Halos of Camera Flashes

Ariana Grande’s whistle tone chirps over a symphonic refrain – “imagine… imagine… imagine…” The song culminates abruptly in an upswing of modern gospel – a life cut short. Throughout the song, in spite of by-now nauseating cultural references, like “skrrt skrrt” and “click click click and post / dripped, dripped, dripped, in gold,” the song manages to fuse the balladry of mourning – that keening whistle note and the cathedral-sized interludes – with R&B and well-placed silence and sultry verses.

It’s the fusion of the light-hearted appeal of Hollywood and Tragedy; the compassion and chatter on Twitter, the tributes and the triumphs and the trials of The Known Class – they’re versions of ourselves but with more money. But the personal life of a celebrity is something that’s immortalized on a Wikipedia page. It’s something that can make or break a person’s career; it can be a boon or a bust, and there’s no stepping out of it like there is in other industries. They’re branded for life, their own names and faces either haunting them or making paychecks.

That inseparability – of the public and the private life – has transformed pop music into a goldmine of genuinely personal work.

The pop music of the late 90s and early 00s was filtered through record execs and management teams and paparazzi and stage parents. The music was infectious and remains memorable, but the fact remains that teams of producers and songwriters and hordes of industry buffs were in collusion churning out radio-friendly, semi-salacious, auto-tuned bullshit, much of which was a blatant and bad reinterpretation of the hip-hop that the decade was blessed with several years prior.

Today, the genre is sprouting YouTube and Soundcloud talent, and that competition is driving the big names to capitalize on not just their music but their stories as human beings. An album is equal parts spin-story and sound. Artists like Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande and Drake have at once capitalized on and suffered within their music, their lives exposed, during vulnerable moments of heartbreak and tragedy and scandal.

How could the music not address it? They, and the industry at large, directly capitalize on folly and downfall and death. A catalogue that doesn’t address the tabloid fodder would be inherently dishonest.

Is this the idolatry of our time – the myths behind the art, fallible and suffering but untouchable and divine, in halos of camera flashes? Consumption culture riding as disembodied Gucci Tennis Shoes on the back of a line about Cane and Abel. Tiffany’s and “red bottoms.” The smiles and pap walks, the pouts and press and ever-presence.

Beyoncé is perhaps the master of the untouchable pop culture goddess — one recalls a recent video of she and Jay-Z standing in front of the Royal portrait of Meghan Markle, actress and duchess, thanking fans for honoring them with a Brit Award for Apesh**t. That was itself was a callback to the music video for the lead single from their collaborative album THE CARTERS, the third installment in the Carter Family saga (the first being Beyoncé’s Grammy-nominated Lemonade, the second Jay-Z’s 4:44). The trilogy addressed the rumored marital problems between the untouchable couple in art, nullifying the cultural value of the infamous elevator scuffle that sparked the rumors.

There are now enough celebrities to epitomize virtually every positive and negative personality trait; and it should perhaps come as no surprise that, in a cyclone of reality TV and politics, we’ve been smited by a Charybdis posed as a pseudo-dictator. The noxious side of pop culture, with its Twitter clarion calls and capricious tantrums, has been crystallized on the head of a spray-tanned and unclothed emperor.

Merch is a wearable anointment, a garment; the concerts and interviews and rallies and speeches are churches made available in our pockets and purses. Legions of worshippers watch as their rulers, their idols, take up arms online, in verse, in real-time. The feuds and failures turn the lens back around on us – the viewers, the consumers, the supporters, the followers. The followers.

Follow. It’s a word that succumbs easily to word fatigue, but it’s a term commonly applied to Christ Himself. It’s been turned into a monetized button, a tithing, and a near-perfect barometer of public interest.  “I’m so successful,” boasts Ariana Grande. Follow. It’s a measure of clout, an accomplishment in and of itself – to be known, to be heard. To be heard. One of the latest phrases in our cultural back pocket is just that: “I hear you.”

It’s infectious, isn’t it? The music, in its accessibility and the personas in their imperfection – but most of all the idea that a single human life is something that ought to be heard by others. The clout so easily begets, in a PR shitstorm, notoriety; the fame begets infamy; the fortunes ride the coattails of indiscretion. But their worst-of-times croons nevertheless echo our own.

Our expectations of pop music now reside in our expectations of its makers, and our demand is reversible and forever at-odds – humanity and perfection; a tug-of-war between the self and the icon.

I am Felicity Jane. I am a tornado.

He used to call me Felicity Jane and ask me if I was a tornado. “I’m a tornado. Why do you call me Felicity Jane?”

“That’s what your parents should have called you. They should have called you Felicity Jane. Felicity Jane Crane.”


He took baths on Sunday mornings in something that smelled like evergreens and he was particular about the kind of margarine and marmalade that he scraped across his half-charred toast each morning.

He’d let me turn off the burglar alarm when we’d come back from a trip to the countryside. “Do you remember the code? 4428.” 4 April 1928. His birthday.

He notoriously painted the kitchen a near-fluorescent color called Lemon Ice once after having been tasked with choosing “just a soft yellow, Ewart.”

“Granny’s cross with me,” he said with a grin, admiring his work.


“Good heavens!” he’d say about the news or about how much I’ve grown since he’d last seen me.

“Blast!” was for when he hurt himself or forgot where he’d parked the car when he picked my brother and I up from the airport.

“Shall we get some ice creams?” was for when we went on holiday. He’d buy Magnum ice cream bars and we would sit on a bench in Portscatho or Beaulieu or in the garden of some National Trust site.


The last time he bought me ice cream, the cancer had spread far enough that sitting and standing and walking was painful and he gritted his teeth. We still had a pub lunch like we always did but it was cut short by his pain.

“Would you like an ice cream Emily?” he asked on the way home. I said no but he stopped the car and hobbled into the shop and got me a Magnum ice cream bar. That was in late August of 2012.

On the evening of December 11th, hunched over my laptop finishing a term paper, I had another.

At 6:30 the next morning, my Dad called me. “I’m afraid this is the call.”


I am Felicity Jane. I am a tornado.


Dirge Without Music by Edna St. Vincent Millay

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely.  Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.


Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains,—but the best is lost.


The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love,—
They are gone.  They are gone to feed the roses.  Elegant and curled
Is the blossom.  Fragrant is the blossom.  I know.  But I do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.


Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know.  But I do not approve.  And I am not resigned.

Impossibly Cool

Please refrain from looking impossibly cool on the stairs in case there’s a fire. You may look impossibly cool in the pit or at the bar or in the designated smoking area but not on the stairs. The stairs are for sauntering up and down while your long, neglected, perfect hair moves on your shoulders like a heavy curtain in a light breeze.

Please ensure that the walkway remains unobstructed at all times so that patrons can move freely to and from the bar carrying three plastic cups full of beer in two hands, froth cascading over the sides, eyes darting from the cups to the crowds, shoulders level, gliding ballerino with a backwards cap.

In the interest of maintaining an impossibly cool environment for all guests, we ask that you please abstain from erupting in Whoops and Yeahs. Sir, if I hear another exuberant throatsong I am going to have to ask you to leave. You are to be stoic and unaffected, your eyelids at half-mast, you are a fog moving in or a storm that dies on the brim of a mountain ridge.

If you begin to feel buoyant, there are stoned baristas stationed throughout the venue who will be pleased to remind you that you’re oppressed and poor and uninsured and shot like a cannon from a womb to a tomb.

In an effort to elicit a string of profanity from the eccentric frontman, one and only one motherfucker is permitted to throw an empty cup at the flamboyant mutton-chopped percussionist.

We are pleased to announce an exclusive VIP section for guests over forty. Designed with the salty wisdom of the rapidly-aging in mind, this spacious area nestled between the restrooms and the bar offers a comfortable respite for our patrons who would like to reminisce about the mid-to-late nineties while making hostile remarks about millennials with their thrift stores and their mobile devices. Guests to the VIP area must show proof of at least one bitter divorce at the entrance. Please note that while you are free to leave at any point to victimize disinterested young women wearing plum-colored lipstick, the venue is not responsible for the total deflation of your masculinity with one withering glance.

Youthful faces that have yet to desiccate from prolonged exposure to toxic chemicals are encouraged to smoke natural hand-rolled tobacco in designated areas only. The designated areas are all of the empty spaces between other people. Health-conscious guests who prefer emitting mighty clouds of Glade PlugIn vapor from their smug lungs are asked to please stand near the stage as this creates a pleasing psychedelic ether around the musicians whose arms all move up and down at the same time as if connected by fishing lines to a puppeteer.

We appreciate your help in maintaining a brooding, self-conscious environment in which concertgoers can hear live the exact same songs they discovered from a single earbud threaded up the sleeve of a baja hoodie in chemistry class ten years ago. Please bring yourself and two sulking pre-anesthetized friends to the benefit party after the show in a clawfoot bathtub at 220 Waller Street. Free drugs with your donation of 20 damp dollars. All proceeds go to some guy with neck tattoos.

The Blighted Crevices of Anywhere

Boca Raton, 2003. You’re in one of those kind of shitty beachside hotels that’s 5 years overdue for a renovation. The white vinyl upholstery on the booths is grimy and the watercolors on the walls are faded by the sun. The waitstaff are forced to wear visors and white denim shorts and they are being bossed around by a drunken Cuban and sexually harassed by sixty-seven years plus three Coronas at each table every night.
Your sweaty, sunburnt thighs are sticking to the vinyl and the water is treated with sulfur and tastes like flatulence. You’re picking at dry flakes of what is allegedly Mahi Mahi and it’s drenched in bright green Zinger Sauce and served alongside a pitiful salad garnished with clementine wedges. There is utter silence and a fallen army of cocktail glasses between you and your spouse.
A voice bellows from across the half-empty dining room. He didn’t order this. This wasn’t what he asked for. Besides it looked like it came out of the freezer and no he knows what good steak tastes like and that wasn’t it. He doesn’t want an apology he wants it to be taken off the bill and so what if he ate it all he didn’t order it and it was your screw up not his – what’s your name – it was your screw up Chad not his so you can take this bill and shove it up your ass. Can he speak to the manager, you’re a zero Chad, where’s your manager. Go get your manager and quit making excuses he’s a very powerful man and he’ll make sure you never get another job in Boca Raton again and go get your goddamn manager he said he doesn’t wanna hear another word out of you Chad
The voice is ejaculating from a tawny plump mole-rat of a man. A Hawaiian shirt billows on top of the loose skin that flaps with his gesticulations; the whole thing seems to begin in his combover – which looks as if it were plucked off of a corn husk and placed atop two quivering jowls – and end in the defeated hand-wringing of the waiter. The manager arrives and deflects a barrage of the kind of racism that only spews out of those who move reckless through the world without a shred of self-awareness or empathy. The manager grabs the sweaty wrinkled receipt from the sun-mottled hand of the Hawaiian Shirt and begrudgingly removes from the bill the Surf N’ Turf, which is now being dissolved by a half-gallon of bile beneath a single layer of cotton-polyester blend and 40 pounds of subcutaneous fat.
The neural pathway from his brain to his mouth is an absolute colostomy and you wouldn’t trust him if he tried to sell you a wilted carnation from a plastic bucket outside of a Chinese restaurant in the blinking neon lights of the blighted crevices of anywhere. But he did manage to sell you the fantasy of destruction once, wrapped in a flag.

One Year Later

I left for my trip a year ago. I left mostly because I was cold. London was freezing and damp and dark, and I felt like my grandfather was somehow still in the walls and the creaks and the whispers of the world outside the window. He was nowhere to be found in the central heating system, that’s for sure.
I looked at a map and found a city in the south of Spain about which I knew nothing but I figured it was probably nice enough, given the latitude. I was supposed to meet some friends in Amsterdam in mid-March.
Six months later, after following an itinerary that had been borne out of little more than whims and geography, I watched the sun rise over the last little shred of Europe as the bus screamed towards the Bosphorus. It dumped me out at an enormous humid stinking bus station and I wandered across the sprawl of Istanbul in the heavy heat of mid-morning in a daze of sleep deprivation, halfway lost but used to the feeling. I checked into the hostel and left immediately for the Hagia Sophia, which I’d been dreaming about for months, and stood and looked up and all the chaos around me fell away and there was a white noise – the stupor of the sleepless night and the electricity of reaching the proverbial mountaintop – and then this song started playing in my head, which my dad sent me as a birthday gift – Love You by the Free Design:
“Give a little time for the child within you,
don’t be afraid to be young and free.
Undo the locks and throw away the keys
and take off your shoes and socks, and run you.
La, la, la…”
I’m writing this from the same room I lived in as a teenager, at the same perch from which I dreamed up all the different people I might be right now – I could be infinite permutations of myself; I could be miserable, I could be in love, I could be dead – but I’m none of those things.
The song and the sleep deprivation and the scale of it, the arabesque and the gold and the history reverberating through it; it made me feel childlike. All of it did – the languages I didn’t know, the streets I’d never seen, the customs I was unfamiliar with, the faiths I’d never been exposed to. But all those childish prophesies about adulthood seemed like pure fiction – fantasies, the idolatries of adolescence; they’d stemmed from fears and discomforts that were long gone. What was left of childhood was the peace of raw wonder.

The Calculus of Fear

What if we chose to accept the fact that every few years, despite all reasonable precautions, some hundreds or thousands of us may die in the sort of ghastly terrorist attack that a democratic republic cannot 100-percent protect itself from without subverting the very principles that make it worth protecting?

– David Foster Wallace, “Just Asking”

I have read that essay dozens of times, and in the wake of the most recent tragedy in Paris I’ve found myself reciting those lines again and again as if thumbing a rosary. And then I’ve started spinning my own hypotheticals, clamoring, like everyone else, for some idea that makes it all seem a little less horribly inevitable. I desperately wish there was some solution besides putting my hands over my ears and screaming.

I’m now of the mind that there aren’t any good solutions. This is the bed we’ve made for ourselves. Is it crazy to assert that maybe this was the kind of outcome that we should have expected when we began our not-so-surgical operations in the Middle East? Is it crass and insensitive to say that we’re undeniably responsible for the circumstances that have sprouted the most recent crop of extremist murderers?

I’ve learned this lesson (excruciatingly) in my personal life – there are conflicts in which one person is certainly the aggressor, and one person is certainly the victim, but there is very often a liaison without whom none of this would have ever happened in the first place, and who is in no way free of blame. A lot of my personal growth in the past year has centered on a really cathartic undertaking – sifting through all of the bad things that have ever happened in my life and parsing out how things might have been different if I hadn’t been selfish, reckless, and irresponsible. No, I didn’t personally regurgitate red wine all over the carpet, but I was the one who had the party and plied my drunk friend with my parents’ wine. Yes, my car was senselessly vandalized with a beer bottle last weekend for no good reason, but I did leave my car behind a building by a dumpster on a Saturday night in a known hotbed of crime and indecency.

Getting back to geopolitics, if we hadn’t stormed into an enormous desert and used heavy artillery to inflict democracy upon scores of heretofore indifferent shepherds, we might not have created the power vacuum that fostered the terrorists who want to destroy us.

Is it out of the question to demand a little bit of introspection on the part of politicians? To ask them to accept the responsibility that comes with being hired to alter the course of human history? We trust them to do it, we pay them to do it, and then we dab at our tears and nod when they stand at podiums and give very somber tributes to the dead before promising to unleash rivers of blood in retaliation.

Maybe instead of shrugging and muttering “boots on the ground” around the water cooler in the wake of tragedy, we should ask ourselves some difficult questions. Let’s start there.

First of all, to what degree can we prevent bad things from happening in general? To what degree should we try? To what degree have we squandered any chance of that? How close can we realistically get to creating a risk-free utopia? Hasn’t “getting rid of Them” proven to be a little bit too hamfisted to be a viable solution to terrorism?

Besides, who exactly are They? Who is Us? Even if we could eliminate Them, what kinds of thugs do you suppose would pop up in their place, and would we feel compelled to eliminate them as well? At what point do we declare victory?

Who do we entrust with the charred landscape of that victory?

And, at the risk of sounding cold and utilitarian, shouldn’t there be some kind of calculus or measure or scale that we can use to weigh the deadliness of a thing against the fevered alarmism that we employ in response to it? Cancer is deadly. Car accidents are deadly. Terrorism is deadly. The only thing that is inherently different about terrorism is that it’s a manner of death created for the sole purpose of instilling fear in a population. That’s the great paradox of it – the way we revile it is exactly what makes it successful. 

There is always an it-could-have-been-me after terrorist attacks (at least the ones that happen on Western soil). It’s that weird twinge of self-centeredness we get when we imagine our own lives ending in the same gruesome way – I went to Paris once and went to a café just like that! That’s the response that the terrorists were aiming for. Isn’t that frustrating? Our empathy begets our fear, and that fear is the victory of the terrorists. They’ve won, in their twisted way, the hearts and minds of the people.

Terrorism frustrates our baseline perceptions of safety in such awful ways because it isn’t something that we normally consider during routine risk-analyses (with the exception of a couple of government departments whose very existence depends on perpetuating fear). Car accidents and cancer diagnoses are statistically probable fates, and falling victim to brainwashed murderers is not. Death at the hands of brainwashed murderers is just not the kind of death that we’re prepared to accept. So we (whoever that is) have to do something. And the Do Something Mentality has begotten some of the absolute worst ideas the world has ever seen. Public policy borne out of the Do Something Mentality is almost always ineffective at best (the TSA) and evil at worst (Japanese internment camps).

And then there is the matter of Us vs. Them.

Terrorism is something that They do to Us. It’s our natural inclination to appreciate that simple dynamic. There’s a lot of nobility in fighting to preserve one’s way of life. People relish the opportunity to feel like they’re a part of something great. We love solidarity.

But no one said “that could have been me” when a remote-controlled flying robot blew a Yemeni wedding party to smithereens. Doesn’t that say something about where are our sense of solidarity comes from? If any wedding in the West had been vaporized for any reason, it would have received a hell of a lot of airtime or at least a couple of casseroles.

Before November 13th, there was (rightfully) a huge amount of media attention given to a movement that is based on the idea that we should feel solidarity with people who come from different backgrounds. That those lives matter. It’s a platitude, to be sure, but it’s not without merit. An innocent life lost is an innocent life lost. What difference does it make if it’s Jonbenet Ramsey or Trayvon Martin or Abdul Khader?

Am I out of line in pointing out the discrepancy between the respects we pay the 129 victims of the November 13th attacks and the indifference with which we regard the hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars? Am I such an isolationist for thinking that there’s no difference whatsoever between a dead Parisian and a dead Iraqi? Can I make the case that maybe the term “isolationist” is Orwellian newspeak? That the people who throw around the term as a pejorative are the very ones who think that lives like theirs are the only ones worth protecting?

Are we, by failing to accept responsibility for the colossal role we’ve played in fucking up the Middle East, tacitly in support of the idea that one American victim of 9/11 is worth roughly 71 innocent victims of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? What constitutes a reasonable amount of “intervention,” and how accurately does that body count reflect our values?

Screen Shot 2015-11-24 at 1.59.13 AMI have to wonder if doing nothing would be the ultimate triumph over terror. What does it say about our purported resilience that we are so warm to the idea of European countries instituting martial law as a precautionary measure? What message does it send to our enemies that our defense relies so heavily on drooling high-school dropouts wearing latex gloves and plastering color-coded “threat levels” all over the airport? Are we scared, or aren’t we? Is it out of the question to grit our teeth and continue to enjoy life in the wonderful, rich cultures that we’ve created by embracing free minds?

If every action we take in response to an act of terror is an admission of our own vulnerability, haven’t we already lost?



It’s that time of year again. Every shitty seasonal article clogging your News Feed starts with the same hackneyed opener, everyone is too politically correct to find your grandfather’s senility endearing, and the perennial flood of Thanksgiving turkey how-to articles is just ramping up.

You probably have a vegan friend who delights in reminding you about the genetic modifications that have rendered the modern turkey so buxom as to be immobile. You probably have a neckbeard friend who opportunistically mythbusts that old wives’ tale about tryptophan making you comatose. But I’m going to take a somehow unpopular position and advise you to say no to turkey. I’m going Nancy Reagan this year. Just say no. Turkey is not good.

gobblesIt’s touted as a lean meat by health nuts, which is essentially an admission that it tastes like shit. The debate should end there. Turkey’s one alleged merit is that it lacks the most desirable, most delicious component of meat, which is fat. Notice that the food scientists who are paid huge sums by multinational conglomerates to chemically engineer gustatory perfection never make turkey-flavored anything. Because turkey has no flavor.

On its best day (that would be Thanksgiving, because no self-respecting person would undertake the Sisyphean task of trying to make a turkey palatable unless tradition demanded it), turkey is really, really average. It’s just okay. The meat itself is just – it’s like eating styrofoam that’s been in the same room as homeopathic chicken broth. The goal of cooking a turkey is to make it taste like something else entirely. It’s a canvas for gravy. It’s a stage for cranberry. A cozy nook for stuffing. A lovely centerpiece.

When people discuss the turkey at Thanksgiving, they expect it to be shitty. If the chef manages to salvage any trace of moisture or flavor, it’s considered a success. Nobody ever fawns over turkey. “What a beautiful turkey!” they’ll exclaim. This just means that it adheres to society’s standards of what a holiday spread should look like. They’ll say, “It’s so moist,” meaning that you managed to preserve the water content – which is extremely difficult to do when there is so little fat to help contain the moisture. They’ll ask, in amazement, “how did you do it?!” because they cannot believe that you managed to not fuck up the meal by ruining a notoriously fickle bird. Nobody orders turkey at a restaurant, unless it’s one of those bullshit locaganigluten-free cafés that value elitism over food.


A turkey-free utopia. Austria circa 1939

This Thanksgiving – when you’re indulging in a truly succulent morsel of ham or beef or duck – any animal who hasn’t been genetically Dolly Partonified, who grew up singing in an Alpine pasture wearing repurposed curtains, who did not die for the sake of being the cartoonish nucleus of your smorgasbord, whose preparation does not require constant waterboarding – this Thanksgiving, you can direct your trite I’m-thankful-fors to me, Nancy Reagan

Vote for me

We accept the enormous risk of automobiles even though it’s statistically certain to kill you, kill someone else, maim you, maim someone else, make you want to kill yourself, make you want to kill someone else, and/or contribute to climate change. It sucks. But we accept the risk every day and we drive. Because It’s Free Pie Wednesday at O’Charley’s!

Why can’t we have the same attitude about terrorism and bacon? Yes, we can molest every single person at the airport while they’re on my way to my grandfather’s funeral God rest his soul, and we could stop enjoying breakfast and brunch — but is that the world we envision for ourselves? Is that the world we want to inflict upon our progeny? Cant we stand in awe of the miracle of human flight without imagining ourselves involved tragically in some pervert’s apocalyptic fantasy? Can’t we accept the nourishing perfection of pig flesh without confabulating some unlikely scenario in which a coroner attributes our demise to Oscar Meyer himself?

We tell them – you know, the Children, For whom we Do everything because we hate everyone over the age of 9 including ourselves – we tell them to reach for the stars and we don’t publicly taunt them with the exact mechanisms by which they would die if they happened to be in space without a space suit. You didn’t see any health and safety warnings on the Apollo 11 broadcast, did you? No you did not, because the heroes at NASA left their pillow forts every morning and planted the American Flag on the moon.

Which was crass if you ask me.

The Copycat

He knew long before he pulled the trigger that he’d be starring today on your News Feed, that he’d be a Wikipedia page, that he’d have the singsong voices of Morning Edition drilling his name into infamy during your commute and all the housewives wringing their bejeweled hands. He knew he’d get an emergency press conference shoehorned into the President’s agenda, that he would prompt national conversations about whatever it is he’d scrawled into the margins of his Algebra notes, that he would take the starring role and his victims would be nameless extras in his production.

He did a damn good job, didn’t he? When he stared cold into the gallery of camera lenses as he was escorted by police into the next act of his suddenly meaningful existence? When his name, over the course of a single day, was branded into dialogues on things we’re conveniently already mad as hell about, but had forgotten to tisk-tisk until today? Do you think he’d intended to put a bullet through his own skull but decided at the last minute that he’d rather include the part where his trial and execution were also dissected, filmed, and lauded by critics everywhere?

There’s a sequel. There always is. There’s a little boy with knobby knees and plaquey teeth and a sticky keyboard who is feeling inspired tonight, imagining his own name catapulted onto the illuminated marquee of your consciousness.

Don’t utter his name. Every time you say his name, you’re creating the next one. Every time you watch the grainy footage of his boyhood and of his rise to fame, you are applauding his showmanship. Every time you use him as the anti-hero in your self-righteous soliloquies, you’re giving credence to the motives of the next.

Let them scream in silence. Let their little Mein Kampfs rot in the dampness of their mothers’ basements. Leave all the carpets white.

This is the Balkans, baby. 

Hello from Budva, Montenegro, the Russian-owned Riviera. It feels good to be back in picturesque little seaside towns after spending two weeks in some of the more, ahem, frayed parts of the Balkans. This particular neighborhood of nations is defined by stark contrasts. The gorgeous, striking landscapes are periodically blighted by gray communist-era brutalism or inexplicably unfinished buildings. The mountains around Sarajevo – home to the 1984 Winter Olympics, and less than a decade later, the Republika Srpska forces who besieged the city for 1,425 days. The lovely, generous people never fail to prove the resilience of the human heart in the aftermath of one of the worst wars of our time. Contrasts.

The other defining feature of the Balkans is – well, it’s like something you have to whack with a wrench a few times before it turns on. I’ve gotten used to things being a little bit fucked up all the time. The road from Sarajevo to Podgorica – the capitol cities of two tiny neighboring countries – is a one-lane road that is only paved some of the time. The train? Oh, there is no direct train. I could conceivably get there by train; it takes 47 hours and two changes. So I take the bus.

The bus driver smokes. Constantly. I can’t open the window because the window doesn’t open. Sometimes when we go around a bend, a welcome breeze makes its way back to me. The bus screeches to a halt on the side of the road and picks up an old toothless man, who also smokes. The ancient marshrutka is full, so he stands in the aisle. One cow and a few meager fruit stands later, we again come to a halt. We’ve probably only traveled about 3 kilometers – the bus is going at a leisurely pace to avoid head-on collisions. Remember, this is a one lane road. We are stopped because there is an excavator blocking the way. It’s moving a pile of dirt and Coca-Cola bottles off the road. The toothless man gets off the bus and smokes. The bus driver stays on the bus and smokes. I laugh.

I get to Podgorica and set out to find my hostel. But I walk up to the address I’d saved on Google Maps and it is a little hovel with an old truck in the front yard. In this European capitol city. No hostel. No problem! I am in a European capitol city. I will find a cafe, hop on to the wifi network, and figure this out. I walk around a bit and see plenty of shoe stores and lots of communist-era brutalism and unfinished buildings. Lots of betting parlors. Several shops that cater to the distinct male Balkan uniform of Adidas pants, a graphic polo shirt, and a man-purse. A couple of meager fruit stands. Not a cafe in sight. I keep wandering. I don’t have any Euros (did you know that the Euro is the default currency of Montenegro because there is no official state currency?) so I look for a bank. Nope, no banks either. Huh. I can’t buy myself a coffee at the cafe I eventually find, so I just ask the waitress, who is wearing the female Balkan uniform of what can only be described as stage makeup, if I can use the wifi.

I find another hostel very close by, miraculously, in the 36 second window between the moment I connect to the wifi and the moment it stops working. The hostel is in “Blok 7.” Easy enough! I get to the place where Google alleges there to be a hostel, but I once again see no evidence of a hostel. Lesson learned: Google Maps is not to be trusted. I see a conspicuously non-local guy wearing crocs and a fishing hat who I assume to be another traveler. It’s a guy from St. Petersburg who is here to make a transfer in the bank, which closed at 3pm. He has no idea about the hostel, he lives in a neighboring town. He gives me 5€ and advises me to “get out of this fucking shithole as fast as you can, this place is terrible, why would you want to stay?” I can’t fathom the idea of spending any more time on a godforsaken bus. I give him back the money. He asks a local guy in Serbian if he knows where this hostel is, and the man points me in the right direction. Thank god.

But this is one of those enormous apartment buildings built by Tito’s men. There are 5 entrances and 8 stories. I walk into the betting parlor downstairs and ask the kind lady if she knows where the entrance to the hostel is. “No,” she says. “People always come in and ask me but I don’t know.” Okay. But it’s in this building. I sit on the steps outside and try to connect to one of the open networks to check the hostel website. None of them work. As luck would have it, a man walks up and asks me through an impressive bite of hamburger if I’m looking for the hostel. This is the owner of the hostel. The entrance is about 15 meters away. He points at the sign – a piece of sun-bleached paper in a plastic sleeve posted far above eye-level on the corner of the building. How could I miss it?