"Seek not the good in external things. Seek it in thyself." - Epictetus

Exercise your demons (the power of vice compels you) - excerpt from The Devils In Your Details

From The Devils In Your Details:

When it comes to how people view and deal with substances or activities often regarded as vices, one of the worst offenders is the overindulgent consumer. He’s usually the victim of his own inability to exercise good judgment, discipline, or moderation. There was one in particular who stood out to me. To protect his privacy, here we’ll call him Glenn Corbin. He had two distinct – and ultimately debilitating – vices that I knew of: drinking and gambling. For each of these, he indulged in something very specific. He loved red wine, and the cheap stuff in particular – seriously, he’d guzzle down bottles of that shoddy Australian wine you could get for six bucks or so. (If you can’t figure out the brand, a quick search engine query should clear that right up for you.) If he didn’t finish the entire bottle in one night, he’d wake up the next morning and spill the rest out in the sink, swearing in stark contradiction to his addictive habit that he’d never touch alcohol again.

      There are many stories to be told about Glenn’s bargain bin wine escapades, some that I witnessed directly, and others that were relayed to me by mutual acquaintances; some that were equal parts hilarious and saddening, others that were serious and devastating. Because this book isn’t titled The Intoxicated Misadventures of Glenn from New Jersey, I’ll trim the stories down to a few short narratives.

      The more amusing one I’d like to share actually happened during the brief period in which he lived in Chicago, and was later relayed to me by my roommate in the Windy City years later. The first thing you have to understand is that the neighborhood he lived in was on the South Side, in an area beset with poverty and gang violence. In other words, it wasn’t exactly safe to walk around in at three o’clock in the morning. Nevertheless, at that late hour, Glenn decided it was a good idea to take his chances on street blocks known for shootouts and drive-bys in order to have a wine-addled stroll to the local park. He did this while actually carrying a glass full of wine, which he was eagerly sipping from as he strode down the dimly-lit sidewalk, his other hand casually placed in the pocket of his jeans.

      I know the details of this because a mutual friend of Glenn’s and my future roommate’s – we’ll call him Stewart – happened to be driving home when he spotted this odd event. Though Stewart offered to drive Glenn back home, Glenn adamantly refused, and seemingly blind to the other man’s disbelief, proceeded to approach two vehicles in which several gang members were making some sort of drug exchange. Ignoring Stewart’s hastening calls for him to get in the car, Glenn began to lecture these young gentlemen on their lifestyle choices, pointing his finger and nonchalantly chastising them in between swigs of wine. I was told the gangsters were so shocked by the calmness and audacity of this random, skinny older white man that their mouths hung open for a few moments, at a loss for words. Before long, however, they proceeded to curse at him and make threats on his life. Suddenly, as if sense had finally come to him, he took a look around, assessed the situation, and meekly shuffled off to continue his walk. To me, this story is so unheard of and funny that it seems like a scene that fell out of some offbeat comedy movie, but in reality, Glenn was very fortunate to have walked away from this situation with his life – and physical wellbeing – intact.

      The next incident fits firmly in the ‘saddening’ category, and happened during a visit to my future roommate’s mother’s apartment in Brooklyn, New York. Let’s call that future roommate Jeff for the sake of brevity. Jeff’s mother had a couple of guests over – old friends of the family. I don’t know why Glenn had accompanied Jeff to the city that day, but I do know that Glenn was in a very, very bad place in his life. An older woman who he had considered to be like a mother to him had recently died, and he was carrying her ashes around in an urn (more on this later). Aside from said urn, in his other hand was a recently purchased bottle of wine – yes, still of the cheapo variety. I don’t know what was going through Jeff’s head at the time, but he ought to have sized up both of these items, as well as Glenn’s agitated and melancholy demeanor, and realized this was a recipe for disaster.

      A couple of hours into this visit, Glenn had likely polished off close to half the bottle, and was becoming increasingly loud, rude, and testy as Jeff struggled to maintain a conversation with his family friends. I’m sure the situation was awkward by that point, but it became downright unpleasant as Glenn continued to raise his voice to the point where it was an uphill battle to even get a word in edgewise.

      What happened next was as random as it was – surely – embarrassing, and Jeff never explained what triggered it, but it was certain to make Glenn an unforgettable figure, forever affixed to the memories of these people, like a wad of gum nestled deep down to the roots of your hair. Perhaps it was the urn and the ashes therein of this beloved older woman that had prompted it, or maybe the alcohol had triggered a flood of emotion in him that he could no longer hold back. Whatever the cause had been, he suddenly picked up his phone and decided to call his mother, a woman who had psychologically abused him and thereafter disowned him, and whom he hadn’t spoken to in years. For some reason, something in his intoxicated mind told him it would be socially appropriate to place this call while he was a guest in the home of his friend’s mother, in front of company he had just made the acquaintance of.

      What transpired next was nothing short of making a scene in every sense of the word. Glenn had scarcely begun the drunken conversation before he had devolved into a sobbing mess, screaming and cursing and berating her for never having loved him, for never being there. Everyone else present must have been as silent as a tomb, their plans of coffee and mild conversation unceremoniously thrown out the window into a dumpster, which was then set on fire.

      As Glenn was now engaging in histrionics to the level that he was physically pounding his chest with his hand and likely treating even the neighbors to his own personal Jerry Springer experience, Jeff must have finally had the presence of mind to try and handle the situation. His thoughts must have been something akin to “oh fuck, this is actually happening in real life right now,” though I was told his words were kinder and more sympathetic. And I support that sort of response. The situation might be objectively humorous in retrospect, but the truth is that this man’s emotional pain and mental health issues were something to be looked at through a lense of compassion and understanding. As such, Jeff convinced Glenn to get out and get some air, and afterward he was able to sober up and, I’m assuming, find some way to apologize for his behavior.

      The final wine story, and one of the last I heard about Glenn before we fell out of contact, was the most distressing to me, because it highlighted his addiction issues in a profound and entirely unfunny manner. After having had a bit too much merlot, Glenn stumbled back into his rental car and proceeded to turn onto New Jersey’s highly busy, highly chaotic Route 23. In the wrong lane. I fortunately was not present when this occurred, and I don’t know what must have gone through his mind as he realized he was driving headlong into oncoming traffic, but I know it’s an absolute wonder he wasn’t killed. I don’t believe in angels – guardian or otherwise – but it really does beg the question of whether he had some protective spirit in his presence that night. From what I remember being told, the car slammed into the divider and was obviously totalled, and Glenn sustained serious back injuries, but he was alive. He ended up having to have a rod inserted into his back and will have lifelong chronic pain because of his choice to drink and drive, something for which there is no excuse, and for which he should thank the universe or whatever deity he holds dear that he didn’t harm or kill anyone else.

      But I mentioned two addictions, right? Well, it just so happens that hours before that crash, he had been just one state over in his usual place of choice for getting inebriated: a casino. There was one in particular he would frequent in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, falling hook, line, and sinker for its membership scam designed to separate him from his money. I accompanied him a couple of times to this place – after all, I had just turned 21 and it was my first time actually being able to go to a casino and gamble. Now, I’ve never really been interested much in it, but I thought I’d like to try my hand at it and see if I win anything (for the record, I won about $80 at the slot machines on one occasion, and came out even on the other – but of course, I very easily had the power to take my modest win and get up and walk away).

      So during each of these visits, it was just the two of us – well, three if you count the old woman’s ashes in the urn, because of course he had to bring it with him. I had known the woman back when she was still alive, and here I’ll call her Zel, because she looked like the spitting image of Zelda Rubinstein. If you’re not familiar with the actress, she played the eccentric medium in Poltergeist who helped the family get in touch with their daughter on the ‘other side.’ He liked to think of Zel’s remains as his “good luck charm.” I’ll never forget how embarrassed I was as he sat at the slot machine next to mine, swaying from intoxication and rubbing the urn, saying, “Come on Zel, help me win big!” Of course, at a machine across from ours was a gentleman who was possibly even more drunk, who was trying to convince a very harrassed looking old Asian woman that if you simply rub the slot machine the right way, you’re more likely to win. So, you know, the bar – no pun intended – was pretty low to begin with.

      Anyway, I quickly assessed that his penchant for gambling was a real issue; a full-fledged addiction that might have been even stronger than his constant need for booze. I couldn’t understand why he was working so hard for his money as a budding real estate agent back in Jersey, only to piss it all away at casinos in PA – to say nothing of the sheer amount of gas he used up in any given week during that interstate travel. But at that point I simply didn’t understand addiction, and there are still components of it to this day that I’m trying to comprehend. I’m big on empathy, so it’s a goal of mine to form a better picture of how it works, and perhaps by the time I’ve finished this chapter I’ll have that deeper understanding by doing what I think I do best: processing my thoughts, emotions, and memories through the power of the written word.

      Glenn’s abysmally poor decision-making that day, which led to his near-death experience, was the coalescence of two vices that had long since taken root in his life, and which now ruled his mind and body, so that his every waking thought was filtered through the rippled, distorted myopia of drinking and gambling, like looking through the bottom of a glass containing the last dregs of whiskey.

      If I hadn’t understood the danger of overindulgence up to that point, seeing or hearing about these incidents, whether firsthand or second, certainly unfurled a length of bright yellow caution tape in my mind’s eye. I came to understand that moderation can sometimes be the letdown that takes the wind out of your sails, and excess can be the spark that lights your fire and makes your weekend legendary. But unchecked and reckless excess, with neither rational thinking nor consequence assessment involved, is something I stand firmly against. It can ravage mental and physical health and destroy lives, and I’m not just talking about drinking – whatever vice you prefer, even if it’s gambling or sex – if no restraint is ever exercised, no personal accountability ever taken, your hands don’t belong at the proverbial steering wheel, because clearly, you don’t know how to handle it.

      So when I talk about exercising your demons, what in the hell am I really saying? So, there’s a very well known story arc from the late 70s in Marvel Comics’ Iron Man called “Demon in a Bottle.” That’s partly how I came up with the mantra. In it, Tony Stark is guilt-ridden after his armor malfunctions and kills a foreign ambassador. He begins drinking. And drinking. And drinking. The story deals with his subsequent alcohol addiction, which was something profoundly different for comics to tackle in that time period, and for which critics deemed the arc “the quintessential Iron Man story.” Bob Layton, who co-wrote the saga, remarked that it was decided alcohol would be the bad guy. “Instead of Doctor Doom or somebody like that,” he said, “it was the bottle. That was our villain of the month."

      Here's the thing about demons: they can be compellingly attractive for their darkness, yet utterly dangerous if approached without boundaries. What do we do when we exercise? We seek to reap benefits and rewards, primarily the betterment of the body, but also psychological satisfaction. I’ve always firmly believed that it’s just as important for the mind and the spirit to occasionally indulge in things a bit to the extreme, yet never to the extent that you’re no longer in control. Sometimes the massive dopamine hits you get from a strong drink, or great sex, or that extra snack, is worth the hangover, or the post-coital tiredness, or the calorie gain you’ll have to deal with afterward. Yet diving headlong and blindly into these things with neither boundaries nor personal responsibility is a nightmare waiting to happen. As such, a clear difference must be delineated between the two.

      I believe it was summed up best by Anton LaVey, founder of the Church of Satan and author of The Satanic Bible. In it, he established the mantra of “indulgence, not compulsion.” He wrote the following on the subject: “People often mistake compulsion for indulgence, but there is a world of difference between the two. A compulsion is never created by indulging, but by not being able to indulge. By making something taboo, it only serves to intensify the desire. Everyone likes to do the things they have been told not to. ‘Forbidden fruits are the sweetest.’

      “Webster’s Encyclopedic Dictionary defines indulgence thusly: ‘To give oneself up to; not to restrain or oppose; to give free course to; to gratify by compliance; to yield to.’ The dictionary definition of compulsion is: ‘The act of compelling or driving by force, physical or moral; constraint of the will; (compulsory, obligatory).’ In other words, indulgence implies choice, whereas compulsion indicates the lack of choice.”

      I’d say that it’s strongly implicit in matters of addiction that lack of choice is often a core component, wouldn’t you?

      I will always support the exercising of demons, as by contrast, whenever society has attempted to exorcise demons, whether we’re talking about Prohibition or handing out prison sentences for youth who had an ounce of marijuana in their pocket, the end result is that people are generally left the worse for wear because of it. We choose our demons, certainly, but that freedom of choice is a small but key part in the underpinnings of democracy, and when we attempt to brandish the crucifix of law, legislating our morality so we can feel better and delude ourselves into thinking we’re pristine and perfect, those demons don’t go away. They simply flee to the cracks and crevices and backalleys of society, where they manifest in black markets, gangs, and vehicles destroyed and a life almost obliterated, because one man overcompensated when he picked up the wine bottle, and afterward made a terrible mistake.

      Life is not a single path made to be quickly marched through with destination always in mind, but rather, a labyrinth made for wandering and detour, so that one might indulge in its pleasures and be spiritually and psychologically – if sometimes not always physically – the better for it. Sometimes consorting with demons is the best way to bask in that moment of paradise. As Epicurus so famously put it, “Stranger, here you do well to tarry; here our highest good is pleasure.”

"The Window"

 


The sun was in decline over the horizon’s eager maw
When there opened a window adjacent to my soul
And hiemal drafts swept in rivulets through my veins
A voice spoke a greeting in foreign, repulsive syntax
With coarsely articulated threats I could not parse
Until quiet meditation wed gnosis with dawning horror
As I beheld Death enthroned upon the infernal apex
That beguiled the spirit with oblique falsehoods
That when believed, embroiled the mind in throes of perdition
And hurtled the senses to the bleakest bitter cavern
Swallowing with rapturous envy the remnants of hope

And so it was that I came to be as the faintest vessel
As the darting shadows at the corners of the eyes
Disincorporating in atoms now verminous and vile
Thrown with disparate sensations into heinous realms
Beset by turbid channels of mercurial static
That neither stem from nor lead to any fluvial source
But from which I must drink that which cannot slake thirst
It was there madness wrote itself like an endless equation
Composed of numbers wildly bent and of ill definition
That thronged around my pallid, screaming remains
Taunting in malevolent, reverberating tones

“There is nothing more to be,” they declared,
at intervals with wisps of cacophonous laughter
“That which you were, never truly was
For the universe is a mouth that cannot feed
Gaping in vain at a dark knowledge that cannot be digested,
for it is enshrouded in roiling glacial waves of pitch black
Incessantly dousing the final desperate embers of life,
which fades upon a craquelured canvas shorn of stars
And thereupon lay your discarded mask of flesh
With barren expression and voice bereft of joy or wonder
Now but the merest piece of entity ensorcelled by damnation
The sum total of parts once amalgamated only by cruelest happenstance
Until the unfathomable depths of truth unto your thoughts were rendered”

When the voices stopped speaking I awoke in my body
Hushed, bewildered flutterings of despair prising my lips
And so it is now that I contain the terrible wisdom of Apophis
In every waking glance toward the nefarious corridors of Hell
That forever linger at the trace of every wind and every sound
Like a prophecy insidious and twisted in its inevitability
And no quietude can reach these ears that attend at the periphery of reality
Nor is peace beheld in these eyes that avoid the errant, creeking taps
Upon the glass of each reflection that stares with hateful envy at the life it fascimiles
The sun no longer rises over the desolate tundras of the material
And the sleep into which I desperately descend is void masquerading as reprieve
The axioms of ruin take hold; I will never awaken again

Music musings 4/22/22: My current binges

‘Music musings’ is a new little update I’ll likely start adding to this blog every month or two. Basically, it’s a guide to a handful of songs or bands/artists that I’m currently enjoying, what I think is good about them, and some further recommendations or notes on my part. Some of what you’ll see here, I may have reacted to on my channel, Nuclear Reactions, so spoilers ahead if you’re not up to date on my videos. While others, I’ve listened to privately, as I tend to do with a lot of black metal, for example. Anyway, here are some of my current binges.

Lena Scissorhands ft. Death Dealer Union – Borderlines

As I said in my recent reaction to this, “Borderlines” is the song of the year for me so far, and one of the best representations of Lena’s vocal talents. Not only are her cleans and harshes equally outstanding, but the melody and main chorus really deliver on the memorability and catchiness, something that I enjoyed so much I was nearly caught off guard by it, because this isn’t Infected Rain – it’s simply Lena collaborating with Death Dealer Union, a band I had previously never heard of, but one that I’ll certainly be checking out now.

The band itself provided me with a spectacular introduction to their craft on this song, with fast-paced, chugging riffs and drumming that really leans into both groove and power in the way that it’s done throughout the song. The song as a whole is a perfect combination of heavy and melodic, without either of those attributes being negatively affected or watered down by the other. As I’ve stated so often on my YouTube channel, it’s a delicate balance to strike, but when it’s done the right way, the payoff is immensely rewarding for the listener. This was definitely the case for me, or I wouldn’t have replayed this song about 20 times since I first heard it. The song, along with its music video, dropped about two weeks ago, and if you haven’t checked it out yet, set aside everything else you’re doing and go listen to it now.


Theotoxin – Somnus Profanus

I’ll be honest, the album artwork caught my attention before anything else. Theotoxin is a band that I’ve listened to a bit over the past year, but I had mostly forgotten about them during the last several months – not because the music wasn’t excellent, but because it simply got lost in the seemingly endless pile of music I consume. Sometimes things get buried, only to be rediscovered and enjoyed later on. But yeah, the photo of a nun with her head in a noose immediately stood out to me, and when I recognized the band name, “Somnus Profanus” was the first song I listened to a few nights ago, followed by every other song off that record, Consilivm, which was their second full-length, released in 2018.

Between the threshing, militant guitar riffage, the artillery fire blastbeats, and the harsh vocals defined by ferocity and delivered in roars and shrieks, “Somnus Profanus” is a mind ravaging, exhilarating, and appropriately hellish entry point into Theotoxin’s music. The song dances on the periphery of bestial black metal, but really goes full tilt into traditional black metal territory, with a twinge of death metal mostly represented by the percussion and vocals. Excellent stuff that I’ll be replaying for a while.


Yungblud – The Funeral

Speaking of ‘something different’ – let’s get completely away from metal for the moment with Yungblud, who put out this weirdly appealing gothy, semi-pop-punkish, 80s-esque song called “The Funeral.” I have to admit, I’ve never really sat down and listened to Yungblud’s solo work; I’d previously only ever heard him doing guest vocals with MGK or Bring Me The Horizon, and here he employs a completely different style of singing. He comes off like an eyeliner-wearing, modern version of Billy Idol with red hair, that familiar snarky pop punk attitude, and – perhaps most interestingly – the presence of Ozzy Osbourne in the official music video for “The Funeral.”

Look, there’s no way around it: the song is catchy as hell; it makes you almost instinctually bop your head whether you want to or not. So you can be a faux-unimpressed, judgmental metalhead all you want, folding your arms and frowning with uncertain trepidation – it’s going to fade about half a minute into this song, giving way to an almost mandatory sense of enjoyment for the cadence to which Yungblud sings and the contagiously melodic oddity that is the song itself.

Yungblud does the whole thing seemingly with tongue planted firmly in cheek, being ready for any and all haters with a bit of self-deprecation (see the end scene where Sharon Osbourne runs him over with her car, after which she and Ozzy dismiss him as a “poser”). The whole thing is good, bizarre, unexpected fun. Don’t take it too seriously, just let the music take over and do its thing, you won’t regret it.


Leviathan – The Smoke of Their Torment

Alright, in case I’ve scared anyone reading this away with the song above, let’s get back to some orthodox black metal. I’ve always said that this genre has a darkly spiritual quality for me; that its palpable black energies make me feel something beyond drug-like and almost euphorically astral. Certainly, Leviathan is up there with those bands that deliver on that for me, even though this one-man-band (Wrest does everything, vocally and instrumentally) has never directly professed a purposeful connection with the occult.

Leviathan is more so one of those bands that descends into an abyss of depressive thought and philosophy, misanthropic notions, and existential terror (at least, if you think about it long enough and dwell on the perceived meaningless of everything). There’s nothing deliberately in these songs about black magick, Satanism, or demonic evocation, but I’ve always felt that this band’s music is a superb choice for channeling inhuman spirits; something in Leviathan’s morbidity must attract those otherworldly energies that I find myself craving whenever I binge black metal.

While Leviathan has gone spiritual in the technical sense, playing with themes that are Lovecraft-adjacent (there’s a record called Tentacles of Whorror), most of its songs really do exemplify the aforementioned lyrical themes, with album titles like The Tenth Sub Level of Suicide and Unfailing Fall Into Naught. My personal favorite track at the moment, “The Smoke of Their Torment,” is an over 6-minute long song from the record Scar Sighted, released in 2015. The lyrics are sinfully vitriolic prose (“march toward wicked transformations, slither from mine pallet that I might maintain your living ash, consume them with your fire, rejoice”). The harsh vocals are nightmarish, agonized savagery, and the raw, caterwauling guitar is caustic enough to make the brimstone walls of Hell weep and sputter plumes of thick, black smoke. Highly recommended.


Honorable mentions:

Motionless In White – Masterpiece

Inverno – Hollow

Red Handed Denial – Cloud 9

Gaerea – Whispers

Absent In Body – Sarin

Gorlock – Used Hallucinations Baritone

Violet Orlandi – Don’t Fear The Reaper

Deicide – Kill the Light of Christ

Enslaved – The River’s Mouth

The Devils In Your Details - INTRODUCTION

 The Devils In Your Details

INTRODUCTION

The most noteworthy thing about this book ought to be the unexceptional status of its author. Unlike many authors who publish self-aggrandizing verbiage on life and all its wonder and meaning, I don’t hold any degrees in psychology or philosophy. I’m not a rock star whose very celebrity justifies the existence of my writing. I fully expect the collection of dead, tattooed trees you’re currently reading to be self-published, none too popular, and selling copies that don’t exceed the single digits. Oh, and that one positive review on Amazon you’ll probably see? It's likely that one of my friends wrote it. Wait…who am I kidding? My friends don’t read! Must be one of those Red Hot Chili Peppers fans trolling me again. (And I’ll explain that one in a later chapter.)

   But there’s a simple aphorism that underscores this book’s existence: Writers write. In fact, I can assure you that when they don’t write, they get up to all sorts of self-destructive distractions, ranging from having a finger in every pie (think of the calories!) to full-blown depression. In both cases, been there done that. The simple fact of the matter is that I really wanted to put down my thoughts and feelings in written form. If I could do that, the next step would be to get a few people to read them.

   I wanted to condense those thoughts and feelings down to something comprehensive; something centered around my outlook and personal philosophy, yet with enough objectivity to balance the anecdotal and the tangential with the rational and relatable. I wanted to write a book that might provide someone reading it with an actionable understanding of the world and society, albeit filtered through my own lens of moderate life experience and background.

   I firmly believe that there are two ways in which we process the passage of time in relation to our own wellbeing: we either strive continuously to better ourselves and our lives, or we go passively through the motions, only ever engaging in what’s fleeting, easy, and instantly gratifying. I’d like to embody the first example – and sometimes I do – but I fall victim to the habits I mentioned in the second all too often. We all do. Because those two ways of being do not represent a dichotomy; they are never mutually exclusive, and we play on either side of the spectrum at various moments in our lives. But damn it, we would like to do the striving more than the going through the motions, wouldn’t we? Actually, you’d be surprised at how many people would answer that question with a resounding “No.” Though perhaps even more would respond with a “Yes,” and it would be a lie.

   We live in a time where people generally want what’s easy and temporary, rather than what’s difficult and lasting. That alone is the fiercest argument my personal muse need make as to why I should go ahead and write this book. I want to properly elucidate how and why striving for a better life and a better self is so very important, and I’m asking you to take that journey through the pages with me and humor my self-indulgence. You might be surprised by how I temper it with moments of humility, humor, and insight that can be of benefit to myself as much as anyone else.

   From Carl Jung to comic books, Satanism to ‘Seitanism,’ and moral relativism to mimosas, this book could be seen as a back-alley, discount version of your favorite self-help New York Times bestseller, or as a veritable bible for the alternative, marginalized, countercultural layman – that all comes down to what my words mean to you. I know what they mean to me…or at least, I think I do. Somehow, I often seem to find that when I put my views down on paper, I discover things about myself to which I was previously ignorant. And that’s a large part of what this book is about: taking full accountability of oneself. Personal identity is a numbers game, and any slight miscalculation can wreak havoc on our lives.

   Bear in mind, of course, that I never set out to write something bogged down by lecturing, riddled with personal agendas, or defined by self-righteous finger wagging. I want the views and ideas that follow to be challenged by careful reflection and consideration, counterbalanced by the personal experiences and understandings of each individual reader, and concluding with the affirmation that I’m not perfect and I don’t have all the answers. Like all of us, I’m just muddling through. That in no way weakens or invalidates anything I have to say. On the contrary, it lends to it a greater sense of frankness and meaning than anything written by someone sheltered in an ivory tower, looking down to dictate to the masses.

   I don’t intend to sell you my version of life, nor would I want to encourage anyone to emulate my views or behavior just for the hell of it. Align yourself with what you read here only if it feels right for you, and just as importantly, continue to press on even when some of my statements or opinions raise your hackles or set you on the backs of your heels. Question and examine that resistance – there may be important lessons behind that feeling!

   And yet, even as I write this, I have to address the possibility that, rather than be caught up in a whirlwind of thoughts and emotions, you may still be wondering why you should feel or contemplate anything in regard to what I have to say. Bereft of college degrees, lofty titles, or endorsement quotes on this book’s back cover, it’s easy to dismiss any words I put forward here, and seeing as how I’d have the same reservations, I can’t really blame you if you do. We’ve been trained to believe that celebrity, academia, and politics are the primary parameters within which knowledge and wisdom ought to be espoused in written form. Yet many members of each of those categories may be cloistered by their own bubbles, unable to see beyond the blinders of their own cliques and echo chambers.

   Let’s not forget that for every Keith Richards, Richard Branson, Richard Dawkins, Obama, or Oprah, there’s someone out there with a name and face you don’t know who’s got a story to tell. It might be the homeless veteran on the street corner asking for change, or the man quietly birdwatching in the park. It could be the captain on your flight to New York or the stewardess handing you your complimentary snack. Hell, it could be the person you see looking back at you in the mirror, and that’s probably the best place to start. Everyone has a backstory, but few have the ability to tell it to a broad audience. Well, I’m no entrepreneur or television personality. I’ve been a passerby. A pedestrian. A peasant with an empty wallet, a sense of style, and strength of character, and I also just happen to be a writer. So I’m going to tell my story. If there’s some rule barring autobiographers who don’t fit a certain economic bracket, I’m breaking it. If my Instagram follower count doesn’t justify my self-importance in the eyes of petty people who count such things on an imaginary abacus and sit in judgment, tough shit.

   As I swivel about in my office chair, looking down at my cat for moral support and up at my favorite posters of Lemmy Kilmister and Cristina Scabbia for inspiration, I find myself recalling a moment that takes the point I was just trying to make and ties it all up into a nice, neat little bow.

   It happened back in 2007. I remember the year, because I saw Dark Funeral perform in Poughkeepsie, New York, at a show where I damaged my ribs in a mosh pit, trying to be the tough guy in foolish contradiction to my bony, 90-pound body. But this happened before that, and is entirely unrelated. I was waiting for a bus on Union Valley Road, in the town of West Milford, New Jersey. The bus shelter I sat in was small and innocuous as you’d expect, and it was a Saturday, so one could expect it to be frequented by bored teenagers en route to the local mall, and older New York transplants ready to begin their commute to work. It was rainy and rather late in the day, so it was occupied by neither. (I myself was on my way to visit some friends back in my hometown.)

   Within minutes, however, a highly eccentric looking old man approached, having exited the nearby Dunkin Donuts with his coffee in one hand. In his other was one of the most fascinating canes I’d ever seen. Its handle was shaped and painted to look like the head of some kind of bird of prey, perhaps a hawk or an eagle, and there was some kind of floral print on its staff – they might have been roses, I honestly can’t remember, but they were mixed in with a black, vine-like pattern. The whole thing was colored an unforgettable cherry mahogany. The man wasn’t so much leaning on it for support as he was letting the beak of its bird head rest on his wrist, so that it swung pendulously as he made his way to the bus shelter to sit down.

   Of the man’s physical appearance I don’t remember much, other than mid-length white hair and a bedraggled beard, and clothing that seemed new and well cared for. He also wore glasses with thick rims and yellow-tinted lenses; they sort of reminded me of something Jeff Goldblum would have rocked back in the 90s. You can imagine how unexpected all this might seem in the tiny ‘downtown’ area of a middle-class New Jersey exurb at one o’clock in the afternoon, especially when he looked nothing like the average person you’d see in such a place at any time of day.

   I do vividly recall that he wore a backpack adorned with sundry stickers and patches that seemed to represent a collection of travel souvenirs, bearing the names of different cities, states, and countries. I remember seeing Georgia, Montana, Niagara Falls, some kind of national park that seemed to be in a country below the equator (Los something or other), York Minster, and some other place that I knew at the time was in the UK but which I now no longer remember. After a few sips of his coffee, he set the backpack on the ground at his feet, pulled from its main compartment a book whose name eludes me (though the hardcover tome was old, thick, and weatherworn), and began reading, sparing not so much as the briefest of glances in the direction of the eighteen year-old goth/metalhead staring at him with total bemusement.

   Eventually, the NJ Transit 197 arrived and I boarded, and as I took my seat and glanced out the window, I came to a surprising realization: the old man hadn’t gotten on the bus. And that was the last I saw of him, continuing to read his book and sip his coffee as the only bus in town took off to its next destination. Somehow, that made him even more mysterious and fascinating in my mind. Why would such a man, clearly an out-of-towner with no car, enter a bus shelter with no intent of going anywhere? Especially someone as clearly well-traveled as his backpack indicated? Perhaps he was merely looking for someplace to sit and read, and the bus shelter proved the only reprieve from the spritzing rain. That seems the most likely explanation, yet as I sat aboard the 197 on the way to the next town, I don’t think I considered it. I was too ensorcelled by how starkly different that man had seemed, and through the onset of gathering clouds and the beating of raindrops against the bus window, one thing pierced the overcast backdrop to my journey and became abundantly clear: that man had stories to tell.

   As do I.

   I want this to be more than the culmination of my travels and experiences, however. I want this to provide the impetus for more of your own journeys. I want to set you on a path where you feel glory, not shame, in looking into a mirror and spending a few moments admiring the contours of your face. Where you cast aside your machismo in the face of an unpleasant situation and summon up the courage to tell a person they hurt your feelings. Where you stand with a collective while knowing why and for what purpose, rather than because you’re told it’s “correct” or that everyone else is doing it.

   A path where you use one hand to welcome and embrace someone who treats you with love and encouragement, and raise your other in firm opposition to people who seek to compound your own insecurities with admonishments or backhanded compliments. Where picking yourself up when you fall is a frequent and welcomed responsibility, not a desperate last resort associated with being at rock bottom. Where you replace poor self-esteem with unconditional self-worship, not thinly veiled narcissism.

   Yeah. The prose can get a bit grandiose like that at times. Never fear, because I err on the side of relatability, not pretentiousness. I won’t make the case for any self or life improvement “just because.” I’ll provide real stories, examples, and – I hope – fair and balanced rationales as to why it’s so important. This book isn’t intented to be dogmatic, but rather, pragmatic. The idea that life is something one can immediately and extraordinarily rewrite and reshape is one rooted in romanticization and hubris. The idea that one can take steps to make substantial and valuable differences in one’s life, however, is practical.

   I can assure you that I hold myself to my own set of high standards, and I believe any personal advice that follows will reflect those values. This also means that I’ll be dispensing with any impropriety when it comes to my personal stories and accounts. So while everything I have to say here will be as honest and committed to memory as I can make it, many names of people I mention will be changed in order to protect their privacy. As reassurance for anyone with doubts, I’ll detail my encounters and interactions with such people in a way that aims to communicate life lessons and nuggets of wisdom, not to tarnish reputations, drag folks from my past through the mud, or resurrect petty adolescent vendettas that were put to bed long ago. It is my intent that any stories I share in this book prove truthful and constructive, not malicious or libelous, and it’s my sincerest hope that any shades of subjectivity that color such anecdotes are seen for what they are, and not cast in a negative light by anyone reading this who might take umbrage with certain portrayals or characterizations.

   Is that a disclaimer of sorts? I suppose that it is, with the caveat that I’m not shirking any personal responsibility in the writing that follows, I’m only relinquishing any accountability for the actions of others whom I might mention in the pages to come. For too long I’ve tricked myself into carrying the burdens of those who readily place them upon my back, so that they might fly light as a feather, circling like vultures and anticipating that I’ll crumble under the pressure and collapse on the side of the road like so much carrion. No longer will I accept the stone thrown at me from someone else’s glass house, only for me to roll it up a hill in Hades in futile perpetuity. And the rejection of others’ dead weight is part and parcel of the self-empowerment message at the core of this book, so read on for further elaboration.

   Just know that in the context of this introduction, I’m making such declarations in order to highlight the harsh truths that I intend to include in my personal encounters with toxic people, many of which I’ll share in upcoming chapters for important and illuminating reasons. And the misdeeds, misdemeanors, and simple mistakes that lay therein will be apportioned precisely to the culprits responsible for them, not to the victims who took those hits, wore them like armor, and later transmutated them into powerful life experiences. If it’s true what they say, and there really is no rest for the wicked, then surely there can be no place for authors in the halls of slumber either, because there must always be someone with pen in hand to tally and transcribe those transgressions. In short, it’s time to write some wrongs.

   Of course, not all of my personal chronicles will be summaries of bad circumstances, bad people, or bad things. Quite the opposite, there will be a great deal of space given over to positive and life-building experiences, and to tie it all together, a conclusion reached as to why the good, bad, and morally gray all play a part in shaping and informing who we are, and how coming to terms with all these things can send us on a destiny run toward who we have the potential to be.

   You may know about the Chinese military treatise titled The Art of War. Well, unlike Sun Tzu, I’m only a writer and not a fighter, but I’m here to tell you that self-betterment is an art of its very own, much as is writing itself. Artists bear the exhilarating burden of being both Dr. Frankenstein and the Monster. We create and recreate new versions of ourselves each time we take steps to grow and evolve, but we often grapple with the very personal demons that we ourselves have contrived. The best part is that we can have total control over the versions of ourselves we create. We can revel in the extraordinary beast we unleash from within, or we can retreat into Mont Blanc out of shame and fear, unwilling to accept our true selves. Both the power and the burden lie simultaneously within us.

   I’ll wrap up this longwinded intro by stating that it’s my purest and paramount hope that people read this book, despite the obscurity of its central character. It’s my understanding that life is meant to be lived, and that its value not be expressed in quantities of money, popularity, or influence, but rather, fundamental understanding, knowledge, wisdom, feeling, and being. Life ought to be talked about and analyzed by someone doing the living, not the spending, acting, or virtue signaling. The real, on the ground, honest to goodness living. The steps to strength and success are built neither in lofty towers of wealth and greed, nor in bitter basements where visions are never shared, feelings are never expressed, and ideals are never strived for.

   Ultimately, you have to ask yourself if you prefer the illusion of power, or the true power that dwells in the self, waiting to be stirred up in a hurricane-like fury and brought to the surface, made manifest in all its fearsome glory. If you’re searching for the former, please set this book aside and resume your addiction to the fickle, inconsequential chump change offered by social media. If you seek out the latter, keep on reading.

   To borrow and utterly alter a quote from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein: We ought to seek happiness in tranquility, but never, ever avoid ambition.

Tuning out of ‘toons: Why I don’t watch animation


Though there are a handful of exceptions, I normally don’t watch cartoons, anime, or any other form of animation. Whether in television or film, I almost always opt out of being a part of that experience. In what would perhaps appear to some as a direct contradiction to that, I really enjoy comics, some manga, and actually sketching and drawing characters – both in the comic book form and – years ago – even in the anime/manga style. After learning of my lack of interest in animation, many friends and acquaintances have asked me the simple, resounding question of, “Why?”

This blog post is my answer to that question, and a deeper explanation for my reasoning. But first, I should say that this was not the case during my childhood or teen years. I still remember The Lion King being the first film I ever saw as a child, and have memories of my mother walking with me to the theater at night in the next town over in New Jersey. I grew up watching the Spider-Man, X-Men, and Batman animated series, and those first two especially drove my enormous interest in the superhero genre and comics in general from a young age. I later got into anime, going through various phases in which I watched Pokemon, Digimon, Yu-Gi-Oh!, InuYasha, and Dragon Ball Z.

This led to a strong interest in manga, and whenever I could I would pick up volumes of One Piece, Hellsing, and Rave Master. I also really got into Ghost in the Shell. This led to me drawing manga, and I first envisioned what is to eventually become my series of fantasy novels as – at that time – a series of manga. I was 14 at the time, and I had drawn my main characters complete with big, colored hair and giant weapons. I even had a few issues of Shonen Jump back around 2003, 2004. It actually looked like I was on a real trajectory to get massively into anime and manga, but then something happened to derail that path.

I started reading fantasy novels. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (despite reading The Hobbit many times as a kid, I did not read these books until about age 12 or 13). Rowling’s Harry Potter. Harry Turtledove’s Darkness series. Terry Brooks’ The Elfstones of Shannara. I had always loved reading books, even before I regularly watched animated series, and I had always loved fantasy. Now, the traditional written word and the fictional worlds of epic fantasy were colliding together for me in a way that just perfectly clicked. The deal was sealed on one night I’ll always remember: it was around 3 in the morning, and I was finishing Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, reading the part where Harry grieves and rages over the loss of his godfather, Sirius Black. The character-driven emotion hit me just the right way, and it was then that I decided I wanted to be a fantasy writer; but of novels, not of manga (my desire to write superhero comics, however, would persist).

For whatever reason, I drifted away from watching anime as I got older and became more focused on music and my busy social life in a new town I had moved to. And anyway, I ended up not having access to TV for about 6 years while I was living in poverty. When I tried to come back to it later, around age 20 or so, something in me had changed, and the things I realized I had liked about animated shows years before were rooted in less mature things; as a kid I just wanted to see giant muscled heroes, dragons, monsters, fighting robots, and things blowing up. An important bit of clarity: this isn’t to say that I found anime to be immature – I’m well aware that it’s a fine medium with plenty of mature, sophisticated, and intelligent content available.

But you’ll notice that the animation I watched as a teen doesn’t necessarily fall into that category. I liked the anime I liked because I thought it was cool to see Dragon Ball Z’s Piccolo chop an alien in half with his hand, or watch Vegeta pummel someone into a bloody pulp. Or watch Egyptian gods blast out of playing cards and obliterate each other on Yu-Gi-Oh! So when people bring up the very correct point that there’s so much animation out there that is about so much more than that – stories that are deep, nuanced, and have real powerful, engaging themes – I completely understand, but it’s not what drove me to watch animation during that time of my life. And I had a sort of epiphany: that while I liked seeing drawings in comic books and manga, and loved drawing in general, when it came to ‘moving pictures’, animation was simply not the medium that I preferred.

Now that I had entered adulthood, I obviously watched shows and films for a different reason, and I wanted good storytelling, powerful characterization, interesting and resonant commentary, etc. And I still loved action and gratuitous violence, but on a more refined level – I came to appreciate the cinematic art and choreography and special effects associated with scenes of fighting or even horrific violence. I enjoyed the 2003 The Texas Chainsaw Massacre scenes because I liked watching the great use of practical effects to depict all the gore and savagery. When I entered my 30s, I liked John Wick because of how excellent and attention-to-detail the fight choreography was. And so on and so forth.

Objectively speaking, I could look at anime – those for kids, teens, adults, or all of the above – and respect and appreciate the talent that went into it, but I always preferred to see the mastery of traditional drawing on paper, not a TV screen. Live action just felt more immediate and immersive to me, whereas with animation, I more so felt like I was just watching things happen rather than feeling engaged in it. It isn’t that I don’t have a strong enough suspension of disbelief – I’m an artist and writer, of course I do – I think it was more that I was just not willing; that I chose not to suspend my disbelief when it came to animated shows or films, because I just didn’t feel the ‘pull’ to sit and pay close enough attention to it. At the end of the day, I realized a simple fact: it just wasn’t to my taste.

And that’s really it, guys. It’s nothing much more complex than that. Some people just can’t get into films that are in black and white. Some people can’t sit and watch films in different languages, even with subtitles, it just drives them crazy. Some people (myself included) can’t get into musicals. Or westerns. Or romance. It really does just come down to what tickles your fancy and in what taste something comes across to your palate. Certainly there’s an argument to be made for someone to be well rounded and cultured, but at the end of the day, we’re still all unique individuals with our own preferences – in everything from artistic medium to genre to presentation.

See, I wasn’t watching anime because I specifically wanted to gravitate toward it. I could have been watching live action series, but many of those were too deep and complex for me to understand or fully absorb at that age, and I wouldn’t discover them until my late teens/early adulthood. But I watched shows like Dragon Ball Z because they were the closest I could get to something edgy, violent, and bloody. At that time I wanted to push boundaries and experience things that were extreme and visceral, and when I was young I wasn’t allowed to watch horror films or very violent action films (I managed to sneak a few in anyway, but that’s another story for another time). If I could have gotten my hands on something live action that had a real level of violence and attitude, I probably would have jumped ship and swam away from animation that much sooner.

There are some exceptions. I might someday watch an episode of Spider-Man: The Animated Series or Batman: The Animated Series for pure fun and nostalgia (and the latter certainly had mature themes, as we know). And I did watch What If? with my girlfriend, and quite enjoyed some of it. Though even with that show, there were moments where I thought Thor looked a bit too much like a Disney prince, or the way the characters were running came across as bouncy and wobbly in an unintentionally comedic way. But as with any medium – even live action – animation has its limits. And rather than think less of it or disparage it, I instead appreciate all the work and skill that goes into animation studios, and the artists and animators who continue to push the boundaries of that particular art form to make it more memorable, engaging, and sometimes even atypical compared with what we’re used to seeing. I didn’t just appreciate What If? because it was Marvel, I liked that it was well-drawn and the graphics rose above my expectations to provide an experience that actually was engaging for me.

And while this is proof that somewhere out there, there’s likely some other animation that will have that same effect on me, I don’t have the time or interest level to sift through dozens of different animated series in order to find that one, special gem. If it finds me one day, great, I’m here for it. But I wanted to clear the air and better elucidate my thoughts and perspective on this, because anyone who thinks that because I may not enjoy most animation, that then means that I don’t respect or appreciate it, is simply wrong or misinformed. In fact, part of being open minded and cultured is having the ability to see the merits of something, even that which we may not subjectively find enjoyable or compelling.

Ultimately, I actually owe quite a bit to the animated form. It represents the absolute roots of many of my later interests – everything from comic book art to fantasy writing. And my nostalgia for much of it will always be a part of me. But in this day and age when there is just so much out there in the great, wide world of shows, films, and other story formats, I have to choose what I gravitate toward and what naturally pulls me in and makes me feel a plethora of emotions and ideas. As of now, animation – for the most part – simply isn’t part of it. But I’m glad it’s a part of the great, big tapestry that is the world of fictional stories and imagination. The arts would be a lesser place without it, and this writer may have never pursued his dreams otherwise.

Danny DeVito: “My mother used to shrink me and trap me in a jar”

When Danny DeVito arrived for this interview Monday morning, he did so holding a cup of coffee and a rain-soaked magazine over his head, shaking off the January chill. The magazine he held was an issue of Country Living, a special edition titled “Big Ideas for Small Spaces.” That title is particularly triggering for DeVito, whose childhood was marked by witchcraft, shame, and torment. “You get to a place where you finally feel like you’re okay – like you’re managing,” he said. “And then you see a simple magazine and your life is upended.”

DeVito’s 51-year career would seem outwardly successful, his public life positive and uncontroversial. However, lurking beneath the surface is a lifetime of emotional turmoil. Today DeVito decided to come clean in this shocking tell-all. The decision was not made lightly. “I questioned even coming here,” he said. “But then I opened my mailbox and found this,” – he shook rain droplets off his copy of Country Living – “and that was the last straw.”

His young life in Asbury Park, New Jersey seemed perfectly normal to outsiders. But his mother was hiding a dark secret. “She was a witch,” he said. “She came from a notorious group of Italian sorcerers and wanted to raise me into the life. When I refused, things got bad.” When asked for specifics, DeVito began to choke up. 

His reply came in short bursts of sobbing speech. “She had this…special way of punishing me when
ever I refused to go along with her devious penchant for witchery. She would shrink me and place me inside a jar. She’d seal the jar up and leave me there for hours. Once, she put a spider outside the jar just to terrify me further. I was afraid it would get into the jar somehow and eat me.”

For most, the idea of a Hollywood actor with a household name stuck inside a jar, banging fruitlessly on the glass and howling for help, would seem hard to believe. DeVito insists it’s what happened, and he has carried the trauma with him well into his adult life. “I gotta tell you,” he said, “when I first went on set to start filming Twins, I thought Arnold Schwarzenegger was gonna eat me. I saw those big Austrian jaws, that 'I eat nails for breakfast' smile, and I just thought, ‘I’m done. It’s all over for me.’ In a heartbeat, flashbacks of that spider, tapping away on the outside of my jar, just came spilling back into my head. I freaked out, man. I freaked out.”

His story did not end in tragedy. At the age of 18, he was finally able to leave his home and pursue a career in acting. Though his mother attempted to cast another spell, DeVito dodged the blast of shrinking energy on his way out the door. It was the difference between freedom and slavery; normal size and micro size. “I think if I didn’t pack a bag and run right then and there, she might have kept me in the jar forever.”

Today, DeVito is a new man. “I’ve been seeing a therapist, and I haven’t been shrunk since I left home. But sometimes I think it was my fault. Sometimes I look in the mirror and I feel like I deserve the jar.” It has certainly been an uphill battle for the actor, but he has resolved to never give up. “The real blow came when I did some research and found that I’m not the only one who had to live like that. People are shrunk every day throughout the world, but it’s never talked about because we don’t see these people. We probably step on them on our way into the kitchen, we shred them when we mow the lawn.”

Now, DeVito dedicates the part of his life not associated with acting, to seeking justice. “I’m sticking up for the little guy, literally. I want every little squirt banging away inside their parent’s jar, thinking all hope is lost, to know that there’s always tomorrow. Through our pain, but also through our perseverance, we are all connected, together as one. It’s a small world after all.”

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Balloon animals facing extinction

“If we don’t act now, the balloon animal population is going to pop.” This was the urgent message of Rubberto Pagliacci, Executive Director of the Balloon Animal Defense Agency & Broader Organization for Objective Management (BADA-BOOM). His words come at a time when balloon animals worldwide are on the verge of extinction. Pagliacci was very sad, and attributes the massive drop in balloon animal production to the pandemic currently sweeping the globe.

“Notice I said production,” said Pagliacci. “Because the problem with balloon animals is they cannot naturally reproduce. They must be made, and the many embattled clowns currently out of work due to the pandemic are unable to fill this sudden and steep deficit. Due to social distancing rules, they are unable to perform at children’s birthday parties, and many have simply been fired because they are unable to fill balloon animal quotas. There has also been a recent bout of asthma throughout the clown community, rendering many of them unable to blow up new animals even at their homes.”

Even worse, some say that balloon animals kept in people’s houses will not solve the problem. “They won’t last long,” said Kirk Du Soleil, Director of the BADA-BOOM Animal Welfare Division. “Balloon animals do not fare well when kept in captivity, and should float freely in the wild where they belong. We’ve seen historically that balloon animals kept in cages at carnivals have developed severe emotional problems. They are not pets, and sooner or later one of them is going to explode.”

“It’s a massive problem,” said Pagliacci. “Right now, the balloon animal population is numbered at around one to two hundred, and even those numbers are inflated. Anyone who argues that this issue is being exaggerated is simply full of hot air.”

One of those very critics is Ron Helium, a staff writer for Balloon Benders’ Weekly. He claims the balloon animal population will not only survive, but will experience a resurgence when clowns start getting vaccinated and return to work. “Organizations like BADA-BOOM want people to donate money to them, so they make outlandish claims like this to stir up fear, when in reality this whole balloon animal issue is simply being blown out of proportion.”

Pagliacci refutes these claims, and warns that there is dangerous historic precedent for the likelihood that balloon animals will simply vanish forever. “Remember what happened to the ancient balloon people,” he said sternly. “The balloon sapiens were a powerful race who once flourished throughout the world, in all shapes, sizes, and colors, competing with homo sapiens for dominance. Then, with the beginning of the industrial era, they all floated away from the Earth, never to be seen again.”

Kirk Du Soleil agreed, stating, “If we don’t do something soon, balloon animals won’t be here in another 10 to 20 years. Humanity will descend into utter chaos, and eventually collapse. Ignoring this issue is like taking a needle to the whole planet. Sooner or later, it’s going to burst.”

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National Guard to deploy fleet of Tom Cruises to enforce mask wearing

In a Friday interview with Mann Commandly, chief of the National Guard Bureau, the press learned that the military reserve force is taking additional measures to ensure the safety of the public during this pandemic. Most prominent among these includes a decision to deploy a fleet of Tom Cruises to enforce the wearing of face masks. The choice was made after a particularly angry Tom Cruise successfully intimidated an entire film set into donning the protective cloths, as well as committing to social distancing and joining a popular cult. 

Though the Joint Chiefs of Staff initially considered the undertaking an impossible mission, they later learned that the Church of Scientology can readily produce as many as 500,000 Tom Cruises, ready to be deployed at a moment’s notice. “We actually began this effort back in ’87, when we initiated the Tom Cruise Cloning Project,” said church leader Cosmo Spacely. “Back then, we had minted an initial set of 100 Tom Cruises, to great critical acclaim and success. When we released them into nature, they quickly became productive members of society who ensured the safety of the American people, and enticed the public to support our humble little religion.”

When asked about one malfunctioning Tom Cruise, however, Spacely proved to be evasive. The faulty Cruise in question generated controversy back in 2019, when it could be seen screaming from the top of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. The Cruise had scaled the massive building, hammering erratically on windows during its ascent and putting a fright in residents of the building. “Look,” said Spacely, “that’s all based on hearsay and when that Cruise was retrieved and returned to our factory, we saw no signs that it was defective. We’re convinced it was putting on some sort of performance act for an upcoming film.”

Some Tom Cruises had entered the testing phase last week, and could be seen flying over major U.S. cities, scanning the streets below for anyone in violation of mask wearing policies. “One of them reprimanded me personally for wearing my mask beneath my nose,” said Kay D. Homes, a Los Angeles restaurant worker and aspiring actress. “It was really quite something, and it taught me the value of Scientology – I mean, mask wearing. After I’d pulled up my mask, the Cruise exclaimed, ‘Woo!’ and flew off toward the Griffith Observatory. These Cruises are American patriots and I look forward to seeing them throughout our country.”

National Guard Bureau chief Commandly says the fleet could be deployed in full as soon as Monday. “We’ve had great results,” he said. “I’ve been given some sort of book on Dianetics which I’m told will help me fully understand the ultimate mission of the Tom Cruise collective. It will be looked over by the President next week as we roll out this campaign to establish the mass wearing of masks. The Church of Scientology will be working with us to ensure the success of this great undertaking. Honestly, I couldn’t be happier about it.”

The original Tom Cruise is expected to formally make the announcement this Sunday, when he will attend a charity fundraising webinar for the Church at a furniture store in Brooklyn. Called the Cruise Couch Dance-Off, it is expected to attract celebrities including Oprah and Joe Pesci. Viewers will attend online through a link provided by the Fun Good Time Scientology Club via Facebook.

“I really want a lot of people to attend,” Cruise said in a Tweet last week. “Are you dedicated to ending this pandemic and ensuring the domination of the Church of Scientology over our nation? Then show me the money!”

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Home of the bookless: Why don’t Americans read?

It’s long been my personal belief that you can ascertain the overall intellectual makeup of a populace by determining its literacy rate. The majority of people I’ve known who are in my age range (I’m 31, at the time of writing) either show no interest in reading, have never read books for pleasure, or believe that reading is a waste of time. That being said, it varies by area. My home town in New Jersey, along with its surrounding area, was readerless more often than not; the closest book stores were in other towns closer to the city, and the local library was often empty save for people using the Internet. Conversely, in Chicago, there are six bookstores in my neighborhood alone.

It isn’t just a matter of book availability, however. According to demographics obtained by the Pew Research Center, 26 percent of Americans say they have not read a book in the past year, whether in paper, electronic, or audio form. That might not seem like much, but it’s quite a significant number, and an increase from a prior Pew survey in 2011. This means that more and more U.S. citizens are choosing not to read, and it’s a bit disturbing. But let’s move on, and take a look at the people in this country who can’t read, as well as those who have a hard time of it.

As a study conducted by the U.S. Department of Education and the National Institute of Literacy found, 32 million adults in the U.S. don’t know how to read. 32 million. That’s one in seven grown men and women in this nation. Meanwhile, 21 percent of adults read below a fifth grade level, and 19 percent of high school graduates cannot read. The literacy rate in this country has not improved since then; it’s actually taken a turn for the worse. The ripple effect of illiteracy is fraught with its own growing problems. According to the Department of Justice, “the link between academic failure, violence, and crime is welded to reading failure.” As confirmation of that statement, here’s another stat for you: 70 percent of America’s prison inmates cannot read above a fourth-grade level.

On the other hand, let’s take a look across the pond. European countries – particularly in Scandinavia – have much higher literacy rates than Americans do, and people there are much more likely to do it for enjoyment or as a frequent hobby. In Norway, Finland, and Luxembourg, 100 percent of the population is literate. Slovakia, my family’s home country, has a literacy rate of 99.6 percent. That beats out the 86 percent rate for the U.S., based on data collected in a 2013 survey by the U.S. Department of Education. Slovenia, Estonia, Belarus, Ukraine – these places also have impressively high literacy rates. In other words, each of these countries I’ve mentioned has more people per capita who know how to read than does the U.S.

This blog post is not meant to be an attack on the country in which I live or its citizens. And yet, I can’t deny that I’m incredibly embarrassed and disappointed, as well as worried about the intellectual future of a society in which people don’t know when the Declaration of Independence was signed, think Christopher Columbus discovered America, can’t tell you where the Panama Canal is, who Julius Caesar was, or name the capital of their own state. Most infuriating about this all is that things were not always this way. There has been a significant dumbing down of U.S. culture over the past several decades. In 1960, the illiteracy rate here was 2.4 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. Now it’s 14.

According to journalist Charles Pierce, who wrote Idiot America, “the rise of idiot America today represents the breakdown of a consensus that the pursuit of knowledge is a good. It also represents the ascendancy of the notion that the people whom we should trust the least are the people who best know what they’re talking about.” This is very much in line with reality, with people left and right (no political allusions intended) claiming that “climate change is a hoax,” or “the moon landing was faked.” To say nothing of the Flat Earthers, the “Targeted Individuals," the New World Order fanatics, so on and so forth. We are living in a scary time, in which scientific fact is disregarded by a portion of the populace who do not understand it, or who are simply incapable of doing so. I mean, when people believe that space travel never happened, that carbon dating is “wrong,” and that there’s no such thing as evolution, how can one possibly argue or reason with a person like that?

There’s no getting around it; the fact that so many people cannot, will not, do not read, plays an enormous role in ignorance and lack of education. 18 percent of Americans believe that the sun revolves around the Earth. During Obama’s term as president, 29 percent of U.S. citizens could not identify Joe Biden as the vice-president. 56 percent of Americans think that vaccinations cause autism.

We should not aspire to ignorance. We should aspire to being well-read, to being informed, and to conducting ourselves with logic and discernment. We should hone our skills of research and reasoning, to act upon facts and rational thought, not emotional triggers, prejudice-based conclusions, or conspiratorial groupthink. We should crave knowledge, not shun it in favor of regressive macho, know-nothing mentalities. However, at the risk of being controversial, I would add that my generation in particular – those “Millennials” who so many older folks see as being so advanced and forward-thinking, are major contributors to The Ignorance Problem. They’ve become too engrossed in their smartphones, too welded to social media, too reliant upon Google. They’re accustomed to instant gratification, which has too often replaced their self-reliance and the impetus to sharpen proper analysis and investigation skills.

I’ve said this time and again, but I encourage people to open a book. Whether it’s Shakespeare or Neil Gaiman. Whether it’s a novel or a comic book. Whether it’s a technical manual or a book on language. Whether it’s fiction or non. Whether it’s a story or poetry. A single book or a series of novels. Fan-fiction or song lyrics. Anything. Don’t be like one of the ignorance-addled characters in Fahrenheit 451; be like the man who wrote it. Remember: The only knowledge that can hurt you is the knowledge you don’t have.