The War

…I have a dream. I’m watching a titanic battle between my brother and the monsters of the underworld, and my brother is killing one after another with a huge shotgun. The monsters are cartoonish and murderous and it doesn’t matter how many he kills because there’s an endless supply of them.

Eventually he just runs out of ammo, I realize. Eventually the monsters will win.

Sebastian Junger, War


Where did July go? Evaporated in the triple digit slow cooker heat? I don’t know, but it seems likely. I’ve been head down, in the mud, working, trying to push the boulder up the hill – fuck that Sisyphus slacker – I’ve been pushing a half dozen boulders up a half dozen hills. Something’s gotta give, my wife says. I love her, need that optimism, something to cut the bitter, overproof whiskey doubt in my heart. But nothing has to give. Nothing gives until you break it. So, in lieu of a status report, let me just say things are cooking. Slow cooking, but cooking. (Less obliquely: in the fall, there’ll be new fiction – including a piece in Sixfold’s Summer 2015 release – and new rock and roll – Exploding Math Lab’s EP2 is going to be a thunderous monster. New stuff, even better than the old stuff. Guaranteed.)

In the meantime, it’s war.

Not the war abroad. No, though I mean no disrespect; we’ve all got friends and family over there, somewhere. Whatever the (shitty) politics that got them there. I’m talking about a different war, an older war. The war at home.

The war inside.

Turn on the TV, and you see the casualties. The ruined cities, monuments to the victors: apathy, complacency, sloth, and fear. ­Makes you wish the real horsemen would show up. But instead we get EL James, Guy Fieri, Jeb Bush, and Stan Lee. Yes, Stan Lee – you aren’t off the goddamn hook, no sir. Stan Lee phoned in a lot of his creations, and they’ll be clogging the bowels of Hollywood for decades to come.

I turn on the radio – ill-advisedly, I know – and you can actually hear the sound of people surrendering. It sounds like 4/4 timing, mid-tempo ‘rock’ that sounds just like mid-tempo ‘pop’ and mid-tempo ‘country.’ White flags flying over every radio station.

Okay, so it’s the mediocrity in the arts rant? Not so original. And not so bad, either, if that was the end of it. Because, honestly, if you’re going to write, or make music, or cook food, then maybe it’s not so bad to have nothing but mediocre hacks as your competition. Just lined up – dumb faces upturned – for you to trounce. And maybe, then, you could startle people out of their stupors. I remember the first time I ate real cheese. (Wait. What? Hold on, stay with me.) Unpasteurized, unhomogenized, unfuckedaroundwith. I thought: this is how the gods eat. That’s how you could make people feel.

But the war isn’t about artists versus imitators, or the stagnation of American creativity (by a school system and a broader culture that enforces safeness and timidity, no less). Those are symptoms, cropping up here and there.

The war is everywhere.

The war is at work, for example.

Last week, I fired a long time employee. There were lots of reasons. First and foremost, she made terrible food. She only knew about four or five recipes, and – even after she’d been warned, ordered, begged, not to make these things – as soon as you turned your back on her, she’d scurry around, making one of these awful creations. Cinnamon-sugar sweet potatoes, in July. Roasted vegetables, deflated and unseasoned, some raw and some cooked to shit. Broccoli salad that was 90% mayonnaise by weight (and also, for no apparent culinary reason, contained wildly expensive amounts of raw pine nuts).

When she washed dishes, she’d cram four or five times too many things into the machine, leaving you with racks of food-flecked dishes after she left. She’d go on break during the busiest hour of lunch, sitting at the computer in a room adjoining the kitchen, smiling dumbly, the way a child does when they shit their pants without even realizing it.

At one point, a few months back, she asked, ‘when you fire me, can you please give me two weeks’ notice first?’ Not if. When. She knew, in the dimmest possible sense, that she was bad at her job. She didn’t know why and she didn’t want to. She didn’t want to learn, or improve, or change in any way. She wanted to punch her time and then leave. When you told her, the way you cut vegetables is so wildly ineffective and insanely dangerous that it is difficult to watch for longer than a split second, she’d just say, ‘oh, I’ve been doing it this way for a long time.’

And there it was, the battle cry of the enemy: it’s always been this way.

Every day at work, our pay gets docked a half-hour. Why? Because, a while back, when the kitchen was run by a brigade of crackheads and slackers, employees abused the paid breaks to the point where they’d wander off, for hours at a time. Hours. So management’s solution, with their signature mix of underhandedness and cowardice, was to automatically dock all employees a half-hour. And now, that the kitchen is being run by actual cooks, who do not take breaks (because, quite simply, there is too much goddamn work to be done, at all times), why does the deduction still exist? Management scratches their head, as if this is some kind of eternal mystery. Well, it’s always been this way. It’s a felony – wage theft is a fucking felony, let’s be clear – and an insult. Management rubs their belly, eyes drifting to the buffet, conversation already stillborn and cold, I dunno, it’s just always been that way…

There’s no devil, no demon, in any myth or nightmare, as vicious and vile as that sense of complacency.

Well, you know, summer blockbusters, they’re always kind of dumb…the radio always sucks though…well, some people like unlimited breadsticks…we’ve it’s always been a man’s job…it’s always been illegal to buy beer before noon on Sunday…but marriage has always been about a man and a woman (or seven hundred women)… the shit was actually already on the floor, it was here when I got here so…well…but…you know … it’s…always….been…this….way.

We fight it. Try to educate, recruit, at least hold the line. One battle at time, dispelling one stupid myth after another, cutting down one stubborn, mule-headed motherfucker after another, on our hands and knees, shoulder deep down a clogged drain, scrubbing until our hands bleed, working harder and longer than the summer sun. I don’t think the war will ever be over. It doesn’t matter, how many fires we put out, how many rocks we shoulder up the hill, how many monsters we put down. The enemy has the sheering force of brute stupidity. He’s got the high ground, he has numbers, he’s got time.

But that’s why the gods allow evil, to give us something to fight. To prove ourselves, if only to ourselves. (Running joke: shouting ‘prove it to yourself,’ to guys who clearly have something to prove, rag-top German coupes, diamonds on their watch, running shirtless through downtown. Still, beneath the joke, a little truth: who else would you want to prove anything to?)

But that’s the story: you’re born, you fight like hell, then you die. Better than nothing, better than boredom. Better than eating at Olive Garden. So, if you’re out there, and you give a goddamn – about something, about anything – and you know what I mean, then may the gods give you their blessing, or at least stay the fuck out of your way.

American Ikarus: The Rise and Fall of T-Bone

There is a scene in Sons of Anarchy where Henry Rollins, playing an Aryan Brotherhood lieutenant, gripes about having to pull his son out of school when he discovers that all the children are receiving the same trophies, regardless of how they perform at sports. It’s a clever bit of writing: Rollins is playing a scumbag racist, but you want to agree with him here: the ‘everyone gets a trophy’ phenomenon is close to the root of the way our modern generations of soft-skinned entitlement fail to measure up to the beach-storming, self-possessed ‘Greatest Generation.’ Watching the scene, I immediate started nodding. My wife, who also agrees with the sentiment, and also loves Rollins, is smarter than me, and poked me in side, saying, ‘baby, stop agreeing with the neo-Nazi.’ Rollins follows up his trophy rant with the line, ‘teaching everyone that they’re the same is dangerous.’ The line is tinged with racial menace, of course, and then you can see the slippery slope between a pragmatic dismissal of our modern ‘everybody is a special snowflake’ culture and the sick miasma of racial logic.

But it is dangerous, to tell everyone they’re the same. Not because of any perverted racial ideology.

Everyone’s reach should exceed their grasp, but not everyone’s reach is the same.


Two years ago, I met a young man; let’s call him T-Bone. T-Bone came onboard the new restaurant – the one I recently departed – along with an astonishingly strong crew of cooks and a great chef. I’ve spit up some purple prose about how good they were, and I won’t do that again here, but it’s important to mention that T-Bone was not a member of this group. He had washed out of training for most of the hot-line stations and ended up as a fry cook. For the first six or seven months, he was frequently high on crystal meth – sporadic bursts of incredible and useless energy followed by deep, frustrating troughs of listless indifference – and was less reliable than your standard-issue kitchen drunk.

But T-Bone had potential, he had a fire. When he was a teenager, he’d had a disagreement with his parents. Rather than go on the petulant warpath, or try to keep his discontent submerged, T-Bone simply left. And moved into the woods. For a year.

Did we mock this wild move? Yes. But who amongst us had the fucking stomach for that kind of commitment? Thoreau lived in Emerson’s backyard. T-Bone lived in the woods. It may have been an overreaction, it may have been plain stupid, but it was bold as hell. You were hard pressed not to admire that.

About six or seven months into our tour together, the restaurant hired a cook named Chelsea, my sister from another mister (we may actually be distantly related; more on this another time). Chelsea was attractive, talented, and funny – and twice T-Bone’s age. He fell in love immediately. And, immediately, T-Bone blew it on the line in epic style. On one of Chelsea’s first few days, T-Bone – drunk on cooking wine and high on meth – crashed and burned. Forty-five minutes behind on fried Calamari. (If you’ve never worked a line, or seen a cooking show: that’s really goddamn behind.)

But, again, you had to admire T-Bone, because the next day he got his shit together and kicked the meth.

It didn’t matter that Chelsea had a boyfriend – who was a sous chef at one of our sister restaurants – she was fixing to marry. T-Bone was in love, and love is meth, smack, and coke all rolled into one.


T-Bone was also in love with the sous chefs at our restaurant. Let’s call them the Copelands (because that’s their name). The Copelands were brothers from Tennessee, by way of a lot of other places. Self-taught and self-styled, the Copelands were larger than life kind of guys: fast, smart, outspoken, foul-mouthed. They also sang like church boys (because they were church boys). The Copelands drank, smoke, and did drugs, and were better on the kitchen line than anyone else around. They paid very little attention to rules except for the ones they had made for themselves (which they adhered to fairly rigidly). If this was a story about living in an insane asylum – and, in a lot of ways, it is – the story would end with them getting lobotomized, if you get what I’m saying.

I wish to the gods I’d made them up. But life is better – stranger and stronger stuff than fiction – and so you’ll have to excuse that they sound like clichéd characters from a war movie.

They were real, and T-Bone loved them. Let’s not get nit picky about kinds of love, or where – exactly – the boundaries of homosocial behavior are. It was love. T-Bone wanted to talk like they did – machine-gun comic riffs, complete with musical numbers, arcane references, and theological musings – and he wanted to cook like them, to be so good at his job that he could flout rules and nominative authority figures.

And, bit by bit, day by day, T-Bone began to improve. He developed the confidence to do things the way he thought they should be done, not they way they’d always been done, or they way some old, grease-stained recipe book demanded. He showed up earlier, stayed later, worked harder. Not for the money, but because it was the right way to do things.

And, when that extraordinary season came, when the whole line was working together, when each of us loved and trusted the other, when we tore through holiday madness and plus-five-hundred-cover nights, T-Bone was with us. A real boy.


It was around this time that our singer invited T-Bone to come play with our band. Why not? He’d come so far, in such a short period of time, all he’d needed was exposure to the right kind of people, the right mind-set.


Time passed: the restaurant endured Tobin, and Brian, and Frank. Eventually things came to a head: T-Bone quit, then the Copelands got fired; I quit and then got fired. We all ended up at a new place, a co-op, a smaller and more intimate kitchen, happier and saner, making good food for people. The pay was less, and we all coped in our own ways. T-Bone got a second job, a place out by the beach with good seafood and terrible cooks. After two years of trying to live up to our standards, T-Bone was the strongest cook there, by an order of magnitude or two.

Shit yeah, we were proud of him.

Finally, T-Bone came to one of our practices. But he seemed a little overwhelmed. We don’t play particularly complicated music (an unspoken rule: the songs have to be good, but we have to be able to play them reasonably well after three beers and some whiskey). After that practice, we didn’t hear much from him. He seemed confused about how to ‘jump in,’ about how to write bass parts. Weeks went by, and we didn’t jam again.

Meanwhile, T-Bone’s performance at work started to ebb and wane. When he’d arrived at the co-op, he’d immediately been one of the stronger cooks, but with the Copelands there, he had fallen back down the totem pole. Inevitably, the stress of two jobs, and – one suspects – the absence of Chelsea to shame him out it, T-Bone started using meth again. He was drinking at work, earlier and heavier than he could handle. He showed up late, missed a day, lobbed a few slapdash bullshit excuses, slow and underhand, knowing we’d forgive him.

And we did.

We’d seen T-Bone be good. We’d seen him aim for great.


T-Bone’s reach exceeded his grasp. It happens. It should happen. But T-Bone was imitating, not creating. He could adopt the Copelands’ work ethic, copy my guitar part, but it wasn’t coming from him. In the end, we got a different bassist, one who kept up with our jokes and our riffs and who dove in head first to our weird little tribe. We changed the schedule around at the co-op, to take some responsibility off of T-Bone’s shoulders. We’ll be holding an intervention to get him off the meth. Maybe we’ll invite Chelsea.

The point is not that T-Bone failed. He’s playing with some guys from our old job: lead guitar, not bass.  He’s making changes – good changes, thoughtful changes – at his other job. T-Bone is not in our league, but that’s okay. He’s the best in his own league.

The point is: don’t have fucking heroes. They aren’t gods. They’re scumbags, monstrously flawed human beings, dragging a ten-ton boulder of mistakes and regrets. They just happen to be a lot better at something than you are. Not everyone is equal. It’s dangerous to believe that, dangerous to try and make it true.

Do something different, or do it your own way. Don’t try and be a Copeland.

To someone out there, you are a Copeland. A hero, a god.

Just, lay off the fucking meth.












You’re a child of eighteen, and you’re playing a game: down four shots of vodka and then hop in the car, try to make it to the local diner before the booze kicks in, and then wait out the buzz, sharing one plate of fries with four friends, drinking endless cups of black coffee. It’s snowing out, it’s been snowing since sundown the day before, and now there’s a slick covering of refrozen snow and ice on the roads. You’re racing your friends: they take the longer, safer route, around the county park; you cut through, hoping the inline-four in your wagon can tackle the grade of Dead Man’s Hill.

Yes, your town actually has a Dead Man’s Hill; no, no one in recorded history has died there. You’ve been sledding there in the winter, since you were six, the slope as crowded as a ski trail, parents and children. You once drunkenly made out with a girl there, in the summer, laying in the grass, until things got a little too intense and she laughed, rolled away down the hill, giggling in dizzy bursts and then throwing up in the creek at the bottom.

Your car makes it half-way up the hill, slides – a shimmy left, a feint right – and stalls out. You start your car up again, and gun it, tires spinning madly in the snow, but nothing. You think: I’m clever, I can sort this out. You see your friends’ car, pushing through the dark on the far end of the park. You think: I better hurry. You stumble out of the car – the vodka is catching up, it seems – and take your coat off. You kneel down, hoping your coat – stuffed under the wheel – will give it some traction. But then there is a crunching sound, ice breaking, and the car slides backwards, headlights blazing and contracting. Your car slides down the hill unmanned. Backwards and then sideways, as you watch stupified, it goes silently down across the snow and ice and over the little creek bridge and comes to rest in the parking lot.

It is a perfect shot, put-put golf with a 2,500 lb ball, sweeping around the obstacles – the fence, the water hazard, the ravine -with steady, confident grace. You laugh, running down the hill, and hop back in your car. You start it up, and drive down the access road out of the park. Your friends beat you to the dinner, the vodka beats everybody. You throw up in the diner bathroom and then drop down at the table, all smiles.

You tell them the story; they laugh.

You are this lucky, this fucking blessed, this goddamn stupid.

You are me. Lucky you.


My wife and I say, probably too often, that we’ve used up all our luck. It’s not true. What is true: we have not won the lottery. My band has not yet been signed to a major label; my fiction has not yet been picked up by a major publishing house. And, if that was the point – to play rock’n’roll, to write stories, the way you’d buy a scratch-off ticket – then I’d probably have quit by now. What else is true: we are lucky – embarrassingly lucky – to have survived ourselves long enough to meet each other. Nothing is more decadent, more narcissistic, than self-destruction. And we both took a pretty good crack at ourselves. We were gutterpunks, the lumpenproletariat, the scum of the earth: we liked to think it was hard. But the gutter is easy, climbing out is hard. And luck won’t help you.


This short little post – of necessity: new job, new works in progress, my days are full-up – is as close to ‘inspirational’ as you’ll ever catch me writing. It’s the closest thing I know to a moral, to this or any story: I’m alive to tell it, you’re alive to hear it.

Lucky us.





Ever Newer Waters

I quit my job last week. And then they fired me.

Back up.

First there was Frank. No, wait, back up some more. First there was a parade of increasingly untalented chefs, each who bullshitted their way into the gig, and behind this parade was cast a stretching shadow of gloom and disappointment. With each chef, another cook would stand up and say, ‘this is unacceptable’ (except, they’d say it like a cook: ‘this is fucking bullshit’) and then they’d be fired. Good friends of mine, some of the best cooks I’d ever met, fired for refusing to cook bad food on purpose. Frank was only the latest in a line of hacks. And, finally, it was my turn, so I told him, ‘this is unacceptable.’

Except I said it like a cook.

So, that was probably the end for me. But I played nice, and gave my two weeks’ notice. I offered to help train the new crop of ex-felons and crank addicts and whatever poor sobs they can find to reheat food for minimum-ish wage. I worked hard, even though my heart was broken. I tried very hard to be professional, which – how can I say this? – is not always the way I play things.

On Wednesday, Frank called to fire me. It was hurtful and unprofessional and my goddamn day off, and it’ll leave me with a week and change of not being employed until I start my new gig in April. But, I’ll make good use of the time – WIP abound, plus I’ve been promising my wife I was gonna put those guitar racks on the wall since February – and, more importantly, when Frank called, he gave me the opportunity to say something I’ve always wanted to say.

‘You can’t fire me because I quit.’

You really should say that, once in your life, I promise, unlike those foot-massagers in the Sky Mall magazine, this feels as good as you think it will. I mean, technically, I think it’s a touch ambiguous, and for clarity’s sake a more articulate phrase would be: “You cannot fire me, logically speaking, because I’ve already quit.” But, screw it, I like the Cobain way.

Now I’m at home on a Friday night, while every kitchen in town gets hammered. I’m sitting here with a narrow finger of bourbon, having worked diligently all day, but something feels wrong. My hands are dry and clean, no burns or scratches. My shirt is clean. It’s the first Friday in quite a while I don’t smell like shit and spaghetti. My stomach is not a knot from a diet of coffee and bread-crusts. I ate sitting down this afternoon. At a table. With a fork.

I’m back from the war, not entirely sure what happened to the rest of the platoon.

And the part I hate most: we lost.

We won a moral victory, one by one, we were fired for our principles, we quit for our principles. But if you know anything, you know that moral victories are the fucking O’Doul’s of victories. The bad guys won: they choked us out, cut our hours, stripped us of any creative outlet, made our lives an assembly line. A painful lesson – painful because you can learn it so many times, and it feels fresh, and stunning, and wretched, each time – is that sometimes you cannot win. The restaurant will have lousy food and a lousy environment and a profitable year, because capitalism. Because America.

But that I can live with; I’ve lived with America for quite a while. What I miss, are the men and women I worked with. One thing I especially hated about Frank* was that he constantly called us ‘boys and girls.’ He hadn’t earned the familiarity, and he failed to recognize how amazing these people were. I loved them, as brothers and sisters. I could not, if I wanted to, exaggerate. Some of them I’ll be working with again, soon. Some of them have been scattered out. I doubt we’ll ever all be in the same place, at the same time, again.

I miss them. I wish I could go back, appreciate it more. I wish arson was legal. I wish this post was funnier.

My father told me, ‘you’ll never step in that river again.’

Because my father understands, in his weird way, and also has a tendency to quote cryptic Greek philosophers in casual conversation. You have to love a father like that. But he was right. Frost was right. Heraclitus was right. Nothing gold can stay. Nothing at all can stay. Panta rhei.

But the old Ephesian also said that nothing is ever destroyed, only exchanged, like gold for goods, and goods for gold, like fire into air, and air into earth. So there’s that.

He also spent a lot of time wandering the mountains of Asia Minor, chewing on herbs like a goat, and he died covered in cow-shit, eaten by a starving dog. So there’s that, too

But enough maudlin navel-gazing. As Doug E. Doug said in Cool Runnings, ‘you know what my grandfather said? Get back to work!’

The upshot: a lot of new stuff coming out. New songs, new stories. Less bitching about work. A fresh spike of piss and vinegar in my veins. That ‘true story’ I promised? I’ll tell it. More rock and roll? We’ll play it.

Back to work.

*And Frank? Oh, don’t worry about Frank. As Heraclitus says, ‘strife is justice, motherfucker.’

12 Ways to Massacre Your Enemies on Valentine’s Day

Last month I promised several things, and – unlike the pizza guy in a mild dusting of Carolina snow – I am here to deliver, goddammit.


First, Short Work. ‘Mystery’ went live earlier this month at the Eckleburg Review (and, if you dig that, the Eckleburg folks had me back to talk about the writing of the piece, here). Also, I’ve added links to two stories you aren’t likely to find in your local bookstore: the novelette ‘Dear Penthouse’ – about a model struggling with mental illness, from the Conium Review – and ‘The House of the Dogs’ – about fine dining and war crimes, from Confingo, across the pond. Yes, I said ‘novelette,’ and yes, that is a thing. A good thing.

Stay tuned for two more shorts, coming in early March: ‘A Prayer for War’ delayed but most certainly coming, from Bloodstone, and ‘Horizon’ from PIF Magazine. (‘Horizon,’ is by far the most NSFW thing I’ve had published, so if you’re never been to HR for the ‘uses and practices’ lecture, make sure to read that one at work).


Next, Rock’n’Roll. Exploding Math Lab has an EP, and you can listen to it. Like Radiohead, we’ll let you pay whatever you want for it (including nothing). Unlike Radiohead, we won’t be mopey, pretentious pricks about it. Check it out: – I don’t write our lyrics, but I did write our track notes. Thought I’d put the English degree to good use.

And, of course, we’re playing all over this tiny Carolina town, so if you’re passing through, show up, and we’ll buy you a beer and break your eardrums. Lovingly, of course.


New Project(s). It’s happening, but it’s top fucking secret (that’s one step above top secret).


Finally: Twelve Ways to Massacre Your Enemies of Valentine’s Day.

Valentine’s Day is the Normandy Invasion for an Italian restaurant in a town without too many fine dining options. Unfortunately for me, in this metaphor, the cooks are the hapless Wehrmacht regulars, given the impossible task of holding off the relentless Americans and their corn-fed optimism, while our cowardly Nazi superiors scamper off at the crucial moment to avoid death or capture.  Our latest chef, Oberstarzt Brian, quit a week before Valentine’s Day, after thinning our ranks with his incompetence and inexperience.  Our management seemed almost disinterested in the massive horde of hungry Americans gathering on the horizon. And, despite having no leadership, we were told we were in no position to make decisions for ourselves.  Outnumbered and underappreciated, we were hung out to dry.

Still, when the onslaught came, we gave it hell.


I can tell you this: it was not for the customers. We’re happy they had a good time, ate some good food, had a nice evening. But that has very little to do with it. We did it because no one was going to do a better job than us. Good food deserves to be made, regardless of who eats it. Once it leaves the window, we’re on to the next thing.

Now, cooking is not like playing music which is not like writing. But they share a few things. You don’t do it for the money, or the fame, or the glory. And you don’t do it for the audience. That sounds crude, and pretentious, and solipsistic, but it’s true. Ninety percent of the people who come into the restaurant want fettuccini alfredo or lasagna, not because it’s authentic or made with care, but because it’s a relatively inexpensive, because it’s two pounds of rich, fatty, carby, comfort. Ninety percent of people who like what’s on the radio, they like Nickleback’s new single, and Two and a Half Men, and 50 Shades of Grey because they think these things are edgy. It’s just helping after helping of alfredo, unlimited breadsticks, ranch dressing poured over everything.*

But this isn’t a rant about American unexceptionalism.  This isn’t what Kanye, in his stunningly inarticulate way, tried to say about Beck, or what Jonathan Franzen, in his dickishly eloquent way, tried to say about Jennifer Weiner.

Because the writers whose work I’m reading, the bands whose music I’m listening to, the chefs whose food I’m eating, they don’t give a shit what you call them. And they don’t care what other artists are doing wrong and whether the people are eating it up. They care about writing, and music, and food. They’re working their asses off, they’ve got blinders on, because they need that focus. But they aren’t doing it for me, for anyone else. We aren’t entitled to it. In all likelihood, we do not deserve it.

What I’m saying is, if I sit in traffic, listening to an awful song, that is on me. If I go to a crappy taco place – when there’s a legit Mexican joint across the street – that’s on me too. If I only pick up a book because it’s become a movie, and it bores me to tears, if I go to the movies and see some half-thought-out piece of Bruckheimer garbage, if I keep paying for cable ‘reality’ TV, all of that, that great big plate of alfredo and the slow, boring death that comes with it, that is all on me.

As an audience member, someone who loves good food, rock’n’roll, books and movies, it’s easy to blame the artists, to see them as the enemy, to see their greed and indifference as the driving force behind your own boredom. Why do we have this plastic culture? Because that’s the only one offered to us. It’s easy to wish a plague on the houses of Hollywood and Manhattan.

And, as an artist – as a cook, or a writer, or a musician – it’s easy to see the audience as the enemy, to wish them up against the wall. It’s tempting to see their laziness and complacency, their entitlement and ignorance, as the scapegoat for your shortcomings. Why have we not struck it rich? Because the audience is too stupid to understand what we’re doing.

But there are no enemies to massacre, except the ones in our heads. Laziness and greed, boredom and fear, and – the worst of the bunch – entitlement.

No one is owed anything. Not artists, not audiences.

We can go out and find the good shit, or we can make it ourselves, or we can take what they give us. We can go to our local bars and listen to live music, go to a new restaurant, go online and read something weird. Or we can go to fucking Olive Garden.

It’s on us.



Next time: ‘From the Vault’ – a true story I can’t stop telling even though I don’t remember it at all anymore.



*Yes, I know I more or less stole this from Gaffigan’s “Mr Universe” special, but – in my defense – Jim Gaffigan is unlikely to read this blog, and if you the reader recognized the theft, then at least I know you’ve got good taste in comedy.


Ten Years

It feels like ten years since I’ve posted something. In fact, it’s been two months. That’s not too bad if you think of this blog as monthly, a little worse if you know I was going for bi-weekly (or even weekly, a ludicrous plan). In any case, what happened? Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years, the holiday gauntlet: more food and alcohol than anyone would care to see – laid out on a long table, as a cold, objective accusation – and a few thousand miles of driving. Now I’m back – back to work, and work – and it’s story time again,


But, first, some brief news.

-I’ve got a ‘project’ out to editors as we speak. I suppose discretion is best here, but I can say this: I’m halfway through a strange month.

-Exploding Math Lab, the very loud band I’m playing guitar for, had a listening party the other night (by which I mean a few dudes standing around in a living room). After finishing mastering, and re-mastering, we’re beginning to sound an awful lot like a real rock’n’roll band. We’ve even got a CD to give out. A physical CD! Only about ten years after physical CDs went out of style. But still, we’re pretty excited. Check us out on Facebook (don’t worry, we’re the only Exploding Math Lab out there). We should be posting some of the mastered clips really soon. Next steps: full album, world tour, catastrophic substance abuse, creative differences, tragic and mysterious death(s), cooling off period, heating up period, reunion rumors, reunion denials, actual reunion, comeback album, world flooded by melted icecaps (except for the upper half of Billionaire’s row on Central Park South).

-Those two short stories really are coming, I promise. “Mystery” – the lovechild of Chuck Palahniuk and Garrison Keillor – goes live at John Hopkin’s T.J. Eckleburg Review on February 2nd. It’s part of their ‘Salon’ series, so you’ll have the opportunity to publicly ridicule me or to make a long series of protracted inside jokes with me in their discussion forum. Yeah? Yeah. “A Prayer For War” goes live at Bloodstone Review, very soon. It’ll be worth the wait. Seriously. It was good enough, after all, to convince the very thoughtful and aesthetically discriminating editors to publish it, even though I used the phrase “motherfucking motherfucker.” Twice. Sorry Mom.


Okay: Ten years.

For a lot of reasons, I’m particularly struck by the ten-year span. It shows up my work, all the time, because it shows up in my life, all the time. I often think the gods dole out their rewards and punishments in deep, Homeric allotments. I also feel that karma has a ten year transit, and that trauma takes a good ten years to come to the surface. And, it’s also just a strangely firm anchoring point, in a sea of memories that slip away as soon as you try to grapple with them.

Recently, at the restaurant, we were given a new chef. If that sounds awkward, it’s meant to. It’s been a difficult transition and – since last year’s Tobin debacle – things have been tense. Our new chef is not a bad guy, he’s knowledgeable and hard-working (the opposite of Tobin, who’s equine corpse I’ll kick till Kingdom come). I like him enough not to use his real name here. Still, the situation is a bag of shit. You can write whatever you want on the bag of shit, but there is no eloquence, no articulation, that can perform alchemy. That’s no bag of gold we’ve been left holding.

And, in spite of this, our new chef comes to the holiday party, with his wife, ready to have some* drinks and take some ribbing. I go with my wife, promising to leave after a few** drinks, but eager to blow off some steam, and see my friends from work without the 120’F heat or the threat of burns, cuts, and lower-back injuries.

And, yes, I’m going somewhere with this.

At a certain point in the night, our new chef introduces himself and his wife to me and my own wife. My wife and I stop cold. We already know the chef’s wife. Then we’re laughing, the three of us – the chef standing off to the side, confused – hugging and cursing in surprise, the way you do when you run into someone who knew you at a certain time in your life, someone who will, no doubt, have deeply compromising stories to tell about you . I slap the chef on the shoulder and say, ‘I have known your wife for a really, really long time.’ And the next day, it occurrs to me just how creepy that must have sounded, and I eventually find a (somewhat) tactful way of clearing up the lingering implications. But I had known her for a long time, or rather, I’d known her a long time ago.

This was before I’d gotten married, gone to New York, before graduate school. I was just out of college, occasionally mohawked and always savagely drunk. I was in a punk band, living off stolen food from restaurant gigs.I  would eventually become the kitchen manager, and pull my shit together a little bit, but not a lot; even after I got the KM job, the veggie crisper in my fridge was full of beer. Not cans of beer. Beer. I’d ladle my coffee mug in there for breakfast.

And of course, there were drugs. But that’s a story for another time (February?).

Now, I have a memory, from that time, one of the few really clear ones: It’s near two in the morning, and I’m drunk, and a little high. We’re the last band playing and a lot of the crowd has left, but there’s about a dozen people, pressed up against the stage. We’re playing our last song. Our singer, stripped to the waist, a trickle of blood on his neck and chest, beer soaked shorts, is singing into the microphone, ‘this one’s for you, this one’s for you.’ And right up front, three or four people, that I knew but not well, they start crying. Weeping, openly, tears running down their faces.

And I was new to the band, I hadn’t helped write the song and I didn’t even know what it was about – I didn’t even know all the notes, I was the bassist and I could fake about half of it – so I couldn’t do anything but play along, suddenly more of a spectator than the people in the crowd. They were more a part of the band, more a part of what was happening at that moment than I was then or would ever be. And that was okay. It was beautiful and I was grateful. It could have been the whiskey and the cocaine, but I my eyes teared up, and I threw my hair in front of my face and kept playing.

I had, right then, the idea for a story, not the whole thing, not a novel-sized epiphany. But I knew what I wanted to write about, and I went home that night, wired and drunk, and wrote until the sun came up and I stumbled into the kitchen for a mug of beer. That was me, ten years ago.

And that’s the thing. When I have that memory, when I summon it, or when it summons itself, unbidden, just showing up in the middle of some other thought like an emergency broadcast from the past, I see myself on that stage. And it’s me. Which is to say, it’s me now, with my grad school objectivity, my post-modern referentiality, thirty years of scars and book learning, a hot heart with cold aesthetics. But then? Ten years ago? Who was that guy? Joan Didion put it nicely, “I have already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be.” 

The day after the holiday party, the chef tells me how wild it was, us all knowing each other. I don’t nit-pick the nuances of ‘us;’ it feels like an honest gesture. He tells me his wife went home, riffling through stacks of old photographs, looking to see if she can find a photo of me. Ten years ago, in 2005, we all had cell-phones but I can’t remember any of them having a camera. After a while, she gave up. The chef tells me, ‘my wife says it’s too bad, she’s says it’s funny, says Ben was just a baby.’

I also went home and dug around. Turns out, I do have one photo of myself at that time. I don’t remember when it was, exactly, or which shithole club it was in. It’s a low-res shot, probably taken by the sound guy. I’ve got wet hair – a whore bath after working a shift, likely – and a t-shirt I’d stolen from my roommate that says Fuck You You Fucking Fuck. So it could have been any day of the week.


It’s clear: the guy in this picture is just a baby. A clammy, chubby-faced, sweaty-drunk baby. Smart, maybe, but surely not wise, strung out but with no clue what ‘tired’ means. I was not even close to having earned my cynicism. I think I know this guy, I think I love him sometimes, and sometimes he scares the shit out of me. Sometimes he embarrasses me and sometimes I’m so proud. He is and he isn’t me. I’m sure he felt that way about the teenager he used to be. I’m sure in ten years someone will feel that way about me.


Coming in February: Short Work, rock’n’roll, new projects, and 12 great ideas on how to massacre your enemies of Valentine’s Day.

*Many, many.

**Seriously, so many. It’s an open bar.

The Ballad of Tobin McAfee*

It’s been a month or more since I’ve posted here, so I apologize for the radio silence (hopefully no one was deeply concerned). Good news, I haven’t just been sitting on my ass. I’ve got a number of short stories coming out – one, in print, from the UK, and two online (check out the Short Work page for details and links) – and my band is in the process of recording our first EP (stay tuned for release information and clips).

But today, more than shamelessly plugging my authorial or musical endeavors, I want to tell you a short story – nonfiction, for a change – about the last month. One day, no doubt, the events on the last five weeks will show up in my fiction, a minor character, perhaps, but probably something more. There’s an epic poem to be written, the Aeneid of the kitchen world, heroes and heroines struggling against gods and nature and – most of all – the petty, slovenly evil of mortal men. Great works need great villains, and for the last month I have seen the great villainy, the very incarnation of sloth, indifference, gluttony, and deception.

Okay, a bit much, but just a bit.

In early October, the restaurant where I work hired a drug-addled scam-artist who boasted that he – amongst other things – spoke four languages, was close personal friends with several NFL coaches, bested the US Pastry Team by himself, held the position of chef de cuisine for the Hilton in NYC’s financial district in 2002 (when the restaurant was closed after 9/11), could break down a beef tenderloin in three minutes with 0% percent waste, and could get everyone in the restaurant – including the dish-washers – hefty raises during a recession, even though he was there to cut labor costs. These were all gross misrepresentations, which is to say, these were bald-faced lies. He could not cook (he set fire to every sauté pan I ever saw him touch), he had no original culinary ideas (and plenty of bad ones he borrowed, mostly from the 80s), his budgetary math was the product of coke-fueled hallucinations. He could not even run the salad station – he went down in flames and nearly took the rest of the line with him. He may have once been a passable cook – maybe even a human being – which is a sad thought, because by the time he came to us he was the apotheosis of every joke about kitchen nightmares, a myth made flesh, the worst boss I’ve ever had, a fucking clown. His name was Tobin McAfee, and if he comes to your restaurant in his shiny red VW Beetle, waste no time: kick him in the gut and throw him out.

The good news is that Tobin was brilliant material, a horrowshow of a human being, but further proof that real life can and will exceed satire, that those spectacular failures of reality TV fame are not always the products of scripts and clever editing. I’ll be dining out on stories of just how unbelievably awful this guy was, for months, if not years. He was a walking, talking, shit-packed novel of terribleness, and for that, I thank him. And, it’s worth pointing out, that Tobin brought some light with his darkness. The staff of the restaurant bonded together in ways I hadn’t expected, in the presence of Tobin’s inhuman and inhumane shittiness, we saw and treated each other as human being. We aspired to be better, in every way, in our every thought and deed; we found ourselves turning to Tobin as our negative Savior: what would Tobin not do? Tobin wouldn’t recook that burnt pizza, so we would. Tobin wouldn’t stay late to help the dishwasher close, so we would. Tobin wouldn’t work hard, tell the truth, or treat people decently. So we did. And, as our real chef struggled – to keep from murdering Tobin, to keep the food from suffering, to keep us all from quitting or drinking ourselves to death – we rallied around him. Outside of a platoon of soldiers or a brigade of firefighters, I’m not sure there is anything quite like a kitchen, like our kitchen, a family at war with a world of stupidity, laziness, and crass, generic, mediocrity.

It was enough – for a moment or two – to make me believe in mankind again, and it was worth suffering a month of Tobin for that.


*Yeah, that’s the motherfucker’s real name.






Mayfly started as short stories, ten years ago, in Wilmington, North Carolina.

I wrote the first one – strung out, hung over, and nursing a nasty grease-burn – while hiding in the manager’s office of the restaurant I was working in at the time. I showed it to this girl I knew: too cool for me, tattoos and funky hair, friends with all the bands in town. She liked it – it was less juvenile than the parodic crap I’d been writing in college. I wasn’t trying to be smart when I wrote it, or really ‘going’ for anything.  It was just how I felt at the time. It felt right. She told me to keep it up.

Fast forward: we move in together, get a dog, get married, split town, move to NYC, make more money than we’d ever dreamed of (keep in mind, we are poor by NYC standards, but wealthy beyond reason by gutter-punk standards). I struggle to juggle catering and cooking jobs alongside school; my wife gets a real job. It keeps the roof over our head, it provides healthcare, it is a soul-sucking corporate abyss. It takes a little bit of her everyday, like trench warfare. I try and help her stay sane, stay human. I write her stories while I’m in class, pretending to take notes. I email them to her. Her job is still a bureaucratic pig-fuck, but the stories help, a little. She tells me to keep it up.

After a while, the same characters start to show up, something of a narrative starts to congeal. The stories now add up to some five-hundred pages that I think of – in a heady, grad-school state of mind – as a late-modernist collage, a punk-rock Ulysses. It’s a barely-readable monster. But I trick myself into thinking it is a novel  and I show it to my sister, my wife, and a few friends. They fall into two categories: (1) people who actually kind of like it, or like me too much to hurt my sensitive-artist feelings, and who tell me I should try and get it published, and (2) people who know nothing about the publishing industry.

I’m just kidding. There’s only one category.

Still, I manage to get it to a literary agent who will actually read it. The reading takes over a year. I hear back. It is a rejection, of course, but what I will learn later is an incredibly kind and thoughtful rejection. The agent tells me the prose is good, sometimes truly great, and that my work is completely and thoroughly unpublishable. I think ‘that’s it,’ but of course that’s just Day One. My wife smiles, and you can guess what she tells me.

Fast forward: five years pass, we leave NYC (relieved and heartbroken, the only way people ever do), and return to the southern coastal town where we met, meet up with our old friends, the old dives, the old bands. I make new friends, but – in this town – they feel like the old ones. The cooks and tattoo artists, the punks and the musicians, my ersatz family: they welcome us back. It feels right. They know something in this town. Hard to put it in words, unless you write a whole novel. Or rather, unless you write fifty short stories about it and then rewrite them into something that’s almost a novel, and then rewrite that another five or six times. (By the way, if you’re a writer, and you don’t already know this, learn from me: this is the shittiest possible strategy for novel writing).

So, here I am, a decade later, not even close to the end of the long game, back in the town where I started writing. Still, now I have a little momentum, a few friends out there in the literary world, a wonderful agent, and – of course – my wife, who is still too cool for me, but who sticks it out with me anyway, and tells me, as always, to keep it up. She says moving back to this town is a re-do, a chance to do the things we used to do, but to do them better, to do them right. A revision, probably not the last, but the best yet.

Would You Rather…

My wife and I play a game – sort of a sick game, I realize – when we don’t want to talk about what a mess the world is; essentially it’s ‘would you rather.’ Would you rather lose your arms or your legs? I say legs: I could get space-age titanium springs  and shave some time off my 10k. Would you rather lose your sight or your hearing? I say sight, because of music and books on tape. I’ve become fairly adept at rationalizing the best of the worst-case scenarios. But there’s one – my wife’s trump card – that always leaves me holding my head, groaning. Would you rather play music or write. She doesn’t enunciate it as a question because it’s not – it’s a fun way for her to watch me go crazy.

Of course, part of the question is ludicrous: it implies that I’ve ‘made it’ in one field or the other, and the demands of success preclude all other endeavors (plus, everyone’s suspicious of the cross-over hit: Jim Carroll is for me the exception that proves the rule). It’s hard, then, to feel bad for me – successful writer or rockstar – since I’m (hypothetically) living the dream, having succeeded in one of the two most overcrowded and economically Darwinian markets ever conceived. But – and my wife knows how quickly and violently this ‘but’ presents itself in my head – I can see myself, leaning against the tour bus, staring through the window at the new-release display of a Barnes and Noble. And I can see myself, sneaking away from the literati to an underground punk show, standing at the back in nice shoes and clean clothes. The look on my face, we’ve all seen before: the person you should’ve married, the job you should have taken, the life that should’ve been yours.

My wife knows this double bind will torture me; she smiles, gets up, pours me two – maybe three – fingers of bourbon and says, with a smile: well, for now you can do both.

And it’s true, provided I’m not terrifically successful at either, I can do both: play rock’n’roll and write fiction. I’m tremendously lucky that I have people in my life that will support the stubborn attempt to do these things (for very little if any money, and when I really ought to be doing more sensible things). So, that’s what this site is essentially about, what it’s for: a clearing house for my underground life: publications in literary magazines you haven’t heard about and rock shows at bars you’ve maybe driven by once or twice. And if I’m successful, if I finally have to chop off my left hand or my right, well then this will be the place to watch me go crazy.