Serving the Battle-God

There’s a poem that I have taught for years, a piece by the American author, journalist, and poet Stephen Crane. I’m reminded of it every time Memorial Day or Veterans’ Day rolls around; every time my Facebook feed is filled with “God Bless the Military” statements and sentiments. Here it is.

“Do not weep, maiden, for war is kind”

Do not weep, maiden, for war is kind.
Because your lover threw wild hands toward the sky
And the affrighted steed ran on alone,
Do not weep.
War is kind.

Hoarse, booming drums of the regiment,
Little souls who thirst for fight,
These men were born to drill and die.
The unexplained glory flies above them,
Great is the battle-god, great, and his kingdom—
A field where a thousand corpses lie.

Do not weep, babe, for war is kind.
Because your father tumbled in the yellow trenches,
Raged at his breast, gulped and died,
Do not weep.
War is kind.

Swift, blazing flag of the regiment,
Eagle with crest of red and gold,
These men were born to drill and die.
Point for them the virtue of slaughter,
Make plain to them the excellence of killing
And a field where a thousand corpses lie.

Mother whose heart hung humble as a button
On the bright splendid shroud of your son,
Do not weep.
War is kind.

I love this poem. Not only has it helped to clarify my own feelings about the military, but it has served as an incredibly useful teaching tool over the years. It’s become one of my favorite lessons, the one I look forward to and plan around. Even though it is probably the saddest thing I teach, both for subject matter, and because, no matter how well I teach it, whether my students understand it as I do or not — it doesn’t change the U.S. military. I can’t kill the Battle-God.

I lead my students through this first as though it were sincere: we skip the second and fourth stanzas, and I gloss over the specifics of the imagery; we focus on the apparent speaker, and who that person might be. It seems, based on the speaker’s attempts to comfort the surviving relatives — first sweetheart, then child, then mother — of soldiers killed in battle, that the speaker would be a military spokesman, the guy who writes the letter home or delivers the telegram that says “We regret to inform you . . .” I get my students to make a list of the kinds of things this familiar figure would say: Your loved one was very brave. He was a patriot, he was a hero. He died for a greater good, fighting for his country. He didn’t suffer. On the surface, it all seems to fit, and they get it quickly.

Then we go back and look more carefully at the images. In the first stanza, the lover throws wild hands toward the sky, and the affrighted steed runs on alone. So the man was shot while riding a horse into battle. But for me, the steed running on is a telling detail: I would think the horse, terrified by the sights and sounds and smells of the battle, and by the sudden violent loss of his rider, would run away from the fighting. But if the steed runs on — that implies it was already going that way. So perhaps this man was shot in the back while fleeing, perhaps even by his own side, killed as a deserter. I ask the students: doesn’t it seem strange that a military man would describe this scene so specifically to that dead man’s sweetheart — and then afterwards tell her not to cry, because war, which killed her terrified (and cowardly) lover, is kind?

Maybe I’m reading too much into that one. But look at the third stanza. Look at the details in the description of the father dying — see how painful and pathetic it is? And realize that this is, apparently, being described to that dead man’s child. His young child, because it is a “babe.” (I often think of the scene with Christopher Walken and the gold watch in Pulp Fiction, one of the most horrifyingly amusing scenes I know of in any movie.) I mime this for my students: I crouch down with my hands on my knees, and bounce as I say, in that cheerful sing-song we use to ask little kids if they want to see Santa Claus or ride the pony: “Okay, little boy, let me tell you about your daddy: he was shot in the chest, fell on his face in the mud, and died choking on his own blood!” Then I stand up and say, in an aggressively sarcastic tone, “Oh — and don’t cry. Because war is kind.” It’s effective.

After I take them through the fifth stanza, which I think of as ironically juxtaposing the humble, unimportant mother (whose heart is but a button) with the bright, splendid shroud of the son (I like connecting this to the American flag we drape over soldiers’ coffins, though Crane probably just meant the actual white winding sheet. There’s another one, too: the yellow trenches the dying man chokes in in the third stanza really should be a reference to the use of mustard gas in World War I — but Stephen Crane died in 1900, so, nope. Possibly a reference to yellow fever, since he did cover the Spanish-American War, where more soldiers died of disease than from bullets and bombs.) — a pair of images that lionizes the dead man and devalues the living, sorrowing mother — I have them look at the second and fourth stanzas, where the speaker changes and the tone changes. These stanzas, with their references to drums and glory and swift, blazing regimental flags, seem much more like the words of a pro-military warmonger, at first. I point out for them the irony in the comparison between the little souls, pointless (“The unexplained glory flies above them,” either the American flag, or the idea of gloriously dying in war, or both), valueless (“These men were born to drill and die,” and nothing else), and the line “Great is the Battle-God.” I ask them who the Battle-God is; though I have to get them past the idea that it is Ares — there is always at least one who is very proud to know this fact — since that is more symbolic than I need it to be. I ask them who is made great by battle — and who, in truth, is made greater when the losses in that battle are greater. Who rules over a kingdom of a thousand corpses? The answer I want is: the generals. The presidents. The ones who send the little souls to die, and are made famous by their ability to order men killed. I ask them how on Earth it can be said that slaughter is virtuous and killing excellent — and I help them recognize that there is really only one place in our world where it is possible to be an excellent killer, and it is a virtue to wipe out swaths of people as if they were lambs being slaughtered; that one place is, of course, war.

Yup. War is kind.

This poem, all in all, strikes me as a criticism of the military: not the soldiers, though they are certainly seen as fools or children who die for no good reason; and not the officers who would bring the sad news home to the survivors, if they are sincere in their desire to comfort — that’s the point of the list of common statements these people would use: there is no way that anyone would actually talk to a family member the way the speaker in this poem does, as he says quite the opposite of what we would expect: your lover is a coward; your father died in incredible pain; your son only matters because he died, and you don’t matter at all. But if those people, those officers, are knowingly lying about the experiences of those who died in war, there can only be one reason: they want that child, that babe, to grow up and — follow in his father’s footsteps. They want the family members to believe that those who die in war were heroes, every one of them, even though the officer telling them of this heroism knows the truth: these soldiers died for nothing, in great pain and fear, because the only thing that matters is that they die: their corpses make the Battle-God great. Those liars serve the Battle-Gods, and they make a new generation of little souls thirst for fight; they ensure that their destiny, which could otherwise be grand and great, as any human’s could be, is — to drill and die. This poem criticizes two groups: those who profit from the deaths of soldiers — the Battle-Gods — and those who lie to people in order to get men to agree to be soldiers, and to die for the aggrandizement of the Battle-Gods. The recruiters.

And that’s why I think of it every Memorial Day. Because that’s exactly how I feel about the military.

Those men and women who volunteer to fight because they want to protect innocent lives, because they believe in the cause, or in their country, I have great respect for, in some ways. There is no question to me that the willingness to die for the safety and well-being of another person is one of the most honorable qualities a person can have. I think it less honorable, but still virtuous, to be willing to fight and kill for the same cause — for the sake of other people. This is why I have great respect, too, for police and firefighters and other people who put themselves into harm’s way in order to protect the rest of us. They are brave, they are strong, they are noble and good.

That’s the good stuff. Now here’s the bad.

Our military is not always used to serve the greater good. It is sometimes, because the Army Corps of Engineers builds things, and because the military has been used for rescue missions, for relief missions, and, sometimes, for peacekeeping; I think the National Guard has been used more frequently and reasonably in this way, simply because it is the National Guard, and the U.S. hasn’t been invaded in two hundred years. The National Guard, and the Coast Guard, then become large bodies of well-equipped, well-trained people serving to keep people safe and happy. This is what the military should do, and the only branches that should still exist, in my opinion. Yes, some wars — World War II and the American Civil War, from the Union’s perspective — are actually fought for the greater good; but even those wars do not require a standing military like the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines. We could send our National Guard to fight, if necessity required it; even better, maybe we could offer some genuine support, troops and materiel, to the United Nations. Imagine what they could do with the military might of the U.S. Then ask yourself why the U.N. doesn’t have that already.

Because our military is, and has always been, used to do harm. They are sent to foreign lands to kill and destroy, not to help people, but to serve the “national interest.” Not to keep us safe, but to achieve policy goals. Not to die so that others may live — but to make the Battle-God great with their corpses. And this is a crime, and a tragedy, without exception. I refuse to accept, for instance, that the millions who died in Vietnam served any greater purpose, for the United States. For the Vietnamese, one could argue that they died protecting their country from a terrible foe, a foreign aggressor who dropped millions of tons of high explosives, incendiaries, and poison on their country; perhaps that was worth all the murder, all the destruction, all the death. But for us? For the U.S.? What was that war but evil? The same for the war in Iraq, and the extended war in Afghanistan. Perhaps you could argue that Osama bin Laden needed to die for 9/11, but the argument is troubled by the fact that we made bin Laden, training him to fight the Soviets in the ’80’s, and by the fact that we invaded and destroyed Afghanistan but retain strong ties with Saudi Arabia, and with Israel, and with Turkey, and with dozens of other countries with histories of terrible human rights abuses.

Not to mention our own record in that area. How any nation that manned Abu Ghraib, that STILL maintains Guantanamo Bay, can claim to be protecting people or freedom or human rights, is beyond me.

Now it becomes a question of, not the greater good, but the greater evil. It is bad enough to attack a sovereign nation for your own political purposes, bad enough to kill for your ideals; but to use good people as your weapons to do that? Because those people who join the military for noble reasons, the ones who are willing to die for others, are the best of people, those who are willing to send those good people to their deaths, must be the worst of people. They are even more vile when they do it for selfish reasons, which is why Dick Cheney (Who knowingly lied us into war) is a worse man than George W. Bush (Who, for the most part, stupidly believed what he was told, and was otherwise knowingly selfish and arrogant), who is a worse man than Barack Obama. But all of them sent good people to die unnecessarily, and thus are they all villains.

But are even those people the worst?

I think it — let’s say naive — to join the U.S. military for honorable and noble reasons, in the modern era. Perhaps it made sense in the nation’s first century, though I personally consider the American Revolution a political war, not a war for the greater good (Yeah, we won our freedom from the British. So did Canada. How many people died for that one?), and the Mexican-American War and the Indian Wars were nothing but bad. But today, a thinking person cannot believe that joining the military will be all noble or all good. Because in this country, which does still have free speech and a free press, I think it impossible to believe the military only does good things, unless one possesses great skill in the most Orwellian of doublethink, or the deepest ethnocentric prejudices (“Everything we do is good, because ‘Merica!”).

Unless, of course, one is actively, aggressively, and successfully lied to, exactly when one is most vulnerable.

That’s why the worst people in the world, in relation to the U.S. military — if it is not the Battle-Gods themselves, that is — are recruiters.

That’s who Stephen Crane was criticizing in his poem: those who would lie to the family members, who would try to make war seem glorious and good when it is nothing but evil and suffering; those who knowingly manipulate and deceive, in order to bring fresh meat to the grinder, in order to aggrandize the Battle-Gods, to make their kingdoms — not a thousand corpses, but tens of thousands, a million. More.

The people who show up at high schools, particularly high schools with low graduation rates, with terrible college attendance rates, where the local community is economically depressed (Because I never once saw a recruiter in my own upper-class public high school, and I have not seen a single recruiter in the school where I teach now, which has a near-100% college attendance rate — but they were there every damn week in St. Helens, Oregon, which is everything I just described.), and stand there in clean, well-pressed uniforms, challenging children to perform feats of strength — as though it matters in the military how many goddamn pull-ups you can do, over how many people you can kill or how slowly you can die — and handing out prizes to those who “win,” and telling children who don’t know any better that: the U.S. Military is honorable, and glorious, and good; that it protects our freedoms and it makes the world safe for democracy; that joining up will make them better people, give them a better future, and offer them adventure and a wonderful life.

I would excuse those people if I believed that they actually thought what they said was true. And inasmuch as the military uses new recruits to bring in other recruits — which they do, in one of the more callous and appalling pyramid schemes I know of, as they actually offer promotions to those who can lure in larger numbers of fellow victims — I don’t blame the actual people who try to tell their friend that they should join up, too. They are naive children, who have been manipulated and lied to themselves. But that isn’t who mans the recruiting offices, or the tables at high school lunchtimes. Those are the older soldiers. The ones who know better, and who do it anyway. They are the ones who make the military seem good, so that good people will join, so that they can then be used, by evil men, to do evil.

Perhaps the most insidious and harmful part of this process now is the tendency of the military, since World War II and the G.I. Bill, to glorify the military as something other than a military: they make the military sound like a job, rather than an institution that creates death. With this, you have people signing up to serve in the military who don’t have noble reasons, nor evil ones; they just don’t know what else to do with themselves. This is perhaps the worst, because it is the easiest: for these people, you don’t even have to lie that much. The GI Bill is a real thing; the military does offer benefits to veterans; you can indeed learn skills that will serve you later in life. All those things are true. To talk about this, as a recruiter, you just have to ignore two things: one, the vast majority of soldiers do not do skilled work, and so will gain nothing of practical use — particularly not those who may after service have access to money for college, but have not one of the academic skills necessary to succeed in college, possibly because they blew off high school knowing they would just be going into the military at 18 — and two, you have to ignore that the reason the military exists is to kill, and the first job of any soldier is to die. If you can ignore those things as a recruiter, you can make the military sound just fabulous; if you can ignore those things as a recruit, you can look forward to your service. You can also see the military as a way to cure your ills, your laziness, your juvenile delinquency, your chemical addictions, your weight problem; all of these are put forward as valid reasons to sign up, and all of them have brought in new corpses for the kingdom. Hell: we even see military service as a way to get laid, because you get in shape and get a cool uniform and you get to be a badass — and women loooooove a badass in uniform with six-pack abs. Just watch Top Gun. That’ll prove it.

So that’s what I think about, when I see memes honoring soldiers. I think: Did you really sign up to protect freedoms? Or was it just that you couldn’t get a job? If you did sign up to protect freedom, did you think of fighting the Taliban in the hills of Afghanistan, quite literally on the other side of the world, and so removed from anything even remotely good for America that nobody even tries to justify the war any more beyond “You broke it, you bought it?” If you believed fighting in Afghanistan would be noble, who lied to you? And how hard did they have to work to convince you?

It all makes it very hard to look at a serviceman and say “Thank you.” I know it’s not their fault, and I know that many of them do have genuinely noble intentions in joining the military; some of them have noble intentions despite going into it with eyes wide open; and to those people, for their intent, I am indeed grateful, and I will salute them, and I will thank them. The same for those veterans who fought in the past, and those who died, for actual noble causes.

But most of the time, I just feel sorry for them, these little souls who thirst for fight, these men who were born to drill and die — or at least that is what they are told, by the Battle-Gods and their vile minions. All they are is more corpses for the kingdom.
Let me close with another poem, this one by a soldier who died, for his country, soon after writing this.

Dulce Et Decorum Est
by Wilfred Owen

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!– An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.–
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

This Is The Voice

Another season has come and gone; another winner has been named (Once again, it was the wrong one; but this time, like the last, there wasn’t a right one: hence this blog.). This time the final result was spoiled for me, because the internet is a pain in the ass: a world of instant information, and hardly ever the right information at the right time, which makes it the next thing to useless. And not to tangent too much, but this is why books are better: because they are passive. They allow themselves to be collected and categorized and clearly controlled, and thus, with access to a library with a good card catalog, or a volume with a good index, you can quickly find exactly what you need, exactly when you need it, without wasting a ton of time looking at the wrong things: this is what the internet cannot do. Mostly, I assume, because it’s too young to know better. Just like the winner who was just named this week (BOOM! Back on subject, baby! That was no tangent — it was a parabola!), whose victory, once I knew about it, made me want to watch the show a little bit less: the same effect the last season’s final result had; and at the same time that my interest ebbs, a tide of irritation and contempt, caused by the parts of the show that bug me, rises and swells and threatens to wash me away.

Damn The Voice, anyway.

I was excited when it began. Toni and I are fans of contest shows, especially those involving art and talent; cooking shows like MasterChef and Hell’s Kitchen and Chopped; the tattoo contest Inkmasters and the movie makeup show Face Off; Design Star and Project Runway. And, of course, American Idol. We watched the first season of that, and despite Ryan Seacrest and Paula Abdul, despite the show’s need to create mock-celebrities like William Hung or that “Pants on the Ground” guy, we still watched it, most seasons. But we were getting tired of it. They spent too much time bashing on Simon Cowell, who, regardless of what he may be as a person, is and always has been a hell of a talent scout and a top-notch critic, and the main reason the show ever worked. It seemed like every word out of the guy’s mouth required an irritated (and irritating) rebuttal from Paula Abdul or What’s-her-name, Kara DioGuardi, and this was becoming the primary focus of the show. Meanwhile, on stage the talent was getting less impressive, substance swallowed up in style; the bickering between judges, with snark from Seacrest, was the order of the day, and we were getting sick of it.

But here came The Voice. It wasn’t about appearances: you wouldn’t have to look like Carrie Underwood to win. The audition process wasn’t a nationwide weeks-long freak show. The host was Carson Daly, who is to Ryan Seacrest what Jerry Seinfeld is to Andrew “Dice” Clay. The judges – coaches, whatever – were much more interesting, it would seem, than Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson; I love Maroon 5, and Cee Lo Green. They would more than make up for that country guy who I’d never heard of and Christina Aguilera, who I could take or leave.

So we watched the first season. And honestly? That was a good show. The singers were very impressive, varied in their ability and style and the type of music they sang, which made for a good competition. This guy, Javier Colon, had one of the finest singing voices I’ve ever heard. And he won. Perfect! We watched the second season: Jermaine Paul, who won that one, wasn’t my favorite, but he also had a hell of a set of pipes. Carson Daly was solid; Adam Levine was hilarious; it was fun to watch Cee Lo’s eloquence, originality, and creativity; and I had grown to like Blake as much as I had grown to dislike Christina Aguilera.

Jesus – Christina Aguilera. You know, I’ll give her this: she’s really an incredible singer, one of a kind, one of the best singers and performers of our generation. She’s pretty, too, though I loathe her fashion sense. But she’s crap as a coach, and the reason is simple: she’s a diva. Ever since she was – what, four months old when she started singing? – the attention has always been on her, and that’s where she wants it. If you watch the show, there’s only one coach who ever sings along with her team members during rehearsal, and every time, she acts like it’s a gift she’s giving them; and they, who know where their bread is buttered, respond in kind, “Omigawd I’m singing with Christina Aguileraaaaaaaa!!!” Of course, all of the singers she chooses resemble her in terms of singing style and song choice, so it’s not surprising that they would share her love for – well, for herself.

But then the show started to go downhill. The third season was won by the cute girl who sang country, who beat out far better singers to do it. Fourth season was won by the cuter girl who sang even more country, who beat out other country singers, because together they had eliminated the far better singers. The fifth season winner, TessAnne Chin, was indeed the best singer that year – but she was also the most attractive woman on the show. There was a problem, here. It wasn’t all bad in Voice-Town: Christina Aguilera left, replaced by the wonderful and effervescent Shakira, and then by the sweet and amusing Gwen Stefani. Shakira I had always derided as a shaking ass that sang stupid songs out of its other end, but she quickly won my respect for her intelligence and generosity as a coach, and for her humility — despite being markedly more successful as a pop singer than Christina Aguilera. That was a definite improvement. They also, thankfully, got rid of the mind-wrenchingly obnoxious Mouseketeer Christina Milian and her goddamn social media updates. Cee Lo left, which was bad, but Usher was a fine replacement, and Pharrell an even better one. A mixture of good and bad changes to a generally good show—it should have been able to hold it together and keep making good television, while also introducing talented singers to the country. And as American Idol showed us, with Jennifer Hudson and Chris Daughtry and Adam Lambert and others, you don’t need to win the show to become successful afterwards, so even the dominance of pretty wasn’t the kiss of death.

Unfortunately, something happened. It was, as I recall, during the fourth season, when Blake’s All-Country team wiped out all competition, like WalMart smashing through mom-and-pop stores in rural Alabama. Adam’s team had a pair of amazing singers – two of the best the show had seen, one of whom, Judith Hill, I was so sure was a lock to win the whole thing that I was a little annoyed that there was no suspense – and America eliminated them both at one fell swoop, preferring extra tall stacks of country music. (I mean, come on—the Swonn Brothers? Over this? Seriously?) And in the last seconds of that results show, as Carson Daly revealed the final vote, Adam Levine said into a live mike, “I hate this country!”

I think that’s when the shit hit the fan, and sprayed all over the show. It shouldn’t have: Adam was voicing a moment of frustration, both as a competitor and as a lover of good music, because he – and we – lost on both counts, in that one vote. He was right: just then, America sucked. But of course, just as we learned from the Dixie Chicks, celebrities cannot criticize our country. Adam had to apologize for what he said. But that wasn’t enough: the producers had to make sure that that wouldn’t happen again. I think that’s why it’s gone downhill ever since, culminating in this last season, which was not at all good. Sawyer Fredericks is not a great singer. He has talent, certainly, but he isn’t great. Neither were the other contestants, though Meghan Linsey was better, and I liked Koryn Hawthorne when she wasn’t singing the wrong songs – which, sadly, she frequently was. But out of a field of good-but-not-great, Sawyer Fredericks was probably third and maybe farther back. Yet he won. Same thing last season, with Craig Wayne Boyd, the redneck-from-the-seventies, (By the way: here are some other men with the middle name Wayne.) taking it over two better singers (Damien and Matt McAndrew).

But all is not lost. The show still has a good foundation to build on: three good coaches, a good host, a great concept – a contest that focuses on the actual singing, that rewards musical talent, that highlights the best part of pop music: the voice. It really is a good idea, one that has a place in America’s notoriously superficial pop culture. I don’t want to give up on my show. But I haven’t wanted to watch the last season and a half of it – maybe not even since Josh Kaufman won season six, the last guy who was the right one to go all the way, and who did it solely on his voice and not on his looks nor the kind of music he sang.

So, in order to ensure that The Voice can regain its fading glory before it jumps the shark and hires Ellen Degeneres as the fifth coach – or, God forbid, Nicki Minaj – I have some suggestions. Some of them are just my personal preferences, but mostly, they are intended to keep this contest alive, and to honor the hard work and talent of actual musicians, both those who compete and those who have won fame the hard way, because I think it a deep insult to make celebrities out of people  who just aren’t that good – it’s bad enough to skip people ahead to the front of the line by putting them on TV in the first place. Here we go: eleven things that will save The Voice.

#1: America should not vote. No, that’s too harsh: America should not be the only vote. Especially not through social media. You want to know why Sawyer Fredericks won this season? Because he’s sixteen, and he’s a boy, and he’s cute. The same thing happened with American Idol, over and over again. Because the show allows people to vote using text messages, and it allows one person to vote more than once. And nobody on this planet texts more often, or with greater speed and agility, than 14-year-old girls. They also have higher turnout in these sorts of votes, like retired conservatives in off-year political elections, because young girls watch a lot of TV, and they fall in love easily, and they – come on, do I need to explain, or can I just say Justin Bieber? When the show allows America to vote, they ensure that the cute young contestants win over older, talented ones. They also push it more towards men than women, generally speaking, simply because teenaged boys are too busy playing video games. Or watching porn.

America can be the fifth vote, the tie breaker; but the coaches should generally decide who stays and who goes. When you watch the battle rounds, when the coaches make the decisions, they almost always choose the right ones; when they don’t, I generally think it is because Blake figured out that America’s votes would go to the cute young ones, and so the coaches lean towards those contestants who can win over those who sing better, simply because they (the coaches) all want to win. The answer, if the show is to be a real musical competition, is to stop letting America decide.

#2: For mostly the same reason, there should be a minimum age to compete, and it probably should be 18. I know there are prodigies out there, but there are a whole lot more mediocrities, and mostly the people who go far despite being very young do it on their looks rather than their ability, which is, unsurprisingly, immature and thus limited, even if they do have real talent. Letting in teenagers is a way to get ratings, not a way to get great singers.

I will also confess that I’m sick to death of hearing children sing about lost love and broken hearts, shattered dreams, and frustrated lives. If I hear one more of those little girls say, “Well, I’ve never had a boyfriend, but I lost a friend in fifth grade (when she told me she hated Justin Bieber), so I’m going to use that emotion while I sing ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart.’” Listen up, kids: you need to experience some life before you can sing the blues, okay? It’s just how it is. So, minimum age. Maybe they could require a high school diploma, so we can encourage public education. I’d like that.

#3: Tone down the production. This is The Voice. It should be a singer, on a stage, with a band and lights; that’s it. No dancers. No wacky background projections. No falling spark-fountains or pyrotechnics. Please stop making these untrained, inexperienced singers work a stage the size of a football field. Give them a mike stand to hide behind, and let. Them. Sing. I suppose you can dress them up in cool outfits, and then compliment them on their style, but that really shouldn’t be a thing that matters. Just – the Voice. Right? Along with that, take out the most contrived and artificial elements: no more pretending to drive up in a car before the battle rounds, no more of the mini-runways leading down into the audience so the singers can high-five some of their “fans” (You know, the people who got tickets to the show having no idea who was going to be singing that night, because I don’t believe for a second that they fill the audience the same day they record), no more gimmicky shit like gospel choirs or kids choirs or having the singer do that back-to-back-crouch-down-and-stand-up-again-ROCK’N’ROLL! WOO! thing with the guitarist like they’ve been playing shows together for fifteen years. It’s a house band. You don’t know the guy’s name. Stop rubbing against him while he’s playing. And stop letting the “singer/songwriters” play an acoustic guitar that isn’t even miked while they are singing. It’s silly. Especially when they give up the pretense after the first chorus and just let the guitar hang there like Tom Robinson’s left arm, and then have to walk down to the front of the stage for high-fives with this giant wooden prop strapped to their chests for no reason.

#4: Stop with the social media. I am extremely grateful, if that wasn’t already clear, that they dumped Christina Milian and the Sprint Skybox, but I must also say: I don’t want to listen to Carson Daly read tweets from the Heartland or from the contestants’ moms, I don’t want to read what the coaches tweet right after a decision is made about their team, and I really can’t stand the Instant Twitter Save thing they’re doing now, where the bottom two or three perform and then one person is saved by tweet-votes. I know what this is: this is market research saying that the more you can get the audience involved, the more loyal they are to the show and the more they watch. But you know what actually makes people watch a show? Make a good show. Ask The Simpsons, who never had twitter-feeds. (Maybe they do now. I stopped watching the show, even though that breaks my heart. Know why I stopped watching? It wasn’t that I lacked buy-in. They just stopped making good shows. Just do a good show, guys, all right? Screw market research.)

#5: Also with the same rationale, you should let the coaches actually coach, which means: let them criticize. Ever since Adam’s blowup – and that may not have been the precipitating factor, though I’m sure it didn’t help – the coaches have stopped telling the singers when they do a bad job. Or when they miss a note. Or when it is the wrong song choice. Or when the production was overdone, or just plain weird. No, all they say now is, “That was great, you’re the best, I’m a fan, I love everything you do, that was the best performance you’ve done (Choose one:) so far/of the night/of the season/I’ve ever seen on this show.” Nothing but praise. Now I’m sure what happened was market research and focus groups: the producers brought in a test audience, gave them those happiness-dials, and had them watch the show; and every time a coach said, “You were off pitch, and that dance routine was just offputting,” the test audience dropped into the red. Because here in ‘Merica, it is rude to criticize. Telling people they did something wrong is judgmental, it is arrogant, it is often racist, sexist, ageist, elitist, and it is a direct insult to that person’s hometown, home state, alma mater, mama, and to God Himself. I saw the same thing with Simon Cowell on American Idol: every time he said the singer did a poor job (and he was pretty much always right), the audience booed, he’d roll his eyes, Seacrest would say something genuinely nasty disguised as funny, and in order to allow the show to move on, Cowell would give Seacrest a level look and just accept his punishment for having the temerity to, y’know, tell the truth.

What’s funny, though? The contestants never really seemed to mind very much. Because honest criticism makes you better, and if you actually care about your craft, then you seek it out and are grateful when you get it. These coaches on The Voice are, I think, generally smart and perceptive and experienced in music and performance; we should let them say what they really think, and be grateful when their advice makes the artists better. And makes the show more interesting – it would be nice if Toni and I didn’t have to fast forward through the commentary after every performance when we watch on Hulu.

#6: No more guests. Unless the guest is going to perform with the contestants, all they’re doing is slowing down the show so they can promote their new single. I can see how that is a good deal for Sia or Gym Class Heroes, but I really couldn’t care less. And also, no more painful pretense of friendship and the casual visit, when Carson goes out into the audience to see his “pals,” the cast of whatever-piece-of-crap-NBC-put-on-after-The-Voice, so they can say they just dropped by to enjoy the incredible talent, and by the way, they’re on at 7 Eastern, 2:15 Central, on alternate Thursdays and Easters. It makes the whole show ring false, and that’s bad for both the singers and the audience. And never, NEVER, does that kind of advertising work. If I want to watch a show, it’s not because “Hey! I saw them in the audience on The Voice, doing nothing even remotely like what they do on the show that I decided I want to watch based on seeing them in an absurd non-sequitur!” Unless they make a show called Audience Crashers. Then, okay.

#7: Along with that No Guests rule, the results shows should be faster. There’s absolutely no reason why it should be an hour. I get that you want to milk it for advertising, but handle it some other way. Maybe a half-hour reaction show with guests afterwards, like Talking Dead, because then I just won’t watch it (like Talking Dead) and everyone’s happy. I’m sick to death of how long it takes to find out what actually happened, and what’s worse, the results shows are so boring, Toni and I tend not to watch them right away, because we have to galvanize our spirits in order to sit through tonight’s special guest Nick Jonas (AGAIN!), and so we get the results spoiled for us by the damn Internet. And tell Carson to just read the damn results, without the minute-long pause between “America . . . saved . . . . . . . .“ and the name. Oh – and if it’s not too much to ask, can you stop asking the contestants to say how much the experience has meant to them? We already know. The answer is always the same. Ditto for asking the coaches why America should vote for this person. But then, this last-second-interview is a standard trope of every reality contest show, and it always annoys me (Maybe the worst for this is Gordon Ramsey, who asks every single contestant up for elimination – two a show, every show, and sometimes more – why they should stay on Hell’s Kitchen. Gets on my nerves. But this is way off topic now.)

#8: More variety of songs. There is a whole world of music out there, going back literally a hundred years. So many fantastic singers, so many wonderful, beautiful songs. And they just keep singing Beyonce. And Simon and Garfunkel. And Sam Smith. And Coldplay. Creedence Clearwater Revival, too. When I was looking up clips to link to for this blog, I kept seeing the same songs, over and over again. Make It Rain. Amazing Grace (oy.). Fix You. Jealous by Nick Jonas (vey). But every time they do this, I think, “Why doesn’t anyone sing blues? Ella Fitzgerald? Jonny Lang? Or what about Ray Charles?” Or Elton John. The Beatles, who rarely show up, or Elvis, who never does. Or what about some hard rock? Aerosmith (Not “Dream On,” of course, but anything else in their forty years of music.)? The Who? If you want ballads, you can’t beat the Scorpions. Seriously. And that guy has a hell of a voice: good fodder for singers.

I wonder quite a lot about the song choices. Sometimes the singers pick their favorite songs, which is sweet and all, but we don’t always like the best songs. We don’t even like good songs. I can’t help but enjoy the Backstreet Boys. The larger problem for a show like The Voice is that we don’t like songs that are good for us to sing. I’m a singer. My favorite bands include Tool, Soundgarden, and, in my cheesier moments, Journey. There’s not a song by those three bands that I could sing well. My voice just doesn’t do that. A song that I love and could sing well is XTC’s “Dear God.” But that’s a song about how Christianity has screwed up the world for humanity, and not, therefore, something I should be singing were I ever on national television, especially not in Jesus-lovin’ ‘Merica. Then there are the contestants who sing songs by people who can’t sing well, like Bruce Springsteen or Tom Petty. Here’s the problem: those guys may write good music (not my style, but to each their own), but that actually makes it worse. Because Tom Petty, for instance, understands that his voice sounds like a live chicken being grated into a pot of Velveeta fondue, and so he uses his songwriting abilities to – ready for this? – hide his own voice. This means that “Free Falling” is a song with a wonderfully catchy hook, interesting lyrics, and a terrible melody to sing. The coaches should know this, and yet they force their contestants to sing unmelodic songs, or anything by Sting, or Whitney Houston, or someone else with a set of pipes that simply cannot be matched.

Here’s my last gripe about song choice. There are some songs that match the original singer, and nobody else. They are legendary classics, often, and this is because they were done so very well that no one can touch them. “I Feel Good” by James Brown. “Dream On” by Aerosmith. “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen. “Creep” by Radiohead. These songs, and several others like them, are uncoverable. I know people try, but their versions are crap. Don’t take crap as inspiration to do your own crap. Find a good song that is more anonymous than that. Pick one that speaks to you even more than it spoke to the original artist. Jimi Hendrix did it with “All Along the Watchtower,” which is a Bob Dylan song. Elvis did it with “Hound Dog.” Hell, “Respect” was an Otis Redding tune before Aretha Franklin owned it for all eternity, and Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” was Dolly Parton’s. There is a whole world of music out there. If you’re serious about trying to create a moment, take more than a moment in picking your song. Okay?

#9: No more fucking arm waving.  This one is personal, I admit, but hey, don’t I deserve something for all this helpful advice I’m offering? I’m saving your show! Now you can do something for me. Take all of those people in the sections right in front of the stage and tell them: stop waving your arms from side to side over your head whenever any singer starts anything even remotely slow in tempo. It’s entirely artificial, and entirely obnoxious. The only time anyone should wave their arms in the air is when they are waving to someone far away, or when the spirit of God compels them, or when the person on stage has just said “Hip hop hooray!” That’s it. It is otherwise never appropriate, and it enrages me every time I see it. Just stop.

#10: No more Christina Aguilera. Please? And for the assistant coaches, get people who actually know what they’re talking about. Get a producer I’ve never heard of who knows how to help people sing better, instead of Meghan Trainor, who is very sweet, but entirely unhelpful. Please note that American Idol‘s first “permanent mentor” was Jimmy Iovine. But seriously: no more Christina Aguilera. Everyone else who has ever been on the show was a better coach. And I’m including Christina Milian, mainly because she never referred to herself as X-Tina. That is, if you’re not aware, Miss Aguilera (and I’m sure you’re aware), a reference to Jesus Christ; Christmas becoming Xmas using the first letter in the word “Christ” when written in Greek. And no matter how well you sing: you are not the Messiah. Just because you personally could win the contest doesn’t mean you should run the contest. Just think of beauty pageants run by contestants. Or prisons run by inmates. It’s a bad idea.

Last but not least, #11: If this is supposed to be a show that makes people stars, that gives them a chance to succeed in the music industry, then please, please, actually do that. There is not a single winner from this show who has become successful, or who was even heard on the radio afterwards, except for, God help us all, the country singers. And the Swonn Brothers. The show finishes with its contestants, and then chucks them away until they want to bring them back for a guest appearance on future episodes. Some of the singers have managed to make it themselves, which of course I respect; but the show is letting down its own people, which is not a good way to bring the best talent on future seasons. I know you can’t actually make people into stars, because pop is fickle; but they should try harder. The coaches always say they love their contestants, and plan to keep in touch with them, and it always feels like a lie.

I don’t want my show to be a lie.

So do it right, and do it for real. That’s the whole point, isn’t it? Do it. Thanks very much.

What is this?

(Please note: throughout this piece, every use of “I” and “me” should be taken to mean both myself and my wife; we are equal partners in this endeavor. She has read and approved this before publication, and she has kindly let me speak for us both. It was just too awkward to keep saying “Toni and I.”)


This is the dog who lives at my house. The question is, what does that make me?

I call myself his father; I call him my son. But of course, he’s not that; we are of different species. He doesn’t look like me at all. I don’t treat him as I would a human son. He doesn’t eat at the table. He doesn’t wear clothing. He doesn’t have Legos.

My human son would have Legos. I would teach him to read, and to talk like a pirate. We would watch The Iron Giant and Monty Python together, and play Sorry and Parcheesi and War. I would learn to play chess so I could teach him.

None of these things are true with the dog. So he must not be my son.

The law calls me his owner; him, my property. But how can that be? The measure of an individual life, the distinction between an object and a person, between animate and inanimate, is sentience. Sentience is the ability to feel or perceive: the dog can clearly do both. His perceptions are markedly more sensitive than mine, in some cases.

Not in all cases, though. His sense of taste, for instance. Not only does he regularly chew up live, squirming insects of any kind that he can catch, he also picks up anything — anything — that might resemble food, no matter how remotely, while on his walk. Sure, he grabbed that discarded Goldfish cracker, and he tried to eat the doughnut that someone dropped and then ran over; but he also picks up bird feathers, cigarette butts, flower petals, balls of lint and hair, pieces of tar and plastic, shiny things, and the excrement of other animals. He also regularly licks the tile floor in the kitchen, for minutes at a time. I have doubts about the functionality and acuity of those taste buds.

But there is no doubt that he can feel. He misses me when I am gone. He is happy when I return. He loves to cuddle, and to play tug-fetch. He has trouble with anxiety: when I change my routine, it can upset him, and he — well, he freaks out. He starts moving and breathing quickly, and he tries to get as close to me as possible, nipping at me and whimpering softly, desperately; if he doesn’t calm down at that point, the next stage is a good five minutes of sprinting, at top speed, in and out of the room where I am, throwing himself as violently as possible onto the bed or couch where I lay, barking at every turn and biting anything or anyone who intervenes. Clearly he has feelings — prodigiously strong feelings. He suffers because of it.

The mechanistic paradigm would hold that these are nothing more than reaction to stimuli and conditioned response, and perhaps so. As such, they are no different from any of my feelings, about which one could make the same argument — I smile when he comes to me and rolls onto his back because doing so ensures me a pleasurable experience, namely rubbing his belly, which feels good to my fingers, lowers my blood pressure, and so on. Such affection is pleasurable because it signifies pack bonding, which helps to ensure my individual survival: for I have allies in the hunt and against my enemies.

Whatever. The point is, he is as sentient as I. I do not think he can be considered an object. Property. No more than I.

When I come home, he meets me at the door, wagging his tail, but he is not a jumper; he likes it when I come down to his level. I crouch down, usually with one knee on the floor and the other out to the side, and he curls into me, pressing his body against my leg and across my torso, and I put my arms around him and bend low to kiss his head, and he is surrounded and encapsulated by me. Each morning when I get up, I lay on the couch to drink my first coffee, and he leaps up to lay beside me, sitting in the space made by my sideways lap. He leans against me while I pet him, and if I use only one hand, he puts his front paw on the other one and tugs, as if to say, “Why aren’t you using this hand, too?” So I do. And he smiles. Within minutes he melts, oozing down to lie beside me in the narrow space I do not occupy, his long legs lolling over the side of the futon. Often he rolls onto his back, hoping that I will gently scratch his belly. That’s his favorite.

He wants to be in the room where I am, no matter what. As I move back and forth between kitchen, living room, bathroom, bedroom, he follows me, his chew toy in his teeth, laying down on the bed even for the half a minute while I put on my belt and pick up my shoes. Whenever I go to any door, he wants to lead me through it, the grand marshal of my daily parade.

So what does that make him, all of that? My pet? Too condescending. My shadow? Too stalker-y. My companion? Perhaps.

I call him my friend. My buddy. (I sing the song, which I learned by heart during my adolescence when the television burned at both ends.) And it’s true. But there’s more.

I named him. We call him Samwise — Sammy for short — after my favorite character in the same books that gave my name to my parents (Well, my second-favorite character, but really, The Witch-King of Angmar, Lord of the Nazgul is no name for a dog. That’s a cat name. Or a bunny.). I named myself for him, because I speak for him as I speak to him. I recognize that the names, like the words, like the personality and the voice that I have created for him (He sounds like Sniffles the Mouse from the old cartoons) are all and only of and from me, not from him; but he takes them on, for me. He lets me color him in. He lets me play with him when I want to laugh, and hug him when I want to cry, and always, he makes me feel better.

So what is he, to me?
Here’s why it matters, what he is to me; here’s why I’m writing about this. Here. This is the second time I’ve had a dog-friend-son. The first was Charlie.


Charlie died last year. He died because of a brain tumor. But really, he died because I killed him. I told the doctor to poison him, and I held him while he died.

If Charlie was my son — and just as I do with Sammy, I called him such, called myself his father; my parents called him their grand-dog — then I would not have done this. I would have fought that tumor, would have put Charlie on the medication, gotten him the CAT scan, talked to doctors about surgery, about chemo and radiation, about prognoses and time and quality of life.

If Charlie was my property, I wouldn’t feel badly about his death. When a possession is broken — and that tumor broke him, at the end, sent him into grand mal seizures, caused apparent blindness and confusion and loss of equilibrium and loss of bladder control, and I can’t imagine how much pain he’d have been in had we not had him on analgesics — you throw it away. Maybe you miss it, but you don’t regret throwing it away. I didn’t even throw Charlie away: I kept his ashes in a white box, high on a shelf, with his collar beside it, and the Christmas ornament we got for him, embroidered with his name.

But I feel badly about Charlie’s death. I regret the decision I made, even if it was the only one I could have. I know it was the only one I could have made, and the actual decision took almost no time; there was no question that it was the right thing to do, none at all. But I wish I hadn’t had to make it. I still wish he was here. I miss him. I loved him. I still do.

If he was my friend, then his death at my hands makes some sense. He was suffering. He was losing himself, and every day that he lived would have taken him further away from who he was. When you face that, it may be your friend — your buddy — that you ask to pull the trigger, to pull the plug, to end it.

But I’ve had friends. I have friends. None of the other ones live with me, and even when they did, I never, ever scratched their tummies like they liked. There’s a connection here, a trust and an intimacy, that friendship does not include. And, more, there’s this: the truth is, I don’t know if Charlie wanted me to have him put to sleep. He didn’t ask me for that. He didn’t decide.

I decided for him.

If I had a human child with a terminal illness, at some point, I would make the same decision — though I might decide differently. But still, I would decide to keep fighting or to let go. I would. Not the child. And I would never make that decision for a friend. Only for someone whose life was actually in my hands, someone who trusted me so completely, that I knew so well, that I could make that call for him. I’ve never had a friendship that close, and don’t expect I ever will.

That kind of relationship is family.

So, I guess that’s what Sammy is, what Charlie was. My family. My pack. My son.

My dog.