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That Cat

I believe that cat came into our family sometime
after my dad died and I had left home
after my mom started smoking again
and the grand old cat Simba died
and the brief fall months of the South disappeared into a kind of extended summer

A big-paw brawler and a stray
I was gone in those years
On an aimless journey towards oblivion
seeking approval in the world

My mom and brother kept on keeping on
with the routine
getting my brother out of bed at 7 every morning
putting him to bed at 11 every night
After a glass of wine
and as they still do
the TV shows they watched in separate rooms

They stayed in this spirit-haunted house
Living their lives
Like clockwork enough to make you cry
Living with that thing I was running away from

When I came home here and there
For the holidays or to watch my brother
That cat hissed at me when I walked by
Like I was the interloper and the outsider
Like he was protecting them from 
this stranger in his home
 drinking a six-pack late at night and watching old movies

When the cat attacked my shoes when I walked by
And my brother shouted, “you live differently than us, you stay up too late!”
I didn’t know that cat and he didn’t know me
It went on like that for ten years
It hurt me and made me sad
And made me feel more foreign and estranged than I already felt

And all the new young people pouring into my hometown
Moved from whatever hellholes they came from
In search of good weather and “quality of life”
Acting like they had discovered BBQ and Cheerwine
Sauntering around like they owned the place
Like they had discovered some diamond in the rough

That stupid animal showed me I didn’t belong
And would never belong
That I had shirked my family and obligations
To hang out in strange cities in towns across the country with a ragtag collection of freaks, fanatics and losers

My family pretended this wasn’t true
To be polite
But the cat knew the truth
he just hissed and glared
And bit and scratched at my arm
Like he was my dead father reprimanding me
For running

But I kept showing up
Year after year
Trying to show I was responsible
And could be there

One night after the season closer of my brothers Miracle League baseball game
After dunking his coach and eating some Chick-fil-A at picnic tables
the parents of special needs kids
Their hopeful tired weathered faces

We drove home and watched A Streetcar Named Desire
By that scab Elia Kazan
I didn’t pay much attention
The scary thunderstorm rolled in
That cat started following me around
As I went to get another beer from the fridge
Seeking my approval and affection

“You’ve passed his test,”
My brother said, with a grin 
As I changed him and tucked him into bed
“Goodnight, I love you”
Lo and behold
That little brat
with his big stupid cat head
Was in bed waiting for me

I’m staying up late
Drinking a few more warm Bud Lights
Editing a friend's article
Finally feeling at home in the thumpy-walled haunted house
Because that thing is up waiting for me in bed

Roerich

I went to the Roerich museum in Moscow
Inside a big yellow cupcake mansion across from Gorky Park
I walked around in there for hours
I had always loved the landscapes he painted 
so bright and uplifting and simple
He painted Altai and Tibet and Arizona
On a grand caravan trek across Central Asia 
He was an explorer and a painter who brought his family along on his journeys
He was also a mystic and the head of a humanist spiritual movement for World Peace
The part of the museum dedicated to world peace and spaceship humanity
Was so sad
Because it contained the hopes of that broken dream 


The countries he and his family trekked through
were in a fix in the 1920s and 30s
Deciding to stand for independence or have limited autonomy as Soviet satellites
Stalin was the head of nationalities before he became general secretary
He was a swarthy man from the periphery who spoke Russian with a thick accent
But made himself the most indispensable bureacrat in the metropole
Like a Puerto Rican becoming Secretary of State
He had thought about and lived this question more than anyone

Walking around Gorky Park I wondered what the Chekhists and Comintern people 
Thought of the Roerich family
They had a lot of agents mucking around in China and Mongolia and Tibet
Trying to tamp down on the independence movements
Which whatever their true aims were perceived as icebreakers for the imperialists and white guard

Gorky park was filled with hipsters and families with strollers
And among all the old Soviet statue heads
An agitated looking Russian woman came up to me and asked where’s Stalin?
I said huh?
She said where’s Stalin, in English
I said I hadn’t seen him but I was looking for him too

In New York years later, I was walking uptown and the sun was shining but feeling a little blue
I went up to the Roerich museum 
It was in an old mansion by the Hudson River
I recognized the flag with the three dots wafting outside the building
Flag of his world peace and love movement
You have to get buzzed in but its free to visit

Maybe it was being in a creaky 19th century wooden house
But the pure landscape paintings there are even more stunning and beautiful
Just mountains and light
Or shards of ice with ice wind blowing through
Churning and elemental

I skipped all the ones about religion and prophets and the Middle Ages because they looked like fantasy nerd fan art
There was one of Madame Roerich I had never seen before
She looked like a very interesting and warm person
A Russian woman on the top floor was filming a documentary and asked if I wanted to be in it
I said no
I have a lopsided face and don't like being on camera

Stalin had a withered arm
And a bad limp
And a face cratered by childhood smallpox
But didn’t mind being on filmreels
And loved when handsome actors played him in the movies
But he wrote himself out of the history books  
I've read biographies by Stephen Kotkin and Robert Tucker and Trotsky 
They called him the Russian sphinx, his true character still remains elusive 

Me and the filmmaker talked for a while
She said Roerichs trips were sponsored by the United States and England
I had always thought he had the backing of the Soviets somehow
Why would they let him and his group go otherwise?
They could just be imperialist spies
Disguising themselves as mystics and artists and travellers
She said no
He was hated deeply hated and blacklisted until 1990
Her Russian assistant listening chimed in no
“Khruschev had a good relationship with his son so he came off the blacklist and was permitted during the thaw. But Brehznev put him back on.”
“Yeah, Brehznev put him back on the list,” she nodded

I walked around looking at the beautiful paintings another half hour 
The sun was setting when I let myself out the big wooden door
I had no one to meet and nowhere to be
I didn’t feel good but at least when I closed my eyes I saw those beautiful colorful landscapes, 
and I thought about his two year journeys across the steppes
Who they must have met what they ate 
the loneliness the strange food the smell of all those fires 
and all the Central Asian herdspeople in the midst being Sovietized

Breitbart for the Left – Jacobin

The Weimar-era communist media mogul Willi Munzenberg.

The Weimar-era communist media mogul Willi Munzenberg.

Every political movement has its hidden architects, those unscrupulous tacticians who shun the limelight, preferring to shape public perception from behind the curtain. In the United States, these imagineers work under many titles: key adviser, chief strategist, head of communications. In today’s Russia, they are referred to as “political technologists.”

The Right tends to be less squeamish about their necessity, and accordingly, has frequently outmaneuvered the Left in the battle for hearts and minds. Teddy Roosevelt had Hearst, Hitler had Goebbels, Putin had Surkov, and Trump has Steve Bannon.

It is unfortunate that the Left and liberals have yet to reckon with or learn something from what Bannon built quietly over the years with Breitbart. With little more than a snuff right-wing news website and some DIY documentaries, this “Leninist” nobody assembled a coalition of resentment that turned out to be crucial for Trump’s victory. Bannon climbed directly from tracking social media analytics and Youtube documentary rentals to the apex of state power. It is our failure if we don’t take the example and seize the opportunity that to do the same.

Bannon’s one little alchemical trick was to simultaneously cultivate Trump and blow on the damp ashes of the Tea Party until they caught fire — moderate suburban Republicans were gently molded into born-again rebels, raging against the Trans-Pacific Partnership, NATO, and the globalists, a bloc that could be easily harvested by candidate Trump.

The various agitprop stunts during the campaign — like bringing Clinton’s accusers to the third debate – were like playing a medley of the greatest hits, songs everyone already knew, firming up the base. The Clinton campaign and most leftists were deaf to the music, the passion. Countless Trump voters told reporters “He says the things I’m thinking, it’s like he’s inside my head.”

The Clinton campaign responded by shaming deplorables, fact-checking statements, serving only to embolden and reinforce this newly constituted public. After the election, the Democrats and media activated a new lexicon to explain away their failure to form a constituency: “post-truth,” “alternative facts,” and “influence campaigns.” The Democrats and the media continue to present themselves as the non-ideological custodians of fact, decency, and reason, and honestly still believe that if they gather enough unsavory details about Trump, they can take him down. This remains a long-shot possibility.

But structurally, the media has learned little from their failure to see Clinton’s weaknesses. The supposedly unbiased and non-ideological media could not defeat an emotionally powerful strategy. A legion of Washington Post fact-checkers aren’t going to change anything.

Objectivity, decency, and crypto-elitist shaming are like tried and true antibiotics that suddenly no longer work. The bacterium has developed resistance. Ideology hummed in the background of both campaigns, but only Trump’s camp could admit it. A crypto-ideological left media is needed that does more than chip away and hold power accountable. It also needs to catalyze and create new space, slowly pushing liberals, the independents, Trump voters, and others to the left to create a new coalition by attrition.

The problem is that precious few publishers or media entrepreneurs have sturdy populist-leftist values or goals beyond reproducing their organizations and garnering media-bubble social and economic capital that can later be harvested. Even fewer have risked leveraging their organizations toward mass organizing or pursuing concrete political goals. It’s easier to criticize and comment on power than it is to build political hegemony.

The fact is despite a plethora of suitable media 2.0 sites that could make a serious gambit, its hard to imagine a Breitbart or Bannon emerging from the East Coast liberal media world — like the NFL, the media bubble is a league where players are traded from team to team, and as Colin Kaepernick shows us, the unspoken rule is don’t rock the boat. The right-wing media has a weaker, less-ingrained meritocracy with fewer prospects, making the risk-reward ratio more palatable. At this moment, even if some publishers had a burning ideology, there are few incentives for Shane Smith or Ben Smith or Rachel Maddow to turn their organs into an actual living hive of political resistance.

It is easier for the media to continue doing things the way they have always done, with surface declarations of resistance and a minor shift in tone and fervor to accord with the ruptured political situation. As a rare positive example of how the mass media can be weaponized to build a mass movement, we should revisit the life and efforts of the Weimar communist media mogul Willi Munzenberg.

Germany has experienced a recent renaissance of interest in Munzenberg, but he remains a relatively obscure figure in the United States. The slim shelf of English-language scholarship on him is eaten through with reactionary Cold War platitudes about communist spies, “front organizations,” and “useful idiots”: this is a strange fate for a man who allegedly orchestrated the international campaign for Sacco and Vanzetti, who struck fear in Goebbels’s heart, and appeared to some in Stalin’s apparatus as a more troubling renegade than Trotsky. Trotsky and Munzenberg died within months of each other, and Munzenberg’s mysterious death in a forest on the Franco-Swiss frontier remains unsolved to this day.

Read the rest of the essay at Jacobin Magazine.

Generation

He took a job at Mashable. She got a book deal from her blog. He stopped playing in his band and got a masters degree in Philosophy, and is now an adjunct professor. She’s a bartender. He works in food service. He works at a hip used bookstore. She set up an unemployment march and was so well connected that it turned into a job fair—everyone got hired at places like The Center For American Progress and The Nation. He got married to a pretty girl with lots of tattoos and moved back to Little Rock and had a baby and the last time I saw him he was working in one of those fake open air markets that try to be like the Paris Arcades, organic food shopping for bourgeois people. She works as a second grade teacher. She works in the field of public health. He kept doing a zine and eventually alienated all his old friends. She moved to Murfreesboro and bought herself a cute little house and is working on becoming a midwife. They’re still straightedge and still living in a crummy punk house. His band is doing really well and he travels the world and is about to get married. She’s still playing in her high school punk band and inherited a bunch of money and is a self-satisfied anarchist. He stopped making his zine and now he’s a really great union organizer. He went back to school to get his Masters degree in Economics. She moved to Louisville and manages a restaurant. He died of an overdose. She took a job as an anti-war organizer and still goes to queer dance parties on the weekends. He had a baby and works part-time at the library now. His book flopped and he moved to New Orleans and I think he’s a DJ now. She closed down her feminist zine distro. She became a commercial artist. He got Crohn’s disease and spent a lot of time on Internet message boards. He killed himself. He’s dead from an overdose. He wrote an essay against Vice and later started writing articles for Vice. He kept putting out books on a small indie publisher and self-promoting and no one cares. She is still on unemployment, still hanging out and dating a number of dudes at the same time. He quit his band and moved out to work on an animal sanctuary. He went crazy and moved to a commune up in Vermont. She used her brother’s fame as a springboard to her own fame. He blew his inheritance on a record label. She’s not playing in any bands right now but people say she had a baby and is doing really well. 

CDG

Paris airport at dawn. Somehow possible due to the cloudy morning light and the forests at the edge of the Tarmac, Paris feels more American than Chicago. People smile at me, perhaps because it’s morning time and beautiful. The customs official, the guys at the magazine stand. I like it here but immediately realize how expensive it will be with my weak American dollar. I jump the 8 Euro train fare, nearly sixteen dollars American. On the platform, the European automated noises and recorded warnings sound much more menacing and futuristic than their American counterparts, like something out of an X-files episode. The buzzer that announces my trains departure sounds like a fire alarm going off. When the train comes out from the clean tunnels, a landscape of gray flat buildings, sanitized and cleanly, like Washington, DC. Strange because Washington, DC was built and planned on Paris. France as a country with an individual identity is gone; replaced by big empty fields and silent, sleek Eurotrains, periodic gas stations that look like something out of Back to the Future and shiny unmarked buildings, just a state in this united EU of the future; one united currency, one bland technocratic appearance. Not at all the Paris of the American imagination—the Moulin Rouge and Montmare that lifestyle tourists seek in cheesy, expensive cafes and tourist shops now, can only be found in dingy hidden squats now.

Ride to the Airport

In the car in a downpour with my mother, driving me to the airport. The rain comes down in sheets—the other cars on the highway swerve in and out of the mist, like gorillas.

“It sure is nasty,” I say. My mom drives on silently, “I wonder if they’re going to delay my flight.” More silence, “That would be fine…I wouldn’t care. I like the airport.”

“No,” she speaks up, looking at the maelstrom of weather thoughtfully,

“You know, it’s amazing—once you get above those nasty dark low-lying clouds and storms, its all clear blue skies up there.

Emotions

Emotions can ferment and rot in your insides.  They can spoil at the bottom of your stomach, unvoicable.  They can block your bowel movements or give you diarrhea; they can sit at rest somewhere in your intestines and keep you from getting effectively drunk.  They can keep the coffee from working, or force you asleep before you’re tired like a narcoleptic.  They can make the food taste like metal and make your stomach rumble and make you wish you could breathe fire.  You can let them sit there inside you OR you can vomit them out.  You can scream in punk bands, or along to Black Flag records. You can ease them out with osmosis, or by hanging upside down in your closet.  You can coax them out with paragraphs written on a park bench, like this one, and afterwards notice how you feel better than any running, excercising, or yoga could ever make you feel.  You can forget about them and hope reading the news, or having a boyfriend or girlfriend, or staying very busy with mildly repetitive tasks can help.  Or you can sit down and try to untangle them—choking and pulling them out from your throat like entrails, and laying the yards on the table, smelling like a dead animal; a jumbled, nonsensical mass of life lived, gradients of positive and negative experience—unanalyzed and hopeless.  These are things we have to sort out for ourselves.

What To Do?

I stretch and make my way to the laptop and fiddle with the plug until I can pull up my Gmail and log in—everyone is there, everyone on chat that I’ve missed in my long voyage through the night. All my friends’ names are lit up, electrified by the morning screen. If I have any new messages, I’m excited—a sense of importance, of being-in-the-world floods through me, like planting seeds and waking up to find little green sprouts. I don’t respond to the messages immediately—but rather let the feeling soak in, and sign off before anyone else can get a chance to notice that I’m there online. I make my coffee then and stare out of the barred windows of my apartment, looking to see what the weather is like. I don’t know how long I sit there, staring. I get up periodically and pace the room, make coffee, sit on the couch. The sky is gray outside, as it always is. The windows look out onto a withered yard. Everyone was there when I signed onto the Internet this morning. And the several emails that make me feel happy. Sal messaged me, and we discussed our future plans.

“When I get out, I want to work on a sailboat. I’ve signed up for a crewing website and said I’m interested.”

“Yeah, that’s cool! Maybe I’ll sign up.” I said.

“You should.” He said.

“We should head off to Fiji,” he said.

“That’s far away.”

“That’s the point. We’ll be so far away…and everyone will still be here.”

“Yeah.” I wrote feeling hesitant. I looked at a crewing site—it was very complicated to sign up. I lost interest. I get a couple of more emails for work—a couple of my co-workers were having a hard time with a database and CC’d everybody in our department. I sighed and went to a left-wing magazine website and started reading an article about Kurdistan. Kurdistan was really three countries—the people there were Muslims, but moderate Muslims, so they drink and smoke and don’t often support militants. It sounded pretty nice. There were no pictures but I imagined it was dusty and friendly place with big cars, good food, and plenty of hash. I made a note to go there one day and eventually lost interest in the article. My mother messaged me on Gchat, popping up.

“Hello, son.” She wrote. I could tell she was in a good mood.

“Hi.” I wrote.

“When are you coming home?” she wrote. I could tell she missed me.

“Soon, I hope” I wrote, feeling bad about myself.

“When is soon? How will you get here?”

“I haven’t planned when.” I wrote, being honest.

“We miss you.” She wrote, “Everyone here misses you.

“I miss everybody.” I typed, “I’ve got a year left.”

“Well we’re thinking of you.” She wrote.

“I love you.” I wrote and sat on the couch, sighing. Then I heard a noise and jumped—the hiss of the steam heat turning on. The flat screen in the center of the room was black. The light coming from the lamp and computer didn’t fill up my room; it was if a vortex had opened somewhere and was sucking out light.

I cleaned my coffee mug and put away my dishes and wondered how many more were out there like me—sitting in their little apartments on a rug in the center of the room not at work in the dead wintertime, bars on their windows. I felt at the little square lump behind my ear and wondered if it was cancer and sighed more. I picked up my kindle from the shelf and played with it in my hands, shifting to Don Quixote. The words came to the screen like black grains of sand—endless pages, endless books, but everything else the same day after day. I read a couple of pages and then grew bored and put it down and turned it off. The morning had been a waste—a total loss. And I had grown hungry. I stepped out the door and onto the dingy street. Acid rain ricocheted off my cheap umbrella. I stared at the sorry people walking by on the mucky street and they either looked down and avoided eye contact or stared at my face, their faces contorted in horror at my visage, like the furies of old, pain written in their skin. Some had headphones or held little devices in their hands. I went to the grocery store around the corner—opaque walls and white tile floors, doors automatically opening—inside it was very clean like a doctors or dentists office. Foods were covered in plastic wrapping. I went to the fruit isle—lined up on five opaque shelves were little plastic baggies with bright neon inks on the front and see through plastic to see the sliced fruits inside—“apples” “Oranges” “pears” “grapes.”

The plastic-covered fruit wasn’t very appealing so I walked on, finding boxes of pizza and hamburgers beside a stainless steel heating device that had the words “High power toaster oven” engraved on it. I picked out a BLT in a box and slid it in, closing the door with a satisfying click. While it heated, I looked up at a flat screen and watched some coverage of a big arrest that was being made somewhere far out west in California—fierce looking men with bushy beards were being dragged out of a house, at the bottom of the screen a headline read The Enemy Within—Terror Cabal Finally Weeded Out Of Hiding Place.

The terrorists looked sinewy and buff, and looking at them I unconsciously began to rub my belly, feeling it’s flabbiness, it’s complete lack of definition. Then a digital bell rang out, telling me my BLT was ready, and I quickly forgot my physique. I felt excited. I felt hungry. I opened the little cardboard and took the soggy sandwich over to the register and ran the barcode over the sensor, the price popping up onscreen—the woman at the register didn’t look at me, just down at her phone—I pulled the card out of the metal chain on my neck and typed in my code. I don’t know what compelled me to do what I did next. I guess it was pure contempt—why though? As my card was being charged, I surreptitiously threw some candy into my bag from the racks by the checkout line. I paid and then looked up at the lady, who was still looking down at her phone. I took my receipt. My heart pounded out of my chest. I walked out the double doors, muscles tensing in preparation for the alarms to go off, for a police officer to step out of nowhere and tackle me. But the cashier just continued to look at her phone, staring into the void. I walked out into the parking lot, stood there for a moment looking up at the sky in the acid rain and acrid silence before setting off towards home.

Beach

The alien aspect of all the detritus littering the beach—nets and pale dull multicolored shells still containing little crustacean passengers hiding deep in the recess of the conch riding along to the shoreline–and the little formations of coral that wash up and look like sculptures of trees, branches pushing out into a mushroom cloud from their great trunks; seaweed and the waste of civilization—rounded pieces of glass and spongy things shaped like human livers—and the space-alien-like shells of horseshoe crabs. Wandering up and down the beach for miles every day, listening to the record by the band GIRLS, second to last track—it isn’t right to sit around and think about the awful things / you’ve got to try to wear a smile / no matter how hard it can be to do and thinking no thoughts. Just admiring the smoothness of the sand and the aspect of the waves out in the distant and the ozone, low-lying cloud-mist that lingers in the distance; the seagulls that always seem to be flying alone and bobbing down to catch a fish in their massive beaks and the sandpipers bobbing from one foot to the other, and the tides out a little bit and music of the wind and song, fusing together with the morning sun into a cinematic experience.

Flies

In the conference room, while everyone is sorting files, someone brings up the subject of a girl who believes that flies that buzz around here are in fact reincarnations of her long deceased relatives. Everyone laughs and says, “How eccentric!” they seem to say, noses bobbing upward. But I realize that I’ve thought the exact same thing.