Cosmic Boner

7 Nov

By the time you read this, we will know the results of the 2012 presidential election. Depending on the way you choose to view the world, you are either elated, inconsolable, or merely relieved. You are doubtless nursing a murderous hangover.

In the event that Obama has won–as is being widely though tentatively predicted at the time of this writing–we can read the victory as a kind of stopgap solution to some very serious problems we have created for ourselves over the last fifty years. This time around, there will have been no clear, compelling mandate for Change; no irrational, starry-eyed Hope that one man can redraw the landscape of global politics. In the absence of these loony, half-baked ideals, there will be only a cynical, lowercase-h hope that we have elected a leader who can keep the evangelist crazies at bay, improve the unemployment numbers, and maybe not embarrass us too badly on the world stage. We will have forfeited real change and an aspiration to greatness for stability and competence. And maybe that’s a good thing.

In the event that Romney has pulled off the upset, the narrative will shift from the old saw of “staying the course” to a referendum on states’ rights and small government, hitched to prosaic, meaningless slogans like “fiscal responsibility” and “energy independence.” Corporate greed, corporate personhood, religious pandering, veiled racism, fear and revulsion of women, and what I consider to be a perverse and spiritually destructive form of social conservatism, will have carried the day.

Oh sure, as I write this, on the eve of the election, as my hometown Philadelphia Eagles are being systematically dismantled by the New Orleans Saints, I do hope the black guy wins–not because I am particularly inspired by the policies of the Obama administration, but for the simple reason that if we gave two terms to a simian court jester like George W. Bush and his cabal of wealthy, world-class fuck-ups, then surely we can find it in our hearts (if not our brains) to give the Constitutional law scholar with the impossibly uplifting backstory another four years to set things sorta-right.

But that’s all water under the bridge as of this morning, and my purpose here is not to wax political about things I can neither fathom nor clearly elucidate, but to revisit the specific set of circumstances that allowed Obama to take office in the first place, which is also the year that I published my first story.

Remember 2008? I do. I remember it being winter and having to ask my parents for money to buy a new coat. I remember one night sitting on the floor of the apartment I shared with my then-girlfriend, surrounded by manuscripts and cigarettes and faulty, mismatched electronics, like some kind of crazy person, and cradling my head in my hands and wondering aloud: “Am I for real?” The same night this charming photograph of a man on top of the world was taken:

But then, as I have often found happens when life kicks just enough shit in your face that you say, “OK, that’s it, I’m cashing out my chips and moving to Maine and joining a hippie commune,” the Universe throws you a bone–not a big bone, not like the turkey drumsticks you get at the state fair, but a bone with just enough meat on it to keep you going. The very next day I received this letter in the mail. I read that first paragraph–

Thank you for offering your work to Kennesaw Review. We would like to publish your story “Fiends.”

–and didn’t quite know how to react. I had become so inured to failure and rejection that I lacked the wherewithal to properly celebrate a victory, however small. I didn’t do anything as drastic as scream from the rooftops or chug a bottle of wine; I paced around the kitchen for a few minutes, put the letter carefully back into the envelope, and put the envelope in a drawer, as if it were a thing of great power or magic that I didn’t wish to upset. I think I might have called my friend Melissa. Then I went right back to working on whatever silly thing I was working on at the moment.

That was a good year for me. I had a job I had not yet begun to hate, an office overlooking Carson Street where I was able to write without constantly having a glass in my hand, a girlfriend who I genuinely liked but probably did not love, and for the first time in my life I felt like I was part of a community, like I belonged somewhere. The out-of-left-field Obama campaign, with its unprecedented grassroots support and impressive ability to speak to Americans as if they were actual high-functioning adults, provided for me an apparatus of faith, of sorts, something I could root for besides the God-damned Philadelphia Eagles, and which enhanced this feeling of belonging, of hope.

On the night of the election, I finished work early, went home, drank a beer in the shower, and walked a block and a half to Tiki Lounge, the Hawaiian-themed bar where, in coming months, I would begin to spend just a bit too much time. My girlfriend had just turned 21; I found her in a booth with a couple of mutual friends, and I slid in beside her, never knowing that she was already hatching her escape plan from me, drawing up secret strategies to get me the fuck out of her life and apartment. As I gleefully watched the returns roll in (He took Indiana! Iowa! Ohio!) I rubbed my girlfriend’s bald head for luck. “Remember this moment,” said I, the wizened, weathered 28-year-old barista who had voted in all of one election in his life, “because you are probably never going to see anything like this again.”

And I stand by that statement. Because–and I may just be seeing this through a gauzy film of alcohol and Aderrall–that shit was fucking crazy. People were driving around Southside blaring their car horns, dancing in the streets like the Steelers had just won the AFC. Later that night, as Obama was preparing to take the stage in Chicago, a fight broke out between two of my friends with, shall we say, grossly disparate political views. The bartender came out from behind the bar, got between them and said: “Not here, not tonight. We’re all family here.” And as sickeningly corny as this sounds, I really did feel that way–not just about the people in the bar, or on the streets, or in Pittsburgh or America at large, but about the whole world: we were family–a feeling that was at once purely insane and eminently, elementally sane. The seemingly endless stream of pictures I saw on The Huffington Post the next day–of people from far-out, theoretical places like Bolivia and New Zealand waving American flags in celebration of an election result that had nothing and everything to do with them–confirmed this view.

So we return to the basis of this post, my acceptance letter from the Kennesaw Review. Life didn’t really change for me after that acceptance–I was still the same miserable, ridiculous, perfectionist person as before, disappointed with the aesthetic presentation of the story, and the prose wasn’t edited at all–but at least now I had something to hang my hat on, something of substance to write in my cover letters; I had a publication credit. Later that year I would publish a story with the much-higher-pedigree Berkeley Fiction Review, who would go on to nominate my work for a Pushcart Prize, and I would publish a few more stories, and write a couple of novels, all of it culminating in the fulfillment of a decade-long goal, the signing of a contract with a bona fide literary agent. And yet, as I write this, four years later, there remains a disappointing emptiness, a sense of ambition unfulfilled; a feeling that things might have gone a bit differently, a bit better for me, if maybe I’d had a little more balls; pushed harder, read a few more books; if maybe I’d put down the wine glass every now and then.

And that’s kind of how I feel about Obama’s first term. Tomorrow I will cast my vote for a guy who has continuously–and at times, it seems, spitefully–let me down with drone strikes and bailouts and watered-down legislation and withering silence and battles left unfought. But I think there’s enough there in the tank–student loan forgiveness and health-care reform leap to mind–to justify a second term, a chance to make good on whatever ridiculous promises he somehow hoodwinked us into believing…just as I feel that as a writer I’ve done enough, and just enough, to keep plugging away at this stupid dream. In the final assessment, that’s really all anyone can ask for, what it’s All About: the gift of a little more time.

Or it could go the other way. No matter what has already happened, I can’t help but think everyone will go on drinking and fighting as before, keep hoping for that next cosmic bone.

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3 Responses to “Cosmic Boner”

  1. Eric November 7, 2012 at 4:40 pm #

    Before you started talking about the not-a-rejection-I’m-here-under-false-pretenses letter, I thought that, just perhaps, you were not the author of “Fiends” and that – just perhaps – this was a truly cruel rejection letter, letting you know that someone else had placed their work, showing you how nice it could have been.

    Anyways, post-script, I read these things in the hopes that I find out that I’m doing quite well – at least relatively – and am not sure that I’m comfortable reading about your success. False advertising, friend. A tiny betrayal.

    • martinslag November 7, 2012 at 4:48 pm #

      There will be plenty of failure and rejection for you to feast on in coming months…this I promise. I guarantee, your schadenfreude will not go unsated.

      • Eric November 7, 2012 at 4:50 pm #

        Bitter tastes don’t make great appetizers. You owe me some misery!

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