Torture and Justifications: The Lie of the ‘Bad World’

This blog has remained fairly apolitical for the last couple years (relative to its early years). I believe in being a citizen of the world, engaged in the issues of the day, but at some point it becomes clear that you’re just ranting into the wind. If the internet is the ultimate town hall meeting, letting the world air its grievances, it’s being held in the largest school auditorium in the universe, a chasm of noise.

So I don’t really want to expend much energy on debating the topic of torture and America’s use or non-use of it. For the record, I don’t believe it’s right for us to torture, I do believe some of the tactics that the CIA used were torture and I do believe that the report needed to come out. Those are my stances on this issue, that’s enough to be said on it.

What I’m writing about is a very common refrain, one that in the light of this report is being trotted out quite frequently. I heard it just the other night while I was at work, and I’m sure a good 50% of the pundits on television are regurgitating it as well:

“The world is a bad place; sometimes you have to do bad things to survive.”

That sentiment can be restated a thousand different ways in a million different contexts. Here is Dick Cheney’s version, stated just a few days after the attacks on 9/11:

“We also have to work, though, sort of the dark side, if you will.”

Dick Cheney is a central figure in this debate both because he was the acting vice president during the period covered by the so-called Torture Report and because he’s now hitting the press circuit to defend those tactics. I have no interest in debating Cheney’s fine line between what does and does not constitute torture, nor do I have much interest in whether our national policy should be answering terrorist attacks with equal or more severe retribution (I’ll say this: The next time someone says this is a ‘Christian Nation,’ ask them what Jesus said about ‘Eye for an Eye’ style justice).

I actually want to peel back the debate even further and contend with the most fundamental assumption in the argument: Is the world really a bad place?

I’ve written at length on this subject before, so this won’t be a rehash of those statistics or that argument. This argument assumes those details are a foregone conclusion.

Our culture thrives on fear. From the 24-hour news cycle to political elections, from anti-GMO activism to anti-vaccination “awareness,” from Hollywood’s explosive, summertime disaster blockbusters to reality TV that presents us with “real” encounters with ghosts and horribly deformed monsters, we live in the age of fear.

Yet, by all statistical, practical and logical measures, we have the least to fear than any other generation before us. Maybe it’s because I was 6 when the Berlin Wall came down or because I was 18 when the Twin Towers fell, but I’ve never been afraid of the outside world. The creeping dread that festered in the minds of Cold War-raised children, or the existential anxiety that rests over the population post-9/11 has never infected me. I wanted us to kill Bin Laden (and celebrated when we finally did) and punish the people responsible, but I never left my housing thinking I would become another causality in an unexpected World War.

I’m not saying I don’t ever have fear, but it’s the day-to-day worries associated with a life that has, for the last 10 years at least, been topsy-turvy, to put it mildly. Global crises don’t tickle my amygdala.

I realize I’m lucky to be able to say that. There are many places in this world where true, horrific terror is a daily – hourly – threat. Saying, as I do, that the world is a pretty great place might seem like a slap in the face to the people on this planet who live in constant terror due to some government or military force. Hell, there are people in this country whose lives are the stuff of nightmares. There are horrors in this world to be sure.

Some would claim that for me to call this world a ‘great place’ when such atrocities exist is, at best, naive, and at worst, willful ignorance in the face of suffering.

I say that to claim we all live in a bad world is an opportunistic lie built out of fear or the desire to make others afraid. It’s a lie that allows bad people to justify their actions and scared people to look the other way. It’s a lie that ignores reality in favor of attention-grabbing headlines. And, worst of all, it’s a lie that belittles those people whose suffering is real.

Beyond that, it’s also a selfish lie. It allows us to feel pity for ourselves. It allows us to always be the victim. It allows us to despise real victims when they falter under the weight of their pain, believing they are weaker than us.

Terrorists attacks and wars are horrific events, but most of our lives, especially in America (even in New York City) are relatively untouched by them, except in general ways. ‘Most’ does not mean ‘all.’ Lots of lives were lost, and many loved ones live on with that emptiness ever present. From a purely statistical point of view, though, it is completely accurate to say that most people in this country have no personal link with any terrorist attack. That’s a good thing. It should be celebrated, not ignored in the name of political expediency or television ratings.

No other country on earth has the power, money and influence of the United States. If only there was a pithy, famous quote about the correlation of power and responsibility.

The world is not a bad place. It is not a perfect place, either, but Utopia is a fool’s dream and justifying evil in its absence is, itself, an act of evil.

We make the world a bad place when we decide that our standards need only be technically higher than the worst people on earth. Saying, “We’re better than ISIS and that’s enough” is like saying “Ebola isn’t as bad as AIDS so why worry about it?” If our goal is true and global social justice, then we must rise above shallow aspirations and actively live by a higher standard.

If, on the other hand, our only goal is to rule from atop a crap heap, then I can think of no better man for the job of Shit King than Dick Cheney.

Former Vice President Dick Cheney

Not Titled

It’s not okay to be in love. It’s, in fact, a very dangerous thing. I’d recommend you avoid it, but it’s not much of a choice, is it? You know how the girls are, which is not how the boys are, except when it’s exactly how the boys are, when they are all afraid that the next one is the last one, or the last one will be the last one, or that there never will be a last one. So they can be quite shitty to each other; we can be quite shitty to each other. We can also be quite beautiful in moments, the way a storm is beautiful when it’s holding court up above and a bird flies in place and for a few minutes it feels like the whole planet stopped turning; the sky is purple, your heart is a wind chaser, she is a safe place to rest and this cyclone keeps on spinning. No one asks to get off, but only one ride lasts forever and it takes all we have just to make forever feel like a full life. So we give in. To love. To being loved. And in the fall, we think, this is yet another of my many mistakes for which I will surely pay a dear price, but.

We can’t not.

If, By the Stars, You See Land, Then So Be It

I’m not going to be yours
and you’re not going to be mine,
which you promise with a sharp twist of your neck
as I wet your cheek.
You won’t pause
in my light
long enough to darken my negative
or sharpen my tongue.
this wasn’t unexpected
an unexplored passage in a muddled cavern.
I kept holding on to you
the way I’ve held to my path:
a little too long,
a little too far,
a little too late to coax you back within myself.
For a time,
I cushioned your head,
softened the blows;
it was enough,
and in time you realized
love isn’t the same as no longer being afraid.


“New York Experience Required”

Over the span of this decade-long project, I’ve held 15 different jobs, not counting the odd jobs/side projects I’ve taken on to make a little extra money in lean times. Of those 15 jobs, more than half of them were found using the most infamous of search engines, Craigslist.

There is a lot to be wary of when using CL for goods and/or services. When looking for places to live, you may discover that the pictures in the ad do not match the actual apartment. That “Used but like new” furniture may include an extra helping of bedbugs. Or the limo service you looked into but never signed a contract with might still arrive on your wedding night in a duct-taped POS and expect you to do business with them. Anything can happen.

So, why, you might ask, would a person still do any business on Craigslist if there are so many scam artists, shysters and loons on the site?

The simple reason is that, despite all the noise, if you know how to look, you can still find better deals and job opportunities on CL then on any other site, all without signing up for extra services or junk email. There might be better sites for 1 or 2 specific things, but there is no better place for doing everything.

Now: I’m looking for work again. I’ve had a job for about a month and a half and I very much enjoy it. But I’m not getting enough hours, and New York City is way too expensive to try to get by on $300 a week. If I was still in New Orleans, I’d be set, but Brooklyn is decidedly not the Big Easy (though they share some of the same grooming habits).

With as much restaurant experience as I have, I should be able to find work easily. I received job offers from both of the first 2 restaurants I interviewed at in Boston. I had a job in a week. It was actually kind of disappointing because I generally enjoy luxuriating in the unoccupied time off for a few weeks while I explore my new city.

Alas, New York is a bit harder. Obviously.

Most of the ads for restaurants in both Manhattan and Brooklyn include this caveat: “New York experience required.”

Why, you might ask? I can’t really say for sure. I’ve been into numerous bars and restaurants throughout the city, and none of them strike me as any busier, any wilder, any more Herculean places to work than those I’ve worked in the other major cities. I suppose it might be a way to keep out the country bumpkins who served 6 years in their papa’s Iowa truck stop diner. I’ve never even lived in Iowa. Put me in, coach!

But I guess it really isn’t that bad. I do have restaurant experience and I’m getting called in for interviews (I have 1 today). It could be worse.

I mean, look what this person is looking for:

Cock With Experience

I know everyone wants a hard worker, but that’s ridiculous. Also, I don’t think it’s acceptable to call a woman a “dish” anymore. Maybe I’m just old fashioned, but there are better places to post this kind of filth. Like Tinder.

I still applied, though. I mean, I need a job dammit!

Wish me luck.




Road To Nowhere: The totally made up story of how publishing my poetry chapbook turned into a nightmare

Over the duration of my project, I’ve had a few opportunities to see my writing in print, both in small presses and on the national stage. Every chance to put my writing in front of new eyes offers a burst of excitement, as I’m sure any artist would admit. The real goal for a writer, though, is to put out a book with one’s own name on it, something that is yours and only yours.

For me, such an opportunity presented itself a few years ago when I was approached to publish a collection of poetry I entitled “The Road So Far.” That’s the cover over in the sidebar. If you click on the link, you’ll notice that it’s listed as out of print. I would like to do something about that, but the truth is I have no control over it. “Why?” you ask.

Let me tell you a fantastical story. It’s just a story. I made all of this up. Pure fiction.

About a month after my article in the Washington Post appeared, a woman – let’s call her Susan – contacted me via e-mail. She said she had read some of my writing and was interested in publishing a chapbook through her imprint named Soaring Bird Publishers. It was a flattering offer and I agreed to meet with her.

I write loads of poetry, posting frequently on this website, with a few poems even being published online and in print. But I’ve never considered myself a poet. It’s not where my true talent lies (that true talent: drinking without a hangover), and it’s not my passion. But the act of writing poetry can be very cathartic, a release of pent up creativity when I’m not in a place to sit and work on a novel or short story.

I had previously looked into self-publishing a chapbook just so I could have some writing out in the world, but I ultimately rejected the idea. It seemed like a lot of work for something I was only half-interested in doing, and I am pretty adamantly anti self-publishing. So when Susan offered to publish my poetry, I thought, “Why not?”

Meeting Susan and her boyfriend/husband/partner/haberdasher in a coffee shop in Seattle, I brought a selection of poems I felt were most worthy of inclusion in a chapbook. We sat for a bit, discussed her plans for the collection and she explained that she had worked in the offices of publishing companies for most of her career (not as an agent, though). Having retired from that work, she was interested in finding local artists to represent and publish.

No, it wasn’t Penguin or Harper Collins, and in fact, this would barely be a step above self-publishing. It was someone else wanting to put out my work, though, someone who was going to take the effort and produce a professional looking chapbook. Again, I thought, “Why not?”

The universe has a way of answering those “why not” questions.

My initial email communications with Susan were spaced a month apart in the beginning, our greetings leaping from Halloween to Thanksgiving to Christmas. In January of 2012, we had more regular correspondence and it felt like actual progress was being made. She said she had an “e-proof” of the book and would be forwarding it on to me for editing.

Then silence for nearly 2 months.

In the winter of 2012, I was unemployed and concerns about the chapbook fell on the back-burner. It was a rough couple months of financial insecurity, alleviated partially by a friend who offered me construction work. Around that time, a reporter for the local NBC affiliate contacted me. He had heard about my 10 Cities Project from friends at a party and wanted to do an interview with me. A bit of light in a dark Seattle off-season.

A couple weeks after that piece aired, Susan called me.

My frustration with the slow or non-existent responses was only compounded when she attempted to take credit for the NBC interview. This lie was the last straw: I told her I didn’t want to go forward with the chapbook anymore.

She insisted she had put in considerable time editing the book and promoting it (though she never indicated how) and assured me I would appreciate the final product. I said that if she sent me a physical copy of the book to proofread along with a contract, I would look it over and decide whether or not to sign off on it. She agreed.

Then more silence. Months went by without any communication from her, and the proof never arrived. In May, I noticed an Amazon listing for “The Road So Far,” despite the fact that I had never seen a proof nor signed a contract. I emailed her telling her to immediately take down the listing. No response.

In July, she emailed me that the proof was available for me to read. In the interim months, we had talked a couple times  on the phone and our conversations always followed the same pattern: I’d tell her I was done with this project, she would insist the book was nearly ready to go, and then  I would relent because I figured I was in this far, might as well see it through (I couldn’t give up my dream of having a physical collection of my poems).

When Susan finally sent me the proof, it was abysmal. Riddled with typos, some poems were spliced across 2 or 3 pages and other formatting errors abounded. It was a nightmare. Despite these obvious warning signs, I took the time to edit it and mailed it back with a signed contract. Dummy.

And then, you guessed it, more silence.

On August 8th, 2012, I sent her a brief email: “Have you received the proof and contract yet?”

June 25th of 2013 was the next time I heard from her, nearly 2 years since we first met. She wanted my address in New Orleans so she could send me my 10 free copies of the book (per the contract). I ignored her email. She sent it again a few days later. And again in July. She then contacted me on Facebook and I finally relented.

In an email that was far more civil than I felt, I told her that this process had been “confounding” and that I didn’t believe she had taken the work on with “serious commitment or in good faith.” I explained that I was upset that she had “published” the book on Amazon without letting me have the final say on the last edit, and I, again, wanted her to take the listing down. I gave her my address and asked her to send me what copies she had and then I expressed my wish to sever our relationship.

She didn’t respond by email, but a couple weeks later a package arrived with my 10 copies and a letter. In said letter, she told me quite bluntly that I had signed a contract so Soaring Bird maintained the right to sell the books. She also told me that she had never agreed to give me final edit. I suddenly understood the thematic relevance of a rising bird.

Ryan Adams Finger

I wrote her another email which read, in part:

I received my copies of the collection. I also read your letter, which exemplifies my issue with working with you. As I acknowledged in my previous email, I realize you have the right to sell the chapbooks. I have no legal recourse to stop you, and at this point I honestly don’t care. My issue is with you as a publisher, who despite being a single person and someone who has only published one or two other collections that I can see, still wants to behave as if you are a faceless entity big enough to steamroll over the artist. The whole point of working with a small publisher is getting the personal, genuine touch. You have provided none of that.”

If she insisted on selling the books per the contract, I concluded, then she was also obligated to fulfill the terms of the contract and pay me my share. Even as I was writing it, I knew that was a pipe dream.

Despite my misgivings, I told friends and family about the book and advertised it on this site. As far as I can tell, and despite Susan’s claims to the contrary, this was the only advertising of any kind my collection received. Many people bought copies and let me know that they had. A few months after the book went live, I contacted Susan again letting her know that I knew copies had sold and I expected payment sent to my Boston address.

That was almost a year ago. Do you think she responded? I’ll give you 2 guesses.

Two weeks ago, the last copy of “The Road So Far” sold, prompting my interest in retrieving publishing rights from Susan. I sent an email and received the usual cyber echo. I then sent a message to the Facebook page for Soaring Bird. To my surprise, I received a response. Its tone was, unsurprisingly, not conciliatory.

After indicating that my email had been received (yet never responded to), the message went on to say:

Regarding your accusations: should you engage in oral and/or verbal defamation, this company will file a libel and/or slander lawsuit against you. The words of your notification and your email are adversarial and threatening in tone. Please ensure you want to continue in this adversarial manner because it has been this company’s intent to support the publication of “The Road So Far” and to support your endeavors of your project 10 Cities / 10 Years.

Surely this is the tone of a company that “supports” my endeavors.

(Which reminds me, I want to reiterate that this story is clearly a fictional account and any resemblances to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. Just a wacky story, haha!)

Meanwhile, I have no idea if the contract I signed is truly binding. I have no idea how much money I am owed as I don’t know how many copies were even published. I’m sure it’s not much, and that was never the point. I feel bad that people have bought these books thinking they were supporting me when I never saw a penny from those sales.

If you are one of those (hypothetical) people, know that the money was never the point. Just the fact that you bought a copy is all the support I could ask for. Neither this project nor the book have ever been about making money; publishing “The Road So Far” was about having some permanent physical artifact of my writing.

When I look back on this whole experience, I know I did pretty much everything wrong. But what’s to be done now? I resigned myself a long time ago to not seeing any money from this book. I just hope that someday I can gain the publication rights back in order to make more copies available (or to prevent some unscrupulous party from profiting off of my name). Regardless, it’s not about money, it’s about having a little bit of art out in the world.

To everyone who bought a book, or wanted to buy one: Thank you, sincerely. It means so much more than a couple of dollars and I am truly grateful.

As for Susan and anyone else at Soaring Bird, I’m just glad they aren’t real people. Thank goodness my real publisher would never be such dicks.


Where the Sidewalk Ends

            the road is life


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