one for anyone out there who actually cares about my reasons.

A better reason might be that I have always been an avid reader. Stories allow me to transport myself from this singular life I’m living into an endless amount of other lives and worlds. I get to experience things like space travel, growing up gay, living in Asia. The list is almost infinite, and each story makes it possible for me to get a completely different perspective on life. And so one of my goals is to give back to that community, to “join the conversation” about life and – yes, I’m about to say it – the human condition. I cringe when I write that, but it’s a true thing. I want to put my own thoughts out there in order to allow people to experience things they would otherwise not experience. Hence the fantasy and science fiction stories I currently have in the works. Writing also allows me to deal with life issues in a way that is liberating and helpful. I can organize my thoughts on a certain subject (for instance, environmentalism in the novel I also have in the works) and really explore how that subject might have differing effects on characters. So there is an intellectual aspect to why I write as well.

There is also a significant theological aspect to writing, for me. As a Christian, I believe that creativity stems from God, and that it is part of the “image of God” that humanity possesses. So writing is not only a celebration of the human imagination, but it is also a celebration of the divine. By creating stories I am mirroring the Creator, whose great story is history itself. That might sound like drivel to some of my audience, but it is a part of why I write and it is something I take rather seriously.

2. Why do you blog?

This one’s much easier. My blog allows me to be constantly writing stuff that is going to be read by people (not that many people, but the idea is there). Which means that I have a real incentive to write reasonably well, and thus I get a lot of valuable exercise of my “writing muscles.” That’s a lame metaphor, so let’s move on.

Practically, the main reason for having a blog is to generate an audience. That’s right – you all are the reason I blog! The idea is that the blog will provide a place for people to see samples of my writing and to receive updates on books of mine whenever I get them published. The blog is also a place for prospective employers to see my writing and judge whether or not they would like to hire me for any type of writing-related job. So there it is: the blog is basically a marketing exercise.

Question 3: Tell us about your recent move to the coast.

Yes, I live near the beach now. It’s been a decent enough move. There are still mounds of boxes scattered around our new duplex. And I am no longer used to the humidity and heat here. A few years living in the mountains will do that to you. And here’s another thing: they have so many ANTS here. I mowed the lawn the other day and my left ankle is now decked out with some vicious fire-ant bites. The ants must have gotten into my shoes while I mowed. Also, I’m kind of languishing in unemployment right now. I had two jobs lined up and they both have sort of flaked out on me. But I’m looking into some other opportunities, so I’m not yet freaking out.

Okay, enough about all the bad stuff. After all, the move was a good one. The duplex is bigger than our previous one, and there is a ton of cabinet space in the kitchen (this is something that Megan insisted upon). We also now have a dishwasher, a fenced-in backyard, weekly trash pickup, and we live in a kid-friendly neighborhood. It’s great. Not to mention the fact that we’re five minutes away from my parents and Megan’s dad. And only about forty-five minutes from Megan’s mom’s place. So the family gets to visit Asher more often (let’s be honest, he’s the main reason they visit, the little stinker) and Megan and I can get some much needed assistance with childcare. On top of that, even the unemployment thing has some benefits. I’ve been able to write on a more consistent basis, make a lot of headway into the Dwarf Story, and even watch a few Olympic soccer matches (Thursday is the Women’s Gold Medal Final between the USA and Japan!). So far moving to the coast has been a good experience.

So there you have it, folks. I have answered your questions. Thanks for helping me come up with something to put on here (thanks especially to Jeff Holder and Mary Fonvielle, who supplied the questions). See you next week!

Nonfiction Project Snippet

So, I’ve been sort of halfheartedly starting a nonfiction project about the evolution of my religious beliefs – how I became a Christian, how my theology changed, struggles I’ve had along the way, etc. This will probably not be finished or published in a long time, since I’m working on a deadline for my first novella right now (as well as trying to start an online arts magazine). However, I thought I’d post the first section of it here for you all to check out. Bear in mind that this section is not a happy one, and in fact is very tragic and saddening. So read at your own risk!

When my wife was getting her master’s degree in Speech Language Pathology, part of her work was to observe clients in a clinic. People would come into the clinic from all ages and races; people who stuttered and lisped, children who were late developing critical speech skills, or children with debilitating physical or social disorders who needed extra help in communicating. But the most harrowing and terrifying and anger-inducing story that I ever heard was about the parents of one of my wife’s clients, one of whom was a nurse at a local care center.

These people had a baby, and for a while everything seemed great. The boy was developing wonderfully, and he was understandably the light of his parent’s eyes. Then, out of nowhere, the baby started having what are called Infant Seizures. He was four months old. Imagine the horror of this for a moment. I think the phrase “a parent’s worst nightmare” is thrown around way too much in our society. It’s used for things like your daughter showing up with a boy whose moral code is slightly less than that of Jesus. But imagine for a moment that you wake up one night to find your baby having a seizure. Imagine realizing, after all these months of everything seemingly going according to plan, that your child is having seizures. That something is going terribly and utterly wrong in his brain. That there is literally nothing in your power that can be done to correct this. And that perhaps this has been going on unnoticed for quite some time. This is your child, your life. A being for whom you are completely responsible. And yet there is nothing you can do. Now imagine that you have the sufficient medical knowledge to know all the possibilities of what could be causing the problem – and all the possibilities of skills and developments and important personality characteristics that could be lost, that could be getting destroyed from these seizures. How would you feel? What would you do?

The parents took the child to doctors and tried all sorts of cures and therapies until they were left with only one. The seizures had been isolated in one half of their son’s brain, and so the only option left to these people was something almost so unspeakable that it is physically difficult to type it out here: the doctors suggested the highly dangerous treatment of removing that half of their son’s brain where the seizure were occurring. Would this cause damage? Yes. But it would likely cure the seizures and prevent the other half of their son’s brain from being damaged.  When I say this must have been a difficult decision, the words seem paltry and ridiculous, since for most of us a “difficult decision” is which college to attend, or which movie to watch on the weekend. This is a decision about removing another human being’s brain, and is thus tied up with all kinds of other decisions like “what do we do if this puts him in a vegetative state?” or “how do we manage to live with ourselves if the procedure kills him?” But the parents decided in favor of the medical advice and the probabilities – like I think any parent would after exhausting literally everything else.  And the boy survived the surgery and came out just fine, minus half a brain.

The real tragedy here is not the difficulty of the decision, or even the removal of half of the kid’s brain. The real tragedy is that afterwards, the seizures came back. Only now the parents had no options left, their son had been hemispherectomized with their consent, and he was still experiencing seizures. Try to imagine your life like this. I do not want to do any disservice to the parents – who I am sure do not want our pity. They are, I am sure, wonderful people. They sure as hell proved that they are sacrificial and tough-decision-makers. And, for me at least, they sure as hell proved that they are good parents. They had to sleep with their child every night and hold him when he had his nightly seizures so that he wouldn’t hurt himself or swallow his tongue, or any other number of terrible things that he could do to himself while seizing. Imagine this. Not getting to sleep in the same bed as your spouse. Imagine trying to speak soothing words to your child as he goes through a seizure, all the while feeling so angry and depressed and guilty inside. Yes, guilty. Imagine the guilt. I’m not vilifying the parents in any way. Nor am I suggesting that their decision was the wrong one. What I am saying is that the situation itself provides no way to not feel guilty: I would have felt guilty having my son’s brain removed, and I would have felt guilty not having my son’s brain removed and letting the seizures go on unchecked. But now, through no fault of their own, the parents have to live with ordering a hemispherectomy on their child to no avail. It is literally the worst of both sides. And so yes, I think there would be guilt there, regardless of whether or not it was deserved.

My wife told me this story shortly before my own son was born. I think it was the first time I ever seriously doubted the existence of God.