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The Bend

My body ripped up at a ninety-degree angle, my eyes popping open, hearing what sounded like a freight train. Brian was asleep, his rucksack propping his head up like some 1930s Depression-era freight train hopper. If Dorthea Lange were here, she’d have gotten a good photograph.

The train whistle throbbed, that loud, wheedling wail. How could Brian sleep through this? Because he was used to it. He’d been doing this for fifteen years. I’d been “on the road” for three months, tired and dirty and in some deep existential quagmire.

I’d met Brian in New York—Buffalo—drunk, stumbling up the lonely streets trying to find the abandoned park at four A.M. where I’d stowed my pack, when I’d nearly knocked the guy off the sidewalk. An exchange of words, some drunk yammering, bitter feelings, and then blam: I’d woken up the next morning in his garage, early sunlight piercing the darkness like a baby beginning to exit the womb, seeing the world for the first time.

I’d asked Brian to hitchhike west with me and, to my astonishment, he’d agreed to come. Now, a mere week later, after a few days hitching across the USA, we were here, hiding out at “The Bend,” the spot in North Portland where the train tracks bent around a sharp turn and the trains went slow enough that you could hop one.

The heavy whistle blew again and I saw the fat, yellow headlight from the first car of the train. Watching these Titanics of the railroad was fascinating. It was highly illegal and very prosecutable by law. The “yard bulls,” train cops, had the right to beat the crap out of you. I’d heard stories about severed limbs, death.

Ahead of us, to the immediate north, was a fork in the tracks, one track veering left, one right. There was a track switch sitting in the middle. A sign saying, “DANGER: HIGH ELECTRIC CURRENT.”

The train appeared suddenly from around the bend, maybe a hundred yards east, chugging. The incredibly loud crunch of steel wheels rolling ruggedly on tracks began to pump and purr and pop.

“Brian,” I tried again, but he only mumbled something indecipherable.


The train whistle blew through my fear and anxiety. I was twenty-six years old. Brian was in his early 30s and a world more experienced than me. I was an intense dude, a burgeoning writer, but very white, very middle-class, and very American, in all the senses of the word. Brian was blue-collar Middle America and an expert in the seductive life of the crime underworld. He’d run away at fifteen and had never looked back, hopping freight trains, stealing copper from warehouses and selling it. He knew things. I respected and also feared him.

The train gained. I roughly shook Brian’s shoulder. “Brian!”

He woke up with a scare, his body shooting into a forty-five degree angle, confusion wrenching itself on his face.

“What is it?” He said.

“Listen,” I said.

The train whistle blew harder than hell. We could actually feel the rumble of the ground as the massive beast approached, as if God were letting us know what he could do. Brian scruffed onto his knees and peered over the brush, his eyes barely over the rim.

“Shit,” he said. “That’s our train. I’ll hop first. Follow me. Wait for my signal.”

My heart began beating harder, like the train’s approaching wheels clacking on metal and the sound of that pounding, pumping, pummeling whistle, announcing the arrival of Zeus.

Before we knew it the head of the train came right at us, the headlight gigantic and all encompassing.

“Get down!” Brian hissed.

A few things up front. First, I’m more or less neutral on Joe Rogan. If you don’t know who Joe Rogan is: Where have you been living for the past decade? He is a mega-popular podcaster, comedian, TV personality, actor, fitness guru of sorts. He has something close to 13 million subscribers, and over 2 billion views. He hosts The Joe Rogan Experience. Of course I’ve heard the hubbub about Rogan for years now; on the left he is a right-wing fascist who is in the old-school Gen-X/Early Boomer mold. On the right he is more or less considered some form of hero. He has been a trailblazer in podcasting and has been foremost in draining followers from traditional media and TV. He recently switched to Spotify for a ludicrous amount of money.

Rogan has dialogued and debated with all kinds of people, from Jordan Peterson to Alex Jones to Douglas Murray to, yesterday (11/7/2022), the right-wing commentator Matt Walsh. Walsh writes at The Daily Wire, which I do not subscribe to. Walsh has recently become semi-famous and embroiled in a political controversy over his Daily Wire documentary, What is a Woman?, wherein he basically wanders the country asking trans people this very basic question. I have not seen the film. I admit to being cautiously curious. Probably I will watch it soon.

This interview from yesterday with Walsh—episode #1895—is three hours and eight minutes long. (Much of the appeal in contemporary times of podcasts versus legacy media is the fact that you can have authentic, in-depth conversations which don’t seek click-bait mini-sound bites but rather foster genuine dialogue.) For the record I am a big podcast listener. My favorites are 1. The 5th Column; 2. Sam Harris (Making Sense); 3. Bill Maher; 4. Coleman Hughes. (Not necessarily in that order.) Podcasts, in my opinion, are far superior to traditional 24-hour media because hosts can discuss whatever they want and fairly honestly, at least more so than say CNN or MSNBC. Of course many pods have advertisers which certainly must limit, to some degree, what can safely be said or not. (With the exception of The 5th Column and Sam Harris, who do not have ads.)

I don’t want to get too into the weeds in this post about either Joe Rogan himself or Matt Walsh. But I did find a few things interesting about the interview. Besides being a Substack writer and developmental book editor, I also walk dogs on the side, and I walked three dogs in a row while listening to the discussion between these two men.

My first observation is that Walsh seemed to be pretty vague in general. Full disclaimer, I myself identify as a center-left free-thinking contrarian, skeptic, critical thinker. I’ve only ever voted for Democrats my whole voting history, and I’m including not only national but regional and local races. So that should tell you something. Since 2016—basically since Trump’s rise to power—I have become totally unmoored from the Republican side. They seem to have more or less lost contact with sanity and reality once Trump rattled everyone’s political and cognitive cages like the wild gorilla he is. Being a classical liberal has never been less popular than now, at least as displayed by the major news media.

QUOTE: Rogan: “There’s not a compromise in gay men that want to be married, love and want to formalize their bond so they can see their partner if there’s a medical emergency or if there’s a death where you assign assets to your loved one?”

That said, I also do understand to a large degree why people—especially white working-class voters—cast their ballots for Trump. (This is for another post sometime. Main thing to understand: Most Trumpers didn’t vote FOR Trump; rather they voted AGAINST the Democratic party, and I can see why.) Over the past six years I have watched, sadly, as the extreme wing of the Democratic party has moved further and further away from coalition-building and sanity and closer and closer to the exact reverse side of the nutty Trumpers they claim are evil. When you move far enough to the left you end up holding hands with the right. Two sides of the same extremism coin. Both sides now lie. Alternative facts affect both fringes. And both fringes to some degree own their respective parties. On one hand you’ve got Q-ANON and election deniers; on the other you have “pregnant men” and an untrue myth about police brutality which simply isn’t happening. (Check the Washington Post’s police killings database.)


I went into the Walsh interview with an open mind. Despite his being right-wing, I am curious about his film. Whenever the far left vehemently rejects something nowadays, be it podcast, film, book, speech, etc…there’s usually something important to look at; often all the nuance and meaning and true aim of the thing, whatever it may be, has been sucked out of the leftist discussion.

Walsh arguably started out strong. (Yet he was pretty vague when describing his views on trans kids.) But, when Rogan asked Walsh how many minors were likely on puberty-blockers in the country, Walsh admitted he didn’t know but then said it had to be “in the millions.” Rogan fact-checked him and the number was abysmally low; in the thousands at best. Walsh owned his mistake…but it’s a telling mistake. If he got that detail wrong: What else did he potentially get wrong? There was a trust-line stepped across there, for me.

I also had a general feeling that Walsh’s tone was a bit overly alarmist, dramatic and agenda-based. Biased, I suppose, is the word. And look: No shit, right? Bias is a human trait and it’s on both sides, clearly. But the tone of his voice, coupled with this alarmist sensation I felt, plus his gaff on a major data point; all of this sort of made me squirm.

But it was the last 45 minutes or so of the interview which really made me question Walsh. Rogan, as I said, has always been targeted as a right-wing guy, despite the fact that he’s dialogued with people from all across the political spectrum and has discussed what he considers to be his own classically liberal views. They got into a heated but respectful (which is crucial for fostering a non-censorious environment) disagreement about, mainly, marriage and family and gay rights.

Walsh repeatedly stated that marriage is, according to “Christian morality” (which he adheres to) solely between a man and a woman. This is not new rhetoric, obviously. Conservatives have been screeching this for decades. Walsh’s point seemed to be that marriage is not solely a legal agreement but is basically for more or less one single purpose: Procreation.

Now, I don’t dispute that this is essentially where the institution of marriage stems from originally. It’s to bind the man and woman so they can exist legally and cohabitate and bear children and rear a family. (And so the man can unfairly acquire the woman’s dowry.) However, clearly times change. We’re in the second decade of the twenty-first century. The gay rights movement has shifted the narrative around marriage. Fewer straight people, especially in major cities like San Francisco, New York City, Portland, Chicago, are bearing children. Many are choosing to not even get married, or if they do it’s because they want a legal bond, not for kids but for travel, love, tax purposes. It has in many ways become more of a symbolic act.

Somehow Walsh seems threatened by the notion that men can marry men, women can marry women, and more and more straight young people are choosing to either not have kids and/or not get married. Walsh believes it is a societal “duty” to produce children in a marriage. He seems to have a sort of “originalist” conception of marriage and family. (Just like constitutional originalists who believe everything written in the original document should apply now.) And look: I do think in general that having two caring parents raising a child is better than one parent. And I do think that encouraging family is a good thing in general. Much has been rightly said about low-income communities, cross-racially, and coming from poor single-family homes. But, like Rogan, I don’t think those two parents necessarily have to be “heterosexual.” Why are two male parents bad? Or two female parents? Or for that matter two trans parents?...

*On October 27, 2022 I was beyond honored to have my essay on writing (The Secret Sauce to Being a Good Writer) published on Jane Friedman's blog. If you don't know who Jane Friedman is click HERE. I'll start the essay here and you can link at the end to Jane's blog to read the rest. As always, please check out and subscribe to my Substack Newsletter, "Sincere American Writing" (CLICK HERE FOR MY SUBSTACK).


The Secret Sauce to Being a Good Writer

Honestly, the No. 1 thing is: Ignore 99.999% of the industry fluff you hear about online. (Yes, I’m aware of the irony I am demonstrating here.) It’s not that people online are trying to fool you on purpose, necessarily, but rather that they all have their own agenda. (And, frankly, bottom lines.)

Here’s a controversial opinion: Writers are born, not made. You heard me right. Let me unpack that.

If you’re a natural-born writer, then you’ll write your ass off either way. If you’re not, no amount of classes or workshops will change that in a fundamental way. To be clear: Sometimes it takes “real” writers years, even decades, to succeed.

A great example is my good writer-friend Allison Landa, whose memoir, Bearded Lady: When You’re a Woman with a Beard, Your Secret Is Written All Over Your Face was finally just published by Woodhall Press after a 17-year (yep!) journey to publication, which had begun while she was still in the MFA program at St. Mary’s.

This doesn’t mean that because you have the internal drive to write but haven’t pumped out profound prose that you “aren’t a writer.” It probably means that you simply have to try harder or in more efficient ways. But sometimes, sadly, yes, there are people who wish they were writers, who enjoy writing sometimes or even often, but alas are not writers for one simple reason: They don’t have that deep, driving force which animates their lust for communication with other human beings via words on the page.

There’s nothing wrong with this. Not everyone is meant to be a teacher or a doctor or a lawyer. Not everyone, ergo, is a writer. In our contemporary culture of constant uplift and positivity, I think what sometimes gets lost is the torn, ragged flag of reality. Because some people are writers and others aren’t doesn’t make this statement pretentious; on the contrary (as Dostoevsky would quip), it makes it honest. (Of course, just my humble opinion.)

The second thing about being a writer is: My God, read a LOT. I mean A LOT. And in multiple genres.

Here’s a gold quote from Stephen King’s classic memoir/writing instruction manual, On Writing: “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut. If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

This is a tough one, isn’t it? Especially in the frenetic, busy landscape of contemporary life. Besides your day job, you have kids, a mortgage, or rent, student loans, podcasts, TV shows, friends, enemies, and of course the insipid omnipresence of everything ONLINE, from Facebook to Twitter to LinkedIn, etc. Choose your poison, really.

My point is: We are blanketed in and constantly pounded at by distractions. It’s incessant. The crucial key here is: Find the time to read. (And to write, of course; you’ve got to write as often as you can.)

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