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Tattoos (2008)

Adrian’s arms look mangled. The full sleeve space scene that he got on his arm when he was young and drugged up looks blurry now, in the early stages of being lasered off. He regrets the tattoo, and has a hook-up at the laser place so he got a discount for the removal. I regret my tattoos but will never do anything about them. Sam’s grandfather was so ashamed of his navy tattoos that he tried to bleach them off—now his gristly arms are smeared with blurry dark patches. Andy got his tattoo when he was stupid and nineteen. It’s so bad I’m not even going to tell you what it is. He has spent the last ten years paying to get it lasered off. “It’s just not something I’m proud of” he shrugs. The first session was in 2002 then he didn’t go for almost another six years. “The first session, they put the numbing cream on me, and I was able to go for an hour and a half. The second time I could only go for 20 minutes. It’s unbelievably painful because you’ve got the burning and the stinging sensation put together, at the same time. Getting a tattooed lasered off is very expensive. Andy has gone into hock trying to get it done, and has even started volunteering to clean up the tattoo shop to pay off some of his sessions. “I think the body is a canvas. One day I’ll get it off and will be able to put another piece there.” He looks down at his arms, which are still mostly filled with the alien hardware, and little bits of pink skin showing through here and there, like the Creature from the Black Lagoon halfway through the makeup application. His situation reminds me of sharecropping, minus the institutional racism and for the fact that he actually made a conscious choice to get a very-stupid tattoo. There is so much vanity and boredom and identity-grooming that happens here at the end times. Young people working as unpaid interns at ‘cool’ digital companies, working so they can pay their rent and get more tattoos and records, working at the Apple genius bar so they can buy more Apple products, a kind of guinea pig wheel that has been built to keep us entertained and distracted and separated while the people at the top laugh and laugh and laugh and keep collecting.

On Death (2007)

These things are known to all the world.
         —Cormac McCarthy

Our ideas are in everyone’s mind.
         —Situationist International

I.

If you’re looking for a comforting way to conceptualize your mortality, try thinking of it as a cycle from sunrise until sunset: the way golden youth explodes on the horizon, reaching a bright zenith when you’re drunk and 20, in those brief ecstatic moments that you spend the rest of your life trying to recapture. At midday, you are at middle age and are cruising along steadily, amazed at being given a second lease on life. You can savor the rest of the day having learned how to take your time and make life work for you. You’ve found some degree of comfort and success when out of nowhere, uh-oh, the sunset years. The arc of the sun makes a drastic arc downward and death looms large as everyone you know dies off. If you’ve made it this far, you remain alone, waking up early to savor the sunrise and drink gallons of Folgers, ultimately humbled by the procession of life. The dark motor that turns the world slowly grinds to a halt and you fade away in a pink goodbye, like the end of a silent movie. It’s only natural to think of life as a progression, a series of logical stages heading towards ever-greater knowledge and dignity, toward a wizened Shakespeare-quoting end. Fewer and fewer people actually live out this anaesthetizing myth of our flickering moment here on Earth as a traditional narrative arc, where we laugh and smile all the way to the end. The vast majority of us will be taken out by car wrecks and put to bed by inexplicably persistent cancers, liver problems, heart attacks and bad knees; Even though we have notched up our life-expectancy significantly since Medieval times by the modern wonders of vaccination, central-heating and pharmaceutical medicine, a balance still manages to reassert itself. Life picks us off anyway, like a sniper. We can’t escape paying the ultimate price for vehicular travel, industrial culture, organ-pickling alcohol and heart-stopping food. The sun analogy doesn’t hold up because death is completely unpredictable, not only on an individual scale but across population patterns— people in fifty years will watch our modern movies and look at our casual cell phone use the way we view those charming people who chain-smoked their way through the black and white movies, wishing they could say to us, “What are you doing, you idiots? Don’t put that thing so close to your brain!”

The sun doesn’t threaten to fall out of the sky and plunge us into darkness every time we cross walk in front of a bus, get on a plane or have an inexplicable prescription interaction. It seems ridiculous to talk about  “coming to terms” with death; how could you not come to terms with something that will definitively happen? How could anyone really be prepared for that moment when death comes out of the wall like a demon from olden times and grabs us, dragging us down into the brine? Who among us will not scream and soil themselves at the moment of their departure? The fundamental trapdoor of mortality is that those moments can never be caught, isolated, and dissected by scientists. There will never be a “to bring” list for the journey that each of us will take—we vanish off the face of the earth, unable to communicate what it is like on the other side. We see the dead in dreams—that reel of our memory flapping wildly at their sudden and unexpected vanishing. Knowing what to expect in death would be a real letdown—we’ve already taken all the mystery out of this world by putting every town on the map, archiving everything we know and prodding away at things until we can replicate their subtle, natural mystery with artificial sterility. It would be a shame to do the same thing to the next world. At least in death, the magic and intrigue remains intact. It remains the last mystery, the last truly lonely voyage.

II.

There’s nothing quite comparable to the paranoid delusions that immediately follow a death. The inability to sleep, the abrupt realization that human goals and ambitions are utterly pointless when compared to continued survival. Soon after, the dreams and nightmares, the cycle of forgetting the dead as dead and only remembering upon waking. It’s that not only someone has died, but that we’re also re-confronted with the inevitability of our own death. Somewhere in this process emerges an unfounded mysticism, a belief in unconscious signs and symbols: while sequestering myself up in an icy cabin in the Adirondacks after a friend of mine died, I started to believe that his loves were my loves. In the snow and freezing cold, I ran around the lake at night, flapping my arms in the fogs and dancing on an ice-covered jetty surrounded by big black mountains. I yelled like I had drank ten thousand cups of coffee, and shimmied around in a way that to the casual observer must have looked like some combination of Michael J. Fox, and a black metal rendition of the final meadow scene in Harold and Maude.But we still can’t know what happened to our comrades who fell through to the other side of the looking glass. It’s a testament to these cinematic times that my natural inclination is to think of them as ‘off-set’, like two-bit actors who have been shuffled offstage with a cane and are now in the wings waiting by the catering table. In this reality show, the rest of us are still up on camera. We’re shuffling around awkwardly like fools, bad character actors who mumble and forget their lines, trying to get to the final curtain call. I tend to think of the dead as missing, and fail to really come to terms with their permanent corporeal disappearance. I keep their telephone numbers programmed into my phone, believing that they will eventually come back. If you have an active imagination, it’s easy to think of the dead as hidden away in your attic, giggling at you from the rafters as you grieve, like Tom Sawyer at his own funeral. It’s disorienting to have dreams where they are alive and then wake up and have to reassess reality: They’re dead. I’m alive. It’s been that way for quite some time. Only in the dreamtime giant of Sleep are we all joined together. I find myself dreaming of virgin Earth and dead friends, of golden mornings in some Paleolithic Garden of Eden filled with waterfalls and lush green plants, untouched by the withering hand of civilization. I wake up to find all the ancient forests cut down, the world manifested, all the maps filled: the sad, waking realization of the paved world, the natural frontiers that our rugged predecessors pioneered now lazily inhabited by the people of my epoch, who can never know true discovery.

III.

Death shatters the pacifying assumption that life was going to be like a placid, vacuum-like transcontinental flight with no turbulence. It immediately brings into question the pursuit of success in life using established standards–of the dream of some kind of endless escalator towards happiness, where you can actually reach the top and you’ve finally arrived, unharmed and self-satisfied by the long journey you’ve made. Everything but love and authentic effort seems so petty next to its high-contrast image.

The living are not the best ones—We are just the remaining ones, still here, unable to see our glaring flaws in the show that are so immediately apparent to outsiders. The dead are like giants, as if their genetics knew when they would bow out of the world and what their fate would be. For the living, there are off-ramps all along the highway for those who get tired of the voyage—religion, marriage, children, career or suicide all provide a fundamental sidestep that can rejuvenate or end life for the exhausted. I imagine swarms of blindfolded people noiselessly gliding down a dark river in canoes, each of us approaches that grim waterfall at a different moment. We’re able to hear the screams of others as they fall over the edge, but we never know when we’re approaching the precipice ourselves. It’s confronting to realize that I’ve already lived a third of my life according to a clinically optimistic average American male lifespan of 76—whether that’s a short time or a long time, its uncertain. Every second can be an eternity and years can flash by, unmemorable, both at once. So I take into account that with the theoretical 2/3rds of my life that I have remaining, even if I never found another job, 1/3 of that would be taken up by sleep, and probably another 1/6th by the traps of dull love and humorless conversations. With some occasional freelance work, the rest of my life is potentially booked solid with mediocrity. There’s got to be another way to live and live fiercely, aware of the clock that hangs above us. Dear Reader, my life is passing as I write this, and yours as you read it—Was it worth it? Did you feel anything? Did your time on Earth make you laugh and cry or was it bland and metallic-tasting like aluminum foil? In all the years lived how many brief moments have been seared onto you as wondrous and unforgettable, as horrible and crushing? How many hours have you been fully alive before you fell back down into the morass? It’s as if we wish for ourselves nothing more than a bland conformity to the norms most of the time, as if moderatism would save us. The comfortably numb stasis tastes like sleep, amnesia, and compromise. There is an indescribable other that we can’t understand. Death approaches steadily like an advancing army. Death beckons like a trumpet call.

At The Studs Terkel Memorial (2008)

90% of the attendees have grey hair. This is disconcerting, not on their part, but by the spotty attendance of people in the age range of 17-40. There is a long list of speakers. A neurotic New York woman of nebulous cultural import reads her dedication off a piece of paper, reciting the words in the ‘liberal radio voice’, a stiff dialect brought into being by the program This American Life. One of the following speakers, a woman in the same age range, diverges in the opposite direction. She has prepared nothing so she just gives emotionally charged account of Studs habits that hops from story to story, "And then one time…" in staccato, finishing each anecdote with a shrug that said "Oh, that was Studs!" She broke down and cried as she finished, the only speaker to do so. The folklorist Stetson Kennedy, a man in his eighties or nineties, took the podium and leaned in, wheezing in a thick drawl. He spoke of solidarity, of Studs getting blacklisted from Hollywood, of this country needing to experience real depression to buttress it’s waning character. He filibustered as if it was to be his last speech and it well might have been. Eventually the MC began to speak over him. The woman who had cried and taken too long in her speech came up and said something infantilizing, dragging Stetson away from the podium and back to his seat. I found the topsy-turvy nature of the event, obviously not a meritocracy, in a word, maddening. The stories Andre Schiffrin and others told about Studs placed him solidly in the role model category, skin thickened into jerky by the Depression and the injustice he faced as an actor. They spoke of his love for people—how he would jump out of taxicabs to catch the bus, where he could talk and meet with strangers. How he was the only white man inducted into the African-American writers hall of fame. How he spoke as if there was always a stoagie in his mouth. How when he conducted interviews with writers—he knew all their books better than they did, and brought copies of them underlined and marked up to the interviews.

There was a story about a burgalar breaking into his window while Studs was sitting in the dark in his living room. When the burgalar turned on the light, he was terrified by the sight of Studs just sitting there. Studs asked him not to run and ended up getting to know him. After a lengthy conversation he offered to give the burglar all the money in his wallet. He did this and then said,

“But that’s all my money. How am I going to live?” The burglar, pitying him, handed him twenty dollars. At some point during the presentation, I looked over at Sparky and her eyes were filled with tears. I couldn’t understand what there was to be sad about.

The Club (2008)

The video for the Black Eyed Peas chart-topping pop single "I Gotta Feeling" contains scenes that should by now be well-familiar to the average pop viewer: Dionysian spectacles of club revelry. Flashy bling, sunglasses and scantily-clad women pulling up their stockings in preparation for a night out, shots of smartphones swiveling open with technocratic ease, and the ever-cheery Xanaxed  masses texting, always texting, to fill the conversational void in between sips from fluorescent martinis. A rotating cast of multiethnic Manhattan hipsters, many of whom look like strippers, are pictured burning the night away and ‘Xpr3ssing th3ms3lv3s’ in a way that feels ubiquitous and familiar after decades of watching bubble gum, beer and soft drink commercials. At the end of “I Gotta Feeling’s” synthetically perfect, ecstasy-dosing intro, the Peas’ lead rapper Will.i.am pogoes up to the video camera and lip-synchs the words,

Tonight’s the night! Let’s live it up! I got my money! Let’s spend it up!

“Go out and smash it!” he follows up, “Like, oh my God!”

“I Gotta Feeling” is an audioanimatronic near-flawless pop gem, pumping away pneumatically, as if it were written by a computer program meant to prepare humans for a night of loose inhibitions. “I Gotta Feeling” is the Las Vegas casino of pop music—a lit-up, splendorous spectacle that by some voodoo makes the listener want to just give in and spend all their money, anything in pursuit of a ‘good time’. In this sense, the song is a slap in the face to the doomed young people of the Great Recession, literally born in the wrong era, who thanks to the hard work of their Baby-boomer parents will never get a chance to experience that pure 1980’s abandon of having vast floes of money to ‘spend up’ on leisure and cheap cocaine. A recent Department of Labor study found that last year, half of young American adults ages 16-24 were unemployed and alcohol sales at clubs were down by more than 10%. A more honest, mainstream portrayal of modern American life on a “good night” would be the glamorous clubgoers staying at home to huff computer spray cleaner and drink King Cobra tallcans. Really, in 2010, who can afford to “p-p-p-party every day”? The disconnect between American reality and artistic representation of America has become stark and feudal, out of touch, as evidenced by Jay-Z’s aristocratic “Empire State of Mind” which lords some  expensive, cadaverous ‘New York Lifestyle’ over the inhabitants of the rest of the country—as if Jay-Z is pistol-whipping the unemployed and hopeless inhabitants of the Rust Belt with his enormous New York schlong and saying, “Don’t you want to live here? Don’t you want to live in the greatest CITY IN THE WORLD?”

In 1997, Twelve years previous to the release of "I Gotta Feeling" a band called Chumbawamba released a #1 Billboard single called "Tubthumping" which, similar to the Black Eyed Peas song advocated binge drinking and the holistic benefits of “cutting loose.” The band, previously known mainly in the underground as a group of theatrical, anarchist squatters were quickly deserted by their former fans as punishment for their foray into the mainstream. “Tubthumping” was derided as an annoying fad song, an apolitical jock jam, proof that the beloved but ineffectual punk band had “sold out” on their former ideals. And as their betrayed, moralistic fans had feared, the song even became a de facto soundtrack for European football riots. Chumbawamba claimed that their newfound fame was more than just another feckless example of a band selling out. They had written ‘Tubthumping’ as an explicitly working-class anthem, they claimed—a song, like “I Gotta Feeling”, that was meant to be by everybody, and for everybody, a melodic manifestation of some kind of human Weltgeist that everyone could dance to and get behind. And it was: millions of people across the world drunkenly sung along, shouting, “I get knocked down! But I get up again!” or watched the video with some fancy CGI of a dancing baby. “Tubthumping”, Chumbawamba claimed, was a celebration of the people’s will and resilience, those people who were always getting ‘knocked down’ but then got back up again. In the liner notes of the record, the band wrote: "Tubthumping" is Shouting to Change the World (then having a drank to celebrate) It's stumbling home from your local bar, when the world is ready to be PUT RIGHT. Below their explanation there was a quote by Malcolm McLaren, the impresario who had created the Sex Pistols: People are sick everywhere. People are sick and tired of this country telling them what to do.

Both “I Gotta Feeling” and its Nineties precursor “Tubthumping” are pop songs, structured, written, and distributed with the intent of reaching the widest number of people possible and being palatable for mass consumption. But beneath both of the song lies the smoldering coals of the people’s will. After a couple verses The Black-Eyed Pea’s elaboration of what a “good time”,  they begin to implore that the listener that a good time is not only to be found in the trendy Manhattan clubs they appear to be dancing, but also in “smashing it up”, “burning the roof”, and “shutting them down”, activities that are more likely to be pursued at the recent G-20 protests in Pittsburgh than at the club on your average jello-shot swilling Friday night.

The club is a modern pleasure dome, a public relief center not unlike so many other late-capitalist retrofittings: gyms, psychiatrists, brothels, alcohol and the lottery all serve as pressure release valves for the citizenry of a frustrating, often-unbearable economic system. The club is a temporary cellblock, a juvenile detention center where young people can pay a cover charge and voluntarily keep themselves off the streets at night. Within small groups of left-wing radicals in recent years, a proposed alternative to the club has seen some praxis: the illegal street party. The intentions of the illegal street party are fairly innocuous: the radicals want to create a benign TAZ (a “temporary autonomous zone”) where leisure capitalism can be suspended, albeit briefly, and the Weltgeist can be allowed space to flourish, as it has for thousands of years before now. Unfortunately, these attempts at reclaiming public space often end in grim showdowns with authority and are brutally crushed by the police. The sad truth is that it’s hard to dance, have fun and build community in the streets while you’re staring down the policeman’s truncheon. To observe an illegal street party being dispersed by tear gas and loudspeakers is to watch the unbelievable pettiness of capitalism. As people are tackled to the ground and arrests are made, authority seems to say: Don’t want to dress up in high heels and short dresses, wait in long lines, pay ridiculous amounts for beer and cocktails that might get rufied, and in the end get groped by strange men? Too bad. Stay home, but don’t party in the streets. At the Brooklyn street parties, the cynical bystanders and bloggers of Bedford Avenue step out from the expensive bars they’re schmoozing in, and immediately ally themselves with the status quo before heading back inside for another round. “Well that’s what they get for blocking the street!” the hipster schills write on Gawker and Gothamist the next day, getting red and puffy in the face. The police and public opinion both shrug and in their own way say—That’s what you get for disobeying the rules. Now get back to the club.

Pompeii (2009)

When the excavators uncover the fantastic ruins and archeological remains, they will gasp at our last poses; our grimacing visage frozen forever like a Polaroid in black molten lava–thin waifish young men crouched under long boards to protect themselves from the fiery onslaught, post-Slacker jaws agape and Christ-like hair pulled straight backwards like a solid wave. We will walk in museum awe beside the preserved and labeled human forms, the androgynous male/female pairs standing in awkward contrapostos holding iced coffees. The Kias, Subarus and Zip cars all scattershot through the street, their drivers facial features reduced to the simplicity of stone golems–two charcoal holes for eyes and a contorted, gaping line for a mouth, a maw-like cave opening in the death masque–a car accident was inevitable, cancer, of course, a bad fall, alright–but who expected this?

The businesses and box store logos are indistinguishable now, the commercial details lost, like in the folds of those sensational and decadent Christo wrappings from a past epoch. The commerce corridors and bland two-story buildings are drawn across the landscape like some dusty unbroken plateau, blank now without the freshness of products and fluorescence, no longer containing within them the certainty of a mutually beneficial interaction between the buyer and the seller. No more cell phone rings or soothing background music, no more "Welcome to Chipotle, what can I get for you?" No more gushing conversations about gluten, soy, and vegan ingredients in the co-op grocery line. Now, just the dusty silence of the dead earth, the sound of shoots of weeds sprouting up after long rains. The Revivalist City Hall looks canonized and dignified, like a chocolate-covered Easter bunny of some Grecian temple. There’s no more government to run, no more order to keep, deficit to close, no more media to corral. The faces of the last bureaucrats (not that there were many of them in Portland) look the most disappointed of all–they had built up the tax base by attracting the mobile, left-leaning white middle-class interested in white picket fences and vegan restaurants. They had put in bicycle lanes and installed glorious public water fountains, and made it really easy to get food stamps, instituting all the modest policy ephemera of the welfare state, but perhaps no one was more disappointed by the end than these policy wonks who thought that human happiness could be engineered, tweaked, by these tiny institutional changes.

All of the urban farming initiatives and afterschool programs, dust. All the water conversation posters and the biodiesel filling stations, the energy efficient refrigerators and automatic shut-off hand dryers and sinks. All the recycling programs and gyms and healthy organic food wasn’t enough. “Rose City” imprisoned forever in black rock and muck like some massive LEGO architecture that got caught in a house fire—smeared and melted plastic faces, whole record collections, money, useless. The excavators who declare the site archaeologically sensitive will never know our brand names or quite understand what we were looking at inside those thin little boxes with cords coming out on tables that so many of us perished in front of, staring into with blank faces, as if trapped in cryogenesis.

The Office (2009)

White walls, white rooms, flat screens, needles, happy pore-cleansed faces, pharmaceutical products, biohazard disposal–the 21st century just makes you want to grunt, smear mud on your face and bash someone over the head with a rock, doesn’t it? Standing over the scanner at the office, my duty is simple: take the paper files, perfectly tactile and usable as they are, and turn them page by page into digital mimeograph copies, segments of floating bits and bytes. The files each have a name on them and a number—this way we can identify the applicant—and a little sticker pasted on them—red for rejection green for acceptance. Inside the folders, a bricolage of documents. Cobbled together, they give a photo mosaic portrait of personhood—birth certificates, headshots, resumes, copies of drivers’ licenses, long personal statements, letters of recommendation. The official transcripts from their different universities are the most stunning part—like foreign currency they are exquisitely colored, stamped, watermarked, peppered with bits and pieces of the ephemera of that unique place. USC, Notre Dame, Stanford, UPenn, Duke, Brigham Young University. The private, leftist-historical universities have correspondently bizarre transcripts—big, unwieldy things filled with course evaluations from the student’s “History of the Black Power Movement” class, their “Negri and American Empire” seminar. The Ivy league transcripts are surprising for their stark unpretentiousness—Harvard looks dashed off, barely identifiable to its blue-blooded legacy. Yale, Duke, and Brown are equally modest. Shuffling the hopes and dreams of these young people into the scanner before they are resigned to a mausoleum-like filing drawer gives one the feeling of being the furnace operator at the crematorium. They’ve been doing the right thing their whole lives, being upstanding citizens and members of society—fraternities, student newspapers, afterschool programs, churches, two or three jobs, a kid, and still volunteering on the side. And look at me—plucked off the street and being paid ten dollars an hour, clothes unwashed, rips in my jeans, with their lives and future careers placed in my hands—one smudge, one misplaced file could entirely derail an otherwise promising future. These blonde, pearly-whited prom queens and frat guys—church and charity, a life of service. They, unlike us more lumpen specimens, don’t mind begging society’s masters for a chance to be rejected. The outcasts and the freaks reject the whole system up front, vaccinating themselves against the possibility of failure—a ‘get them before they get you’ mentality. But something about all these kids—all these rejects…they were endearing, smiling, lovable. Marx wrote that the most forgivable flaw in his mind was naiveté. While hunched over a huge copier in a mailroom, scanning my life away, I began to hate the shadowy selection committee and their cryptic, indecipherable selection system, which seemingly grinds individuals through some complex mathematical formula for achievement and decides whether they are worthy enough for admission to the program. Rejection, rejection, rejection—the number rejections far outnumber the scattered few accepted. Many worthy candidates tossed by the wayside, judging from their resumes and fancy, cum laude Ivy League transcripts. It just goes to show that if you put your hope in the system, you’re a fool—it’ll reject you, abuse you, deprive you of insurance and set you on fire and try to kill your family. I’m not a Communist, but it began to dawn on me after the long endless days of filing that what The Selection Committee does in the public sphere-doling out money and credibility to a select few–the rest of us were all doing silently, stealthily, in whispered email conversations, in our own minds—ranking, filing, classifying, judging the others. Putting everyone in their place, always calculating and scheming to see who is ‘worth it’ and who was not. This is what the yippies used to call ‘the cop in your head’—policing, archiving, and creating hierarchies, human beings forever systematizing, emulating the machines. And in turn, as if to do penance for our secret wretched thoughts, we always put ourselves in a position to be judged by others. The weakness of the whole back and forth sham is horrid,  absolutely unbearable.

Friends (2009)

There is something horrible about friends. An insidious tie that binds. Something about friendship is so weighted, so socially requisite (look to current cinema to see how people who don’t have friends are treated—with a mix of pity and disgust, as aliens who need therapy or to ‘get out more’). It’s always the solitary individual that’s the problem—not ‘friendship’ or a repetitive, monotonous society. Friendship reeks of maintenance—constant phone calls, emails, text messages, letters, and periodic face to face encounters over beer to “check in” are necessary, the sole purpose of which can be summarized with four words—“You good? I’m good.” Friendship has been proven to have physiological benefits. Scientists have found that positive human interaction causes opiate-like chemicals to be released to the brain, similar to the kind released during orgasm. But perhaps we have become addicted to the narcotic bliss of constant social interaction, and the mild endorphin buzz that can be attained by getting together to ‘hang out’. The stated goal of most innocent friendships is to attain a kind of spit-swapping stasis, a mutual social masturbation couched in terms like “trust” and “support.” But so many friendships today are dead-in-life: dead relationships, bodies barely animated, sleepy gatherings over coffee or beer or TV on DVD. All maintenance, no near death experiences, no action, no growing, no true discourse—none of the true things that bring people together—nothing to test the true mettle and see if people are trustworthy and loyal in a stressful condition. No risk, no growth—a kind of predictable stasis sets in. Conspiratorial friendships, the kind vaunted by modern day radicals (‘DO things with your friends’ they say with a wink, secret code for ‘go out in the middle of the night and glue the locks at Mcdonalds, liberate some mink, and then have sex in a dumpster’) are indubitably more purposeful than modern day existential friendships, which have no purpose other than for people not to feel lonely, but these conspiracies remain empty husks at the end of the day. Sure, you can organize with some other dreadlocked individuals to stop police brutality with someone, or make foolish plans to blow up some SUVS, but at the end of the day, it is unlikely that this is the person who you can truly open up and share with. This has been shown by how former radical eco-activists often rat each other out ten or so years down the road at a Grand Jury testimony, when they no longer even really know their former ‘comrades—they’ve ‘grown up’, ‘calmed down’ and no longer have much to lose by snitching and saving their own asses.

These ‘activity partners’ associations are not revolutionary—they are friendships with a crutch: a purpose, a reason, a direction is always provided, so the two action-oriented activists never fall into that existential dilemma that leads them to smoke pot and watch Beavis and Butthead. The activity partners always have a discussion topic (books, magazines, work, the upcoming protest) and want to be constantly making plans. The conspiratorial activity partner is the cousin of another genus of friendship: “work friends”—relationships arrived at by the social necessity of being polite and sociable in close proximity with other people. Work friends similarly benefit from a readymade discussion topic: the absurdity of the workplace is always up for discussion, bosses, vacations and co-worker gossip dominate. Work friends aren’t necessary but like a pressure steam valve, they keep everyone cool and prevent workplace rebellion or any solitary individual from going postal: social niecities keep us clued in with an ever-diminished and ridiculous ‘reality’. But far worse than all of these forms of friendship—the most blighted form of social relationship that is based on shared identity—the adherents of a certain subculture or sect freely digress on the interpersonal minutia of their little group, ramblings that would be incomprehensible to other groups and demographics. These are the friendships of the vegan bicyclists, the journalists, the analog recording enthusiasts, and the crazed religious sects, all groups where most conversations take on a repetitive Groundhog Day quality frivolousness—chosen diet or lifestyle, reports on the other members of the culture, shittalking, the minutae of recently acquired cultural commodities. If you seek to avoid these friendships, you are wise. But watch out! You might end up in the through-the-looking-glass mirror world on the other side of the incestuous social milieu—the blaise, indefinable mid-to-late 20s crowd, filled with individuals who dwell on the dark side of the moon from their former selves; instead of talking about bikes and bands and veganism, conversations revolve around how ridiculous these subjects are to talk about, forming a kind of meta-anti-subculture, an embittered big kids table of the punk rock omniverse. This requisite mid-twenties post-identity crisis often happens as a natural part of development, not necessarily along with a pointed ‘growing up’ A friend of mine told me stories of what happened to her vegan-diet microcosm as the straight-edge men in it began to get older—these individuals, previously judgmental moralists who had built entire identities upon their refusal to eat meat or use illicit substances, began to soften and give off a kind of patronizing acceptance, becoming curiously interested in formerly contraband products…the image of marijuana suddenly became very seductive. They began to espouse a very obtuse, adult line of “Do what you feel…whatever makes you happy” while at the same time maintaining their own strict personal moral code.

Friendships are a minefield—it demands the utmost of social finesse and concentration to maintain them—the incessant, mosquito-like nagging responsibility of making sure people are ‘feeling appreciated’. Compliments must be doled out and bills at bars must be paid with one person smiling and waving their hand saying, “It’s on me” and pulling out a debit card, to give off this fake feeling of friendly reciprocity. Why? To what end do we fellate each other so desperately? What does it all lead to? With technological progress, the state of the social has become obscene—we are in constant sticky contact with each other, social pornography, but like masturbating several times in succession, it’s draining and disheartening.

Telling each other witty anecdotes, drinking, watching movies together, eventually flatlines and one can’t help but wonder, “What am I doing here?” as the sweat begins to pour from the brow. “Why am I even with this person? Do we have anything in common?’ We’re just wasting time together. Desperate lonely people here at the apocalypse, grappling out into the void for someone to hang out and watch LOST with, for some sense of ‘shared experience’. Even friendships with a purpose  (the aforementioned conspiracy, or working together on a ‘project’ one can’t help but wonder, is all this just an excuse for the other person to not feel alone? Let me be clear that I’m not lobbying for the abolition of friendship here—just rather a society wide recognition of our paralyzing social disease. I’ll leave you alone, and you leave me alone and we can think and dream of each other fondly, and let our relationships live on in memory or action, but never the place in-between.

Couples (2009)

All the comfortable, conceited couples in Brooklyn. Horrible, beautiful couples with black-rimmed glasses and little dogs whose chilly, codependent cuteness recalls all cloying indie rock romance of the late Ots: Away We Go, Eternal Sunshine and the Spotless Mind, Juno; oh isn’t it so sweet to see these occluded rom-coms where weighty loneliness is finally vanquished by a coy, ironic courtship—the sincere, bashful guy. The confident post-riot girl woman. So smart, so witty, so up on the latest television programs and Internet memes of the day. Cooking dinner together and their cocoon of sweet cuddliness, it’s enough to make you want to puke. As social bonds and community become increasingly fractured, torn apart and pulled by individualism, ambitions, financial pressures, and the American geographic wanderlust– “I’m not sure where I want to live”, the ready replacement, the couple, is waiting there like a womb to crawl into—a onesize-fits-all readymade community of two—everything shared, reciprocity established, but with none of the complicated, consent-based meetings about who left their dirty dishes in the sink. Why tough it out and throw your die in with a difficult, tentacled community when you could just have a partner? Being part of a couple is such a surreal, self-destroying experience that it’s hard to see what you’ve become–only by looking into society’s mirror can a couple get a glimpse of what you truly are. From the inside, love plays hallucinogenic tricks on the mind, turning ugly, cruel women into darlings of affection and jealous men into charmers and princes. The only way to know if it’s a bad pairing is from without—do the old men playing Dominoes on the street smile at them when they’re walking around holding hands? Are the waiters at cheap Mexican restaurants extra-friendly, bringing them drinks on the house? Or do they roll their eyes and grimace, finding the relationship sour and pitiable? This unconscious undulating movement towards adulthood: you look up one day to check your internet social networking utility and see that everyone has gotten married, had babies, and moved away. Within the couple, all of the identity politics fade into the background, along with ‘the community’ and its strictums: couples sin together, sleeping late, ‘splurging’ on dinner, walking around the apartment naked. Mornings are a regression to a kind of Saturday morning cartoon-watching childlike state: bowls of cereal, wrestling, reading the comics in the newspaper. The couple becomes like a pair of Siamese twins, a dialectic mind knowing each other’s very thoughts and coming to conclusions, staring upon the world with one Cyclopic eye. The paradox is that no one cares what a couple, the all-seeing eye, thinks, and people resent them—most of the community find these pairings alternately endearing and infuriating, constantly having the two-headed hydra of its sweet cuteness rubbed in its face. The couple is immanently hateable, more than anywhere in public, with their hand-holding and mutual protectiveness, the flabby elementary school fear of the cold, unforgiving world on their faces. A couple sitting beside me on the subway bench rub their noses together, giving each other little gnome kisses, cuddling in public while the rest of us commuters shiver and freeze—the couple only looks out for itself, not for the community.

 “What are we doing tonight?” one half of the couple asks, doe-eyed, probing her mate.

“The same thing we do every night sweetie…” the domesticated man answers jokingly, the “nice guy” who holds her and provides a portrait of comforting, reassuring masculinity. The cocoon of couply warmth as a temporary refuge from the world, a dulling of the sense. After a while the two parts of the one become bored of their diaper-wearing, regressive state—they begin to nitpick, begin to fight, begin to strain against their couple-leashes. They miss the cold, flinty edge of life that they have been keeping themselves safe from—the wider, meaner spectrum of emotions and experiences—long nights racked with pain and loneliness alternating with transcendent moments of joy, passion, and pure being when life coalesces and comes together. Suffering is what people can empathize with—not everyone’s happy and comforted but most everyone is suffering.

Book Review: The Art of the Publisher

The Art of the Publisher by Roberto Calasso. Farrar, Straux, Giroux. 2015.

In the American popular literary imagination, there are two kinds of book publishers—both are placed behind the kind of iron mask where we put the business side, scraped and denuded of human qualities, or generative creativity, and put where we put our silver spoon or scrappy-capitalists like P.T. Barnum and Pulitzer—the publisher has the charm, the business acumen, the taste, but most importantly of all—the capital. Within this category though there are two publishers—the small, hyper-literary “independents” who naggingly remind us how independent and precarious and unique they are and how they’re the only ones who care about books and “real” literature in some ever-fading literary ecosystem, and whose houses we celebrate, but who make us privately anxious, because we know that these houses are the cast shadows of a single person or a couple or family and haven’t yet become fortressed corporate institutions, built to survive death, divorce and bankruptcy—the frightening thing about “the independents” is when that brave eccentric soul gets sick, goes into debt, goes crazy, or becomes tired of doing it, the quiet labors of many people could be lost to both the present and posterity.

The other publisher, in our imagination, is at one of the Big Five. They are a scion of one of those good kinds of Old Money Northeastern family where mum and dad taught culture, how to be a good friend and citizen, and these pretty young children were ingrained with values other than wealth accumulation or survival. They wear a suit, they have impeccable taste and manners, but to the writers and the others below them, they are somewhat faceless.

In this reductive dream, the writer fears the publisher as one fears a kind but symbolic authoritarian father, and knows that he or she must appropriately represent what this distant tyrant expects. The publisher has a deep respect for the artistic temperament and the generational myth of the creative individual and wants to be associated with writers and intellectuals and culture, therefore it is in everyone’s best interest for each to fully inhabit and embody their social roles.

The Clock (2010)

If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you don’t bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.

                —Jesus, according to the Gospel of Thomas

There are some people who will talk but will never do it. They will plan and be inveterate schemers but they’re waiting for a day that might never come. So many different ways to get derailed along the way. We continue to climb up this mountain past the wreckage of so many who have tried and failed. So many who have given up and will fall off. So many ways to be ruined:

You can talk a big game but never put in the effort.
You can plan to do it but then you get sidetracked and die.
You can sell yourself for money and then be too tired to pursue your dream.

You can scatter yourself with haphazard and cheap endeavors, trying to do too much, your energy scattered. You hope that one will sprout and save you, and are bitter when it doesn’t.

You can never achieve synthesis.

You can find a great person to spend your life with and decide that having a family and raising children is your true life.

You can overdo what you do and oversaturate others.

You can underdo it and have people tell you “It’s so great” but you’re secretly dissatisfied because you know you could have done better, could have done more.

You can be tragically born in the wrong time, like anyone who’s attempting a career as a poet in the late 20th and 21st century.

The Rush to get good at something, to become something! Always goals that lead to becoming something more! If only I read a couple more books or went to the psychologist to help me out with my problems or learned a new language or if this person loved me or if I marketed myself in my life differently everything would be different. This empty longing to become a more complete person. Better to just turn up the gain and volume knobs on what you already are. There is something unique genetically preprogrammed inside—all the words, all your achievements, all your failings, your life and death already written inside of you, seared onto your spirit. The problem is learning how to awaken it from its long slumber.

You can play little tricks on yourself in order to get blood from the stone of your life.

You can get a job you don’t care about so you can have to the time to work on what you’re really committed to.

You can pursue your passion without compromise or preoccupation at the end of the day—you do what you love without the nauseating scent of commerce.

You can continue with some horrible situation so you can have a repository of blame for all your easy self-distraction.

You can move into a nice, quiet house without distractions and are forced to confront your own shortcomings, and then either overcome them or fall victim to them. There’s nowhere else to place the blame. Once you’re in the good situation, it seems hard to go backwards, to regress back into the old. The hard questions that everyone is looking to answers to. But they’re looking in all the same places for answers—jobs, grad school, relationships, therapy—Why aren’t you becoming what you are? What’s the excuse this year?

I used to stay up all night doing nothing just biting my fingernails and watching my life pass. I would grab for any frame of reference to hold on to, which at the time meant books written by dead people who were about my same age. First novels—The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, This Side of Paradise, Other Voices Other Rooms, anything by a writer heading in their mid-20s. I would flicker through the Wikipedia pages of the authors–Stein, Baldwin, Hemingway, Wolfe, Didion, Capote, and look at their birthday, then scroll down in the biography and try to find what they were doing when they were my age. What they were doing was what I felt I should be doing. But what I was doing was so much different than what they were doing. Most of them were already grown-ups at 24. Most were married, they had been to war, they had worked steadily at many jobs, they had written articles and their first books. I didn’t know what to do or where to start with my life so instead I just voyeur their lives, looking for it to provide some kind of guidance to my present. Capote had already finished books, as had Fitzgerald. Wolfe didn’t do anything until he was 29, but it packed all the steam and emotion of 29 years into one great masterpiece. Hemingway put out a couple of measly stories and poems, the featherweight of the group, but hell, he was still published. Most didn’t get really revved up until they were about 25. I guess for a lot of people that’s when life really starts to set in—when you’ve explored your options and it’s time to start working on the thing that you’re going to do. I had some time, just a little bit, but what was I procrastinating for? Why as I obsessing over the milemarkers of the dead? I never thought so much about time as when I was twenty-three, feeling like I was standing on the cusp of something big and horrible— ADULTHOOD—and hoping that I would think about it less as it went on. I was playing a matching game—looking at their timing, their years and matching it with mine. What I know now is that age is just a number. As Gorilla Biscuits put it, you can start today. The problem is that of being defeated at to early an age, or having a limited amount of willpower and spirit that has to be rationed through your life with respect to your artistic pursuit. You can blow your load when you’re young, but accept that you will probably die young. The willpower is depleted by jobs, school, relationship, excessive masturbation. Without willpower, you don’t have the drive necessary to do your ideas justice—you slump out over your computer. There are benefits and drawbacks to the different approaches, a million little tricks and routines to maintain willpower— you can live outside it all with cheap rent and an easy job which provides you plenty of time for artistic pursuit but at some point you will be faced with the daunting prospects of either making art all day or losing your self-confidence because you feel like you’re doing nothing with your life. Or you can work and work on your art in the in-between periods, at night, in the morning. There’s also the problem of living in the city, this great core of human energy and willpower, but filled with so much culture that you have to beat away other people’s stuff with a stick—it’s hard to separate voyeuring what they’re doing from focusing on what you’re doing.