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Saturday, December 26, 2015

Commencement Speech Jefferson County Open School 2015

I was an honored to give a commencement speech when my son Charley Landes graduated from Jefferson County Open School in 2015.  The speech follows:


I came across this article and thought it interesting. 

March 6, 2002
The Headline-  Dog Chastised for acting Like a dog
SACRAMENTO, CA— Obeying the instincts bred into him by millions of years of evolution, Shiner, a 2-year-old golden retriever, incurred his owner's wrath Monday by acting like a dog.  Shiner’s owner Terri Solanis was heard shouting "Stop barking at that damn squirrel!” and  asking "Can't you sit still for five minutes?" Solanis has previously scolded Shiner for sniffing feces encountered on the sidewalk, licking his own groin, and wolfing down his food.
 Issue 38 of the onion

It’s my best guess that what it takes to be an adult is a selective amnesia where in we forget what it’s like to be a teenager, and act surprised when teenagers act age appropriate and very much the way we acted when we were teenagers.  

Since the time before indoor plumbing and paperclips teenagers have never been content to sit around the fire and listen to the oral history as conveyed by an elder villager drunk on fortified wine carrying on about the good old days and the dangers of the dark woods.  Teenagers rip around those dark woods, skinny dipping in the hidden pools, chasing down the silver stag, being kings of carrot flowers and goddesses of rainbow sugar.  Sometimes clumsily and sometimes with the remarkable grace of innocence, teenagers come through the years, and become adults.  And as I defined adults obtaining a selective amnesia to not only to forget the joy of the dark woods, but also to fear the dark woods. 

It is why I am so honored that you chose me to speak to you on this glorious day of your graduation from a forward thinking and enlighted high school.  It is an honor because the spirit you carry in your bodies is the most vital and potent spirit I know.  A spirit undiluted and pure.  A spirit most alive away from the campfire out under the pearlescent, swirling galaxies glittered with more stars than there are grains of sand on Earth.  A spirit that believes in loyalty and friendship.  A spirit of rowdiness, adventure, curiosity and play.  A spirit of empathy.  I am so humbled that I can be amongst you on your commencement day.  I am recharged and refreshed in your presence. 

I left the security of the hearth and jetted out into the dark woods the moment I could.  When I graduated from high school (barely) we all threw our caps into to the air and yelled “Hooray!”.  I was out the door before my cap hit the ground.  I hitched a ride to South Carolina and slept on a friend’s couch, earning money shoveling shit on a horse ranch, bar backing at a Marriott resort and selling safari clothes at a Banana Republic in the mall.   I would ride my bike 10 miles total from job to job across the isle of Hilton Head, a golf and tennis resort.  Nobody rode bikes on the island.  I was received much like an armadillocrossing a road in Iceland.  People didn’t know what to do with me, they  were clueless on how to “share the road”.  My presence just pissed them off. 

I started work at sunrise with the horses then ended work at the Marriott hotel bar at 1:00 am shooing drunken convention goers out of the bar so they could make horrible mistakes in the privacy of their own rooms.  The hours in between I would be at Banana Republic selling leather bomber jackets to doctors and lawyers while their trophy wives eyed trinkets and baubles. 

Did I tell you when I got to Hilton Head I was broke?  No joke broke.  No money for food broke.  In the kitchen where I was staying was a package of white rice, a half a block of swiss cheese and hotdogs.  If you cut up the hotdogs and sautee them, add the rice, then stir in shredded (not cubed) swiss cheese you can make a pretty delicious meal.  I ate that for almost two weeks as I saved money for my first months rent.  I was just 18 and had an 18 year olds appetite. Between the manual labor and the bike riding I was burning more calories than I was eating.   Wasting away I thought of food and nothing else.   Well,  err I was 18.  Let’s say I thought of food and little else. 

Despite working 18 hours a day the worst part of my day was the hour lunch break I had to take while working at Banana Republic.  It was hot as hell on that island so I stayed inside the air conditioned mall.  Killing time.  Walking past windows displaying things I didn’t need and couldn’t afford.  I spent a lot of time sitting at a table in the food court.  An overworked, famished, teen-ager sitting in the middle of a food court, surrounded by the succulent scents of mouth-watering pizza, chow mein noodles, fried egg rolls, chik’fil a sandwiches, gyros meat sizzingling on a spit, are you kidding me.  I do not make light of torture but damn… that was torture. 

Finally I earned enough money to pay my rent and pay back the IOU’s I had accrued during my time of pennilessness.  After all debts were paid I had a grand total of $15 to get me through the next two weeks until I got paid again.  I knew exactly what I was going to do with that $15 dollars.  GORGE MY FACE WITH MALL FOOD!

When my hour break came I strolled past the food court offerings and started creating a complex algorithm where in I tried to figure out just exactly how many calories I could ingest for $15 plus the 20% discount given to all mall employees.  The Stromboli from Sabbaros is more food for the buck than a slice of pizza, I definitely  need egg rolls and fried rice.  I shopped the food court carefully. 

Like a patient lover I wanted to extend out this great moment as long as I could, so before I made my purchases I decided to stroll the mall one time.  I went into the bookstore which I had been in many times before.  There was a new cat working behind the counter.  He was a few years older than me, had curly unkempt hair, wore Ira Glass Glasses, and had a small button of Karl Marx pinned to his lapel.  Yes.  In 1989 he was an OG hipster. 
“Can I help you find anything?” he asked.
“Nah,” I said.  Hunger seizes your tounge.
“You like black comedies?” he asked.
Black comedies?  I thought.  I know we are in South Carolina but damn have some tact.  He must of seen the consternation in my eyes because he quickly followed with.
“You know dark comedies?  A comic work utilizing farce and morbid humor to make light of a taboo subject.” 
“Morbid humor is my favorite”  I say. 
“You should read this then,”  he says reaching for a thick tomb, on the cover is a cartoon image of a man in a winter’s hat, scarf, thick coat and a big yellow bird pulling on his ear.
I read the cover “A confederacy of dunces by John Kennendy Toole” I read flipping it over to see the price, “$13.99”.
In that moment a new variable entered into my algorithm.  I can spend my $15 dollars and eat well today and then sit in the food court for the next two weeks with nothing to do but suffer or I can buy this book and be occupied during my hour break until I get paid again. 

I bought the book. 

That moment, being alone, hungry and broke in the dark woods I found my passions.  Food and Books.  Food and Books.  Food and Books.  These are the two things to which I have since dedicated my professional life.  And with restaurants and bars in two countries, my first novel on the shelf, another in the works and being the fiction editor of a quarterly literary magazine pursuing my passions has served me well.

I don’t know where you will find your passions.  Perhaps under the tutelage of a great professor, maybe on a long walk next to a river,  or on a visit to a foreign country, or while volunteering to help those in need.  I don’t you’ll find you passions, but I’m do know passion does not sit next to the campfire, passions play in the secret gardens of the dark woods.  Class of 2015 Do not be afraid Go out and find you passion. 

Friday, December 25, 2015

Frantic. Crazy. American

Frantic.  Crazy.  American.   
By Daniel Landes

Imagine my surprise when I first saw the I am American tattoo across my forehead.  Ori, an Israeli guy I met in Amsterdam, pointed it out.  There it was, a garish tattoo, reflected off the glass of a storefront window.  Behind the glass was a lone woman in lingerie; tits pushed together, her thin lips coated in pink glossy lipstick.  She was running a large brush through her hair.    
“What are you 22 years old?” Ori asked.  “I’m surprised you never noticed it before.” “Yeah me too,” I said rubbing my forehead.  Ori was leaning against the glass looking out toward the street smoking a cigarette. “Your nationality is overt,” he said.  We had been ‘window shopping’ in the red light district that afternoon. “All day you’ve been wanting to go in for a shag.  You want to go in so badly.  But you won’t let yourself.  You are so American.”  He was right about me wanting to go visit the women behind the glass and that I probably wouldn’t.   Shit, I thought, I am so American. 

“Let’s go get a coffee and have smoke,” Ori said.  I looked back at the woman behind the glass as we walked away.  She blew me a kiss.  “I think I should go back to that one,” I said, “We share some sort of connection.”  Ori laughed.  “Okay go do it,” He said.  “Nah, let’s go have a smoke.  I’ll come back later.”  I said.

My libido, which had been pounding in my head like a caged ape all afternoon, decreased in intensity the moment we left the red light district.  Women, who don’t fuck for money, were walking down the street, just normal like.  Ori walked with a confident stride.  He had just finished with his two-year mandatory military duty for the state of Israel.   He was in Europe to party and try to ‘forget about all that bullshit’.  We were sharing a room in a hostel near the red light district.  Our room smelled like a dirty mop head.  It was my first time out of the US and I felt like a wide-eyed, rubbernecked, bumpkin gawking at everything I saw; like the scantily clad women behind glass selling their sex.  Ori was a big, handsome guy who knew how to handle himself. He was worldly.  I bounded at his heels like a little dog looking for this big dogs approval.  

We ducked into a quiet coffee shop where Ori ordered a gram of yellow hash, two CafĂ© Americanos and mineral water.  He started rolling the hash into long, thin sticks and laid them across tobacco and rolled it all up.   “What does it mean to you to be an American?”  He asked as he lifted a flame up and lit the spliff.  He exhaled a great plume of smoke over my head.  The guy behind the counter came by and dropped off our coffees. 

Ori sat with the spliff for a while, taking a puff, holding it, and then exhaling these giant plumes of smoke. When I hit it, I coughed out a weak cloud of smoke. 
“I haven’t thought about it too much.” I said.  “This is my first time out of the States and I have to say I feel a bit like a lost puppy dog.”  I took another drag and began to feel anxiety as the THC entered my blood stream. Often I get self-conscious when I’m high and clam up or freak out and have to leave but Ori put me at ease so I pulled my feet up on to the booth and released another weak plume of smoke; suppressing a cough. 

Looking out the window at the steady stream of bicycles passing by I hit the spliff again.  The bikers morphed out of focus as they passed the beads of moisture that were accumulating on the window as a fog rolled in “That’s not true,” I said to Ori, “I have thought about what it means to be an American quite a bit, but I haven’t felt comfortable expressing how I feel.” 
“Why not?” asked Ori. 
“It’s like telling people you don’t like sports or don’t eat meat.  People aren’t interested in hearing about it.  I mean, complaining about America is like complaining about your parents.  You end up just sounding whiny and ungrateful.  I don’t want to seem ungrateful, I’m a lucky to be born in the mouth of the wolf and all, but I’m also feeling very critical at the moment.”
 “The mouth of the wolf?”  Ori repeated.  
“Sure, the mouth of the wolf, where the fuckin’ teeth are.  My nation is always at war.   We are warriors.” 
“My nation is no different.”  Ori said. 
“I was never in the military like you, but I have blood on my hands all the same.  The food I eat and the bed I sleep in are the spoils of war.  The land I call home was taken from Native people by treachery.  A large portion of the infrastructure of my nation is built with forced and slave labor.  It’s not so different than any other nation I guess, but I think it is important to at least acknowledge our brutal past.  Once I began to acknowledge our true history I’ve found it very difficult to be prideful in America.  I don’t even feel compelled to talk about the good parts.  There is plenty of that chatter going around already.”

 Ori stirred sugar cubes into his coffee.  “Our nations are a lot a like, it’s perhaps why we are such close allies.  But really what does being American mean to you?  I am curious.” 
“Why are you so curious?”  I asked.  Ori looked out the window.  It grew darker as the fog thickened.  The amber glow from the streetlight outside was captured inside the dewdrops that clung to the window like little beads of sap.   They collected together and when they got heavy enough they ran down the window in beautiful streaks.   “I just spent two-years of my life training to defend my country.  To kill for my country.  I strung razor wire and defended an ever-expanding border from a people that used to call my country home.  My ‘enemies’.”  The air in room felt heavy.  “I feel corrupted by deep lies of Israeli exceptionalism.  I feel brainwashed.  Manipulated by our national mythology.  Do you?  Do you believe the lies your country tells you?” 

“Damn Ori.  If you want jump into the deep end I need to switch from coffee to beer.”  Ori began rolling another spliff.  His brow was furrowed.  
“Answer my question,”  He said.  “What does it mean to you to be an American?”

I was stoned.  The coffee was bitter.  I got up and ordered a beer.  Sitting back down, I put my elbows on the table and looked right into Ori’s eyes.   “Look man,” I said, “I am the spoiled child of the most notorious crime family in history.  I’m a viscous baby.  A werewolf in diapers.  I am the Auspicious One destroying with fire and bullets and planting ugly seeds in the burnt and bloody earth.   I’m reaping mutated fruit that tastes like nothing but pithy lackluster plastic.  I’m a goddam Pilgrim, a Yankee, a Confederate, a Texas Ranger, a Chemist, a Pusher, a Twisted Psychologist and a Fake Doctor.  I’m a mad fucking scientist, a super villain hell bent on world domination.  I am the Apathetic One.  I don’t give a fuck about anything but my ham sandwich.  Don’t touch my ham sandwich or I’ll blow you into smithereens.”

Ori looked at me, eyes wide.  “Jesus man, you are stoned.” 

“Yes, and I’m super hungry.   Let’s go eat.”  I said.  The fog was rolling away as the sun returned and began evaporating the moisture from the window.  “No you go on,” Ori said, “I’m going to get back to the hostel.  I’m awaiting a phone call from my mother.” 

We departed.  I was too stoned to navigate food or beer so I hopped on my bicycle and began to ride around the canals.   Melding into the river of bikers I flowed along with them with no destination in mind.  When I reached the outskirts of the city the bike herd began to thin until there were only a few of us left.  The road opened up into suburban neighborhoods.  While in the commercial areas of the city I felt comfortable but once I got to the outskirts of town, amongst the residences I felt out of place and immediately lonely.  There are families that live here. My family is far away.   I am alone. 

Up ahead a woman was riding her bike along the road.  She had inadvertently tucked her grey wool skirt into the top of her panties exposing most of her buttocks and the silky whiteness of her underwear.  I peddled hard to get closer to her.  She rode fast and effortlessly.  Her blond hair flowed behind her.  She had on a white blouse.   As I got closer I noticed she had on nylon stockings.  The nylons pressed the ruffles of her panties flat.  The seam of her nylons ran between her ass cheeks splitting them into two perfect hemispheres.   Standing up on the pedals I pumped hard to keep up.

She rounded a corner and pulled her bike into a bike rack outside a small neighborhood market.  I parked my bike just out of sight.  As she got off her bike she realized the state of her skirt.   Untucking it she pressed it flat against her thighs and ass.  She bent over to lock her bike against the rack.  I stared from a distance.  My mind raced through scenarios in which I may engage her in conversation.  Each scenario ended with me undressing her.  My libido, the caged ape, began to pound between my temples again.  She entered the market.  I followed.  Although the store was small I kept a distance between us.  Her cheeks were rosy from exercise and her eyes piercing blue.  I felt like a puppy dog.   A few more people entered the store.  I stood next to her as she pulled a bottle of water from the fridge.  She smelled of salt water and roses. 

Stuck in my throat was the word I wanted to speak to her.  Just one word.  Hello.  It wouldn’t come out.  She stood behind an elderly man with smoke grey hair and waited to pay.  I stood behind her and inhaled her scent deeply.  The ape pounded harder and harder against the cage.  My plan was to talk to her once we got outside.

I said nothing to her.  As I unlocked my bike my inner voice said ‘you are super creepy.’  It’s true. 

When I returned to the hostel Ori was sitting at a long table in the lobby with four or five other travelers.  There was hash, weed, loose tobacco and about a dozen Heineken bottles in front of the group.  
“Ori I need to talk to you.”  I said franticly.  The group looked up at me.  I looked away. 
“What’s up man?”  Ori asked “You look like a fucking crazy person.”  The group laughed.  “You are driving yourself mad.  Just go and do what you want to do.  Go back to the red light district and fuck.” 
Embarrassment washed over me.  I knew Ori was 100% right though. 
“I’m going,” I announced.  “I’m going to do it.”  I walked out the door toward the red light district.

 I walked for hours in the red light district that night.  Frantic.  Crazy.  American. 

The Kiss is the First to go

The kiss is the first to go

On a hot summer day Samhari sat on the banks of the River and watched the Willow King swim in it’s current.  Samhari’s feet soaked in the cold mountain water, her toes digging into the sand and gravel.  She waved to the Willow King as he floated by.  He pulled himself out and sat next to her.  “I think we are moving to fast,” Samhari said finally expressing a thought she had been thinking for days.  He dried his face on her skirt and suggested that they move to the sunny side of the river, out from beneath the shadow of the palisades, to continue the conversation.  She touched the gooseflesh on his upper arm and looked into his eyes.  When he spoke of the other side of the river his eyes twinkled.  He was charming.  She preferred the shade of the palisades but knew she would acquiesce to his desires.   “I think we are moving to fast,” she repeated.

They sat for a moment in the shade wrapped in a wool blanket and ate crisp apples and drank red wine from the bottle.  The Willow King began to gather their belongings into his river bag.  He corked the wine and threw his apple core into the current where it bobbed slowly and drifted down stream.  Wordlessly he began to cross the river.  Samhari followed.  On the sunny side of the river the Willow King spread the blanket onto the flat top of a large granite boulder that damned the flow of water into a deep pool where fat rainbow trout lurked and slurped winged caddisflies from the surface or slurped them deep below as larva.

Samhari was growing anxious that he had not responded to her concerns for the velocity in which their relationship was developing.  “What are you thinking about?” she asked.  The Willow King stretched in the sun and rested his cheek on the warm granite rock.  He reached up to move a stray lock of hair from Samhari’s face to behind her ear.  Small birds sang lilting ditties from the braches of the overhanging cottonwood trees.  The Willow King smiled and let out a breath. “When I sit by the river I imagine throwing my brain into its currents allowing the cold water and abrasive grit to round off the calcified edges of my weak thoughts.”   Samhari followed his gaze to a white-capped rapid that was churning and churning the water over a submerged granite boulder reducing it ever so slowly.   “Like what kind of weak thoughts?” Samhari asked.   “Mostly thoughts of being unlovable,” he said. “feelings of being unworthy.”  She could not imagine the Willow King feeling inadequate in anyway.  She never knew he was vulnerable.  Warmth grew inside of her chest.  The sun shined lovingly upon them.

Samhari lay down next to him.  He smelled of earth and labor.  His skin was warm and sun-kissed.  She pushed his hair behind his ear.  “Your eyes look green now,” she said., “they were more brown when we were on the other side of the river.”  He pushed himself up and took Samhari’s hands in his.  “What are you afraid?”  He asked.

Her mind twisted and swirled like the eddy of water behind the river boulder.  I fear so many things my love. So many things.  Her voice did not come.  She could not find the words to explain the pain in her chest.  In her mind she stood on the edge of a great abyss and could not see the next step.  She could not reach for his hand.  She thought of the rainbow trout deep in the cold pool below content to slurp bugs and procreate.  She knew with her continued silence the Willow King would slip back into the river and flow on.  She couldn’t form the words to tell him not to.  

The Willow King drew symbols with river water on the warm rock.  The symbols became prayers sent skyward as the water evaporated into the sky.  He drew a symbol for Samhari and as it evaporated he prayed for her well-being.  As he drew a symbol for the Willow King he observed the disquieted look on Samhari’s face.   She was searching for the words to express that she is petrified of disappointing him, of being truly loved, of being rejected, of being vulnerable.  The symbols evaporated from the rock to the sky merging far above in the belly of a cloud.  Samhari and the Willow King carried off of this earth of decay and rebirth, reformed in the torrential elements of cloud world, where they will blend and fall back down as rain.


The sun began to dip behind the horizon of the palisades.  The stored heat from the granite boulder was slowly absorbed by the growing coolness of the late afternoon air.  Samhari was alone on the riverbank.  The Willow King kissed her cheek and slipped into the current when the sun was still high above them.  “I need your words,” he had said before leaving.  “Without them I fill in the silence with my imagination which is heavily influenced by my own self-doubt.  Your words are your freedom and mine.”  Samhari stood before him dumbfounded.  Her mind was filled with colorful and articulate thoughts, but like a bubblegum machine with a quarter stuck in it, not one of them would drop.  She wanted to say I need to be alone!  I’m still in love!  I don’t want to ever have my heart broken again!  I don’t trust you!  I don’t trust me!  I love you!

 The words did not come because none of them had the temerity to hold form long enough to travel from her heart to her head and finally escape her mouth.  They dissolved somewhere along the way.  The only thing escaping from between her soft lips was her slow, warm breath that smelled of apples and wine.  A smell that intoxicated the Willow King to the point that he wanted nothing more than to pull Samhari in and kiss her so deeply that the tips or her toes turned pink and tingled with joy.  Kisses they used to share, until she pulled away.  Kisses he knew only existed in their past.  From experience he knew the kiss is the first to go.  After the kiss loses it’s luster, the words soon dry up and distance is created.  If he were to kiss her now he would only feel the distance.  So instead he slipped back into the current of the river and left Samhari with the blanket, the wine and the river bag.

Good Dick, Bad Man

The prompt “that’s a hell of a way to loose a tooth” was given to Daniel Landes by Brian Polk. 

Good Dick, Bad Man

“Say pal,  why don’t you start from the beginning?”  The detective wore Dockers and an Indiana Jones leather jacket.  He had a Brian Bosworth haircut thirty years after ‘the Boz’ rocked one.  His aftershave reminded me of date rape.  I started up with the “well in the beginning, my mom met my dad and they had sex” gag, but this virile chunk of sports cut me off quick with, “Fucking with me is a hell of a way to loose a tooth pal.” 
Sobered, I started over. 
“Like every afternoon we went for a walk.  We headed toward the park.  It was a lovely fall afternoon.  She had been cooped up in the apartment, doing god knows what, so was excited to get out and stretch her legs.  She stopped multiple times to smell the flowers and say hello to strangers.”  The detective was nodding his head taking notes.
 A woman dressed in an earth tone pantsuit opened the door to the interrogation room.  “Do you want anything to drink?” she asked.  He shook his head.  “Coffee would be great,” I answered.  The dick slammed his hands against the table.  “Nothing for you perp!” he shouted as she adjusted the thermostat in the room and closed the door.  “Now what happened when you got to the park?” he asked thumbing through the note pad.
“Well, the park was pretty empty which surprised me as it was such a beautiful day.  There were a few people off in the distance playing Frisbee or volleyball.  I can’t remember.”  The heat kicked on in the room.  The detective took off his jacket and hung it on the back of his chair.  He was wearing a white t-shirt that clung to his muscular frame.  He had a barbwire tattoo across his left bicep.  “Pam Anderson fan?”  I asked pointing at the tattoo.  He leaned in close.  “You think this is some kind of joke?  Do you have any idea how much trouble you are in?” He asked as sweat began to bead up on his forehead.
“Okay, like I said, the park was pretty empty.  I was distracted by my stresses at work and wasn’t giving her the attention she needed.  She began acting restless, you know, really vying for my attention.  I tried to ignore her but she just wasn’t having it.” 
“Were you getting frustrated?”  He asked.
“Yeah, I guess.”  I paused, “I guess I was getting frustrated.”
He jotted something down in his notebook. 
“I try not to be distracted when I’m out with her, but on that day there were some urgent issues at work so I was on my phone checking emails.”
“And what was she doing?”
“Bugging me!  She was bugging me!” I answered, surprised by own admission.
“You just wanted her gone.  Right? Is that when you did it?” he stood over me like a mountain ready to slide.
I crumbled.  “Yes!  Yes!  Yes goddammit that’s when I did it.  I wasn’t thinking.”
“What did you do then?” He asked needing my confession to put me away.
I was so tired.  I couldn’t fight this anymore.  I just wanted it over.
My words came slowly. “I took,” tears of fear and exhaustion filled my eyes, “I took her off leash.”  I crumbled into my arms.  “I know it was wrong.  But the park was empty, I thought…” The detective interrupted, “You thought you wouldn’t get caught!  That’s what you thought.  Well let me tell you.  If anyone in this city takes there dog off leash they will deal with me.  EVERY GODDAM TIME!” 
The tears were flowing from my eyes as two officers escorted me from the room.  They had me dead to rights.  Now it was time to pay the price.