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Conversations, once so easy and carefree, have become like delicate archeological excavations—everyone has a lot that has been buried, and you don’t want go digging it up, for fear of breaking all their artifacts, dredging up their history. Careful, always careful, because just below the surface are vast reserves of pain, like patches of noxious gas. There is trauma and pain aplenty, broken friendships, unmet expectations galore, goals and dreams unaccomplished. The ever-present weight of gravity and time pressing down, obsolesence bottled up in tiny little jars and put into a museum Eventually, all the coffins come spilling out of the graveyard. This is why I veer things toward ‘conversation topics’ now—books, magazines, abstract ideas, anything to keep us from realizing that there’s no floor below us. Anything to keep the conversations from veering towards angst and despair—we simply wouldn’t be able to stand it. But somebody always ruins our gentle, congenial rapport–convincing themselves that they need to be the pernicious bearers of ‘reality’—then the pain rises up—the grimaces on the faces, visage of death—despair pulling down the sides of the mouth, jowls sagging, a pressure building at the back of the skull. Age that was hidden in laughter and joy begins to show, and like some contagion that spreads from face to face.


There are still secrets to be found everywhere—a new life can be had for us all. Anti-wrinkle, anti-aging fountain of youth never get old, new life and discovery. This is the only way to get back into the nostalgic glow of the past. I read in the newspaper the other day about a man in Brooklyn convinced of the existence of underground subway tunnels that hadn’t been found yet. Obsessed, he did his research and found reference to the tunnels and the schematic diagrams of their whereabouts. At night, he and a friend went down a manhole, and broke through a brick wall with a sledgehammer—there he found his misty El Dorado, his ancient underground secret—the first subway, which lay undiscovered by all the city historians and bureaucratic planners, with all the finances of the state behind them, but was easily uncovered by his passion. He made a deal with the city and now he conducts his own tours down there, his own little plot of earth, his own little cocoon. He’s planning on breaking through another concrete wall, where he is convinced that there lies a dusty old disused locomotive that would have been too much effort to disassemble and lift out from underground. The forgotten and the disused and the abandoned are our only hope—everything else has already been built up, appropriated, demolished, developed, and finally when the ethereal credit casinos collapsed—they slowly returned to dust. Our only hope is in rediscovering the lost and buried corners of the earth.

Nightlife (2009)

I couldn’t stand to stay in and watch movies. My bookshelves reflected my boredom back at me, as if trying to tell me how foolish it was to be attempting such an accumulation of knowledge. I couldn’t even pick up the New Yorker, that potpourri of urbane social interest, that fuel for conversational anecdote that kept social awkwardness forever at bay. I didn’t want to have any more conversations, learn anymore, read anymore, talk anymore, sleep anymore or sit at a desk anymore, use computers anymore. I threw open the door and stepped out into the cool night. Onto the sidewalks hemmed in by the buildings on a flat plane, only able to walk in two directions. I wandered down the dark streets, past strangers, trying to relieve the pounding stress that had built up in my head. I stuck out my tongue and made machine-like hissing noises, pretending I was a valve letting off steam. I flapped my arms in the air like a flightless bird and stretched, hearing my back crack. I sung fake opera and made different tonal sounds—the vibrating tingle of my humming felt good on the back of my neck. I walked down the sidewalks with my eyes closed on blind trust, hoping I wouldn’t veer out into the street and get run over. Only once did I run into someone—a woman who was probably as scattered as me careened towards me without seeing where she was going. We ran into each other and both screamed and took off into opposite directions. I continued my wild meditation through the full city, through the massive urban exploration chamber, eventually finding myself in the meat-packing district—like so many parts of Manhattan, it was formerly a neighborhood that produced things that now produced mainly culture. I walked past the spectacularly built up glinting stainless steel lofts, art spaces, and cafes. Past the darkened stores, crawling with spectral pastel-colored lights, I spied some kind of public gathering in distance–the sidewalk was crowded with women in dresses and men in polo shirts and suits, laughing. As I verged on this soiree, I saw that the two double doors to go inside were open. With as much confidence as I could muster, I nodded my head to the doorman and walked in. Inside, house music thumped from the back of the sleek space and bartenders in black shirts slung out free drinks from the open bar—industrial design objects–sleek minimal lamps and scale models of new condominium complexes filled the gallery floor. Gawkers walked by smiling and peaking in the little Styrofoam windows, looking into them like King Kong. Strangers were staring at me and I couldn’t quite figure out why—maybe my loneliness had given me the rosy bright look of someone who’s just bathed in cold water? I made my way through the waves of people, only hearing the mixed murmur of their conversation. People networking and women looking for men, men looking for men, speaking words and talking with their bodies instead. Mock-ups, miniature neighborhoods, miniature cities and parks all haphazardly rendered with cheap paints, the smears of hot glue showing through in between the cracks in the walls. I had proven to myself that I could do it, that I could walk among them and drink their free booze and be stared at, but realized that I didn’t really want to—like some kind of reluctant conqueror I regretted ever even having entered their gluttonous social bacchanal, their sterile orgy of plastics and emotionless institutionalized design products. But over and over, like one cursed with an incurable addiction, I find myself drawn towards it, unable to repel the magnetic allure of the seductive ‘good time’. It reminded me of the difference between a one-night stand and a long-term relationship. The one night stand is all seduction—the easy, the erotic, the unaccountable that leaves you empty and alone-feeling once the post-coital endorphins finally start to wear off. And the other option is the hard road—a steadfast, bunkered-down resistance. Resilience to the trappings—difficult, hard lesson, but probably more fulfilling.



Feelings of despair in the bookstore: too much unread, not enough life years to both produce and consume the desired amount of work, unable to do away completely with sleep. And at the same time—feelings of lightness and happiness on the street, in the freedom of movement and the expansiveness and time and possibility that unfolds like an accordion once its no longer crammed into a single human lifetime. On the streets I could wander all night, for days, weeks, years and never reach it or never tire, the flow of the earth passing underneath and the landscape of trees, buildings, cars, meadows mountains. So different than waking up in this apartment day after day, making coffee, and immediately being crushed by the weight of the things I need to do but am not sure I enjoy. Strange continuity of the days—the accomplishments happen in small bursts, the wasting of time happens in much larger ones.

West Columbia

Back here in the city brush, I find the house I grew up in.  The windows are fogged up with dust and its long sun-baked driveway is splintered with fault lines.  It yawns at me hauntedly, set back from the leafless Martian trees of the city park.  There are cars parked in the front yard, but I ignore them.   I walk around the side of the house and find the old sandbox that I would play in almost naked, where my parents took Polaroids of me when I was happy.  I go around back and there’s the deck where I stood outside eating Jello and watching the dark clouds swirling during Hurricane Hugo, which turned the neighborhood to rubble.  There’s the screened-in porch—one year at Christmas the front doorbell rang and my parents sent me out to run and get it.  When I opened the front door, no one was there.  When I turned around, I saw Santa Claus coming through the Chimney, several seconds I will describe as the most magical in my life.  It could be argued that Santa came in the back door through the patio, but that would be purposelessly crushing dreams.  Inside, the big living room with the bay windows where we would open presents and where I was really happy.  There’s the banister staircase where I waited and could feel the strange ambient anxiety when my parents came in the house with my newborn brother Ben.  Up the huge, distortedly big stairs is my bedroom, where I would have dreams of seeing through the house’s thin walls and out into the clear cold sky; in the brisk dark sky, what I saw was terrifying, a giant hand, with long green fingernails beckoning me to come out and join it.  I piled deeper into my blankets, and I could see it all happening without having to look—I would’t go to it, so it was coming to me.  The monsters flooded in from outside, tearing down the doors into the house and piling up the stairs, knocking and splintering at my door before coming in like a swarm and overtaking me.  The other dreams and alternate realities of childhood-through the black gates I can’t tell what was real and what was fiction.  Getting chased down dirt roads on bicycles.  A video that we watched about a girl who could go through a looking-glass, and ended up in a middle of nowhere cow pasture.  The cow pasture turned out to be a metaphor for death, as in “putting someone out to pasture”, because her grandmother had just died and the movie suggested that she would be reincarnated as a cow.  The girl went back through the looking glass to the attic of her mother’s house, and dealt with her grandmothers death in a respectful and mature way.


A dog sits in a window of an ivy-covered row house in the historic Georgetown neighborhood in Washington, DC. A schnauzer. He looks regal but sad, like all of the diplomats and policy wonks and advisers—cold and half dead, warmed only by cognac or wine within his bitter little circle of trust. Just down the cobblestone street, on the main drag of Georgetown, mannequins stare out of the windows of American Apparel and Aeropostale at the beautiful, autoeroticized passersby, striving to emulate the cold sensuality of the window front displays. Flush-faced people down at the Potomac eat dinner at expensive restaurants, talking excitedly about situations, minutiae from their daily lives and relationships, experiences they won’t remember in seven years. Beautiful preppy men and women were sunglasses that denote their class—young party animals park their boats down by the riverfront, blast music and drink beers, trying to lure women onto the boat to party, the kind of girls who hang out by the Potomac looking to get on a boat. A couple rolls around on the grass intertwined, like puppies fighting. The President sits up in the White House and gets debriefed with information that is prescreened for him and will always be conveyed in an upbeat, timely and constructive manner, that will never point to the impossibility of some things ever being resolved. The people conveying this information are the kind of people who want to advance their positions and have given their tacit support to the idea of a hierarchical totem pole where to “move up” one must “pay their dues”.


How certain people can charm you and make you laugh no matter what they say. How their popularity just builds and builds until someone becomes a symbol, a cult of personality, and they can begin to plagiarize themselves. How certain people’s bedrooms, no matter what kind of sucky shithole they are living in possess an ambient aura of creativity, inspiration, or interest, while other people’s bedrooms feel more dead and transient than rundown hotel rooms. How everyone has their moment when ‘they are a magnet some of the time’, when there energy is focused and powerful and draws the others around—the crowds come rushing. The e-mail box is always full. The popularity doesn’t gather person by person, it grows exponentially, like a shadow being thrown on a wall. This person is good, this person is the one, look at how everyone loves this person, if I don’t get in on the ground floor with this person I’ll be missing the boat. Everybody wants a piece.

Bannon and Airports

Last night was the beginning of something. People mobilized spontaneously and acted and it felt like something new was being born. Normal people acting together gave courage to lawmakers and governors and mayors.

We can generate power through common life.

After the protest, it was reported that Steve Bannon will now sit on the National Security Council. He has been a strong figure in the Trump White House and seems to be the rising figure within the operation. I stayed up late after the protest and watched again Steve Bannon’s documentary “Occupy Unmasked.” The film is poorly made synaptic propaganda (hosted by Andrew Breitbart, who looks like he has a coke hangover) but I believe its important to watch Bannon closely to understand where he comes from, how he views the left, so we can better anticipate his moves and outmaneuver him the future.

My takeaway is that Bannon fundamentally misread Occupy. He does not have a strong understanding the left. Like many conservatives, anyone on the left is by default a “liberal” and blind dupe of Obama, Hillary, the Democratic Party machine. There is no room in their vision for something else because they do not know something else exists. They are just now only beginning to grasp what the Bernie phenomenon was. Its easier for them to do the traditional “snowflake” attack, which basically suggests that young liberals come from rich, culturally elite families or are indoctrinated in universities. Liberalism is something they were born into, or brainwashed into at Bennington or Swarthmore or the Upper West Side or wherever. This is topped off with a dabbing patina of the threat of “violent” “dirty” anarchists.

Bannon sees himself as a class-warrior. He’s waging a war of the 99% against the elite liberal .001% who made him feel weird or whatever.

His main talent as a strategist is revealing the glaring hypocrisy of the Democratic Party. You saw this with bringing Bill Clinton’s accusers to the third debate. Now that the Democratic Party is in remission, its unclear how this talent will be put to use. Everything he does springs from this “gotcha” move: “If we’re so bad, why didn’t you complain when Hillary/Bill/Obama did the same thing?"

This is the signature Trump coalition move, along with the new and unoriginal move of accusing protestors of being paid by George Soros.

This is not seven-dimensional chess. This is 101 level strategy. It’s childish but crudely effective. Attack the “snowflakes” and congeal the base. And its remarkably easy to hate on the elitism and vested privilege of Clinton liberals.

Bannon has not graduated to 202: He doesn’t know how to reckon with the broad left opposition beyond Clinton/Obama liberalism yet. He didn’t even really understand Occupy beyond the “dirty snowflake” model.

In “Occupy Unmasked” they interview a socialist woman, the only person they don’t seem completely dismissive of and overly curious about: “How did you get into this? Who taught you?”

They then fall back on the outmoded toolkit: she got it from her elite family, she got it from graduate school professors who “indoctrinated” her. They don’t know how to escape their own premises and can’t imagine something else more confounding or hegemonic.

I guess an argument could be made that he understands better than he appears to understand and is simplifying. That he purposefully painted Occupy in broad strokes to more effectively draw out simmering anti-elite resentments. But my impression is that he simply does not understand. For example, they portray Malcolm Harris and Natasha Lennard were essentially the Rosa Luxembourg and Karl Liebknecht of Occupy. Fundamental misreading of the situation. They don't even engage with the real vanguard of Tiqqunists and Graeberites that were at the heart of Occupy.

I truly believe that his Achilles heel will be an anti-elitist socialist coalition of the kind Bernie fostered, pulling in liberals like a whirlpool. This bloc has the wind at its back and also its a bloc that Bannon has given no indication of having a maneuver for.

Without sounding too triumphalist or self-congratulatory in this totally defensive time, I am strangely optimistic because in the long run all the pieces are there. I do think if the cards are played right, the American socialist left can outflank Bannon and eat him alive.

The Magnets: Between New York and North Carolina (The Towner)

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Late at night, the empty highways of central North Carolina achieve an oceanic placidity. Padded by vast swaths of pine forests and illuminated by the diffuse glow of light pollution from the sprawl, a kind of privacy, a stillness descends on the landscape. A strip mall parking lot, a pharmaceutical campus in the woods, the lights of the big stores glowing after the employees have gone home for the night, squares of illuminated blues, pinks, yellows, like a Mondrian painting. The road is empty, punctuated only by the occasional headlights of another car, the driver turning to stare as they glide past, both of you alone in the pines. A thick matte of kudzu engulfs the power lines. Civilization and nature come together like an old married couple, slowly approximating each other’s natures.

North Carolina has long been wedged between competing spheres of influence, almost like a Eurasian country in the way it is trapped between the South and the North, trying to plod some middle path. In keeping, the North Carolinians of my generation exhibit a certain bipolarity, an ambivalence and discontent, somehow always geographically and culturally in-between, always seeking and never satisfied. Of course, some stuck around, had kids and bought houses. And some moved away and never came back. But the vast majority of people I have known have boomeranged back and forth, moving away to Baltimore, DC, to New York to Portland then coming back to Raleigh, returning, always returning exhausted to catch their breath, to recover their finances, to reconnect with some aspect of themselves that they felt was neglected in other places.

I think of my old friend Doug back in Raleigh saying, “Every time you come back home to visit I realize how badly I need to get out of here.” I think of Katherine, moving back to Durham from Asheville to attend grad school saying, “It’s so different here now.” I think of my old friend Little Bear, moving back into the split-level house to take care of her dad, making chain mail jewelry on the faded carpet of her childhood bedroom, and riding her bike with the little blinking red light alone down those empty streets at night. Even those who you thought had experienced some degree of success and made a new life elsewhere sometimes surprise you. Like my old friend Walt, who after a couple of beers one night on some yellow bulb-lit front porch said, one day maybe, in that nebulous future when all is settled, then he would move back. I think of the lyrics to his haunting accordion songI drove up in May…all the roads were clear…and my eyes seem so aware…The buildings they change, like they always change, but only enough to make me feel not quite at home.

Read the rest at The Towner

The Genius and the Laborer (Lapham’s Quarterly)

"Let me tell you my life; it won’t take much of your time—you ought to know it.
I am a weed, a foundling, an illegitimate being.”

—Maxim Gorky, 1908

“As a writer, I am not ‘great’; I am simply a good worker.”
—Maxim Gorky, 1928

Attempting a friendship with one of your heroes is always a risky undertaking. Some cherished illusions have to be sacrificed to reality, some disenchantment unavoidable. Maxim Gorky was thirty-two when he befriended Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, who was seventy-two and well into his heretical-prophet phase after a prolonged spiritual crisis decades earlier. The first night they met in 1900, Tolstoy took him into his study, criticized his stories in a torrent of expletives (while arguing that fifteen was the age of consent), and then gave him a hug and kiss, declaring: “You’re a real muzhik! You’ll have a hard time rubbing elbows with our writers, but don’t let anything intimidate you. Always say what you feel—if it comes out crudely, don’t worry.” Gorky left the encounter with mixed feelings. “It was as if I had met not the author of The Cossacks, ‘Strider,’ and War and Peace, but rather a condescending nobleman who felt constrained to speak to me like ‘an ordinary fellow,’ in ‘the language of the street,’ and this tended to upset my idea of him.”

Gorky had recently become famous after the publication of his first fiction collection, Stories of the Steppe, which depicted the hobos and tramps, itinerant populists, and lumpenprole dregs he had encountered during his youth. He had tried to meet Tolstoy years before, when he was just a vagrant with a distinctive face that one commentator noted stuck out among intellectuals but blended in with a group of workers. Back then he had made a pilgrimage to Yasnaya Polanya to ask the prophet for a small plot of land—any foundation upon which to build the stable foundations of a life. Leo Tolstoy was not around, but Sonya Tolstoy fed him tea and buns, complaining that all kinds of sketchy individuals had been asking for favors from her husband, before sending him on his way.

Gorky was acutely aware that his fame was less a result of what he had written than what he represented. Born in Nizhny Novgorod in 1868, his parents died young, leaving him in the care of his newly declassed maternal grandfather, a ruthless and abusive disciplinarian. When he won a book prize at age nine, he sold it to buy food for his ailing grandmother. His grandfather forced him out of school at eleven, and kicked him out of the house soon after. He wandered and worked all kinds of jobs—shoe clerk, icon-maker’s apprentice, cook’s assistant—eventually falling in with revolutionary populists and becoming a writer. The orphan autodidact, the populist revolutionary with an arrest record, the bard of the underworld, became a token for Russia’s highborn literary elite. They could believe they had discovered a new type of Russian writer, that the sphere of cultural production was diversifying. “Here was a writer who actually emerged from ‘the people’ who wrote of and for them with none of that pious sympathy for suffering traditional among the intelligentsia,” the scholar Donald Fanger noted in a brilliant introduction to his fine translations of Gorky’s literary sketches and ephemera, Gorky’s Tolstoy and Other Reminiscences.

Gorky and Tolstoy were at crosscurrents, representing separate and opposed phases of Russian political radicalism. The aristocrat Tolstoy was a great romanticizer of peasant and country life, along with the late nineteenth-century populists and Narodniks who moved to rural villages to organize and agitate. After his well-documented spiritual crisis, he fled the salons and renounced his class, reinventing himself as an ascetic peasant and heretic. Gorky grew up bathed in the populist and Socialist Revolutionary milieu but became disenchanted with the dogmatic, peasant-fetishizing populists who tokenized him as a “man of the people.” He drifted from job to job, eventually becoming a Marxist not from reading Marx but from actually working, as a baker’s assistant in Kazan. There he met locals who “spoke with hatred about life in the countryside, thus contradicting his mentors, the populists,” Tovah Yeldin wrote in Maxim Gorky: A Political Biography. After despair over the death of his beloved grandmother led him to attempt suicide, he gave small-town agitation one last try, moving to the tiny village of Krasnovidovo to work at a radical store where proto-Maoist populists were organizing around issues of police brutality. The experiment was an unmitigated disaster. The local authorities and kulaks burned the store to the ground. Gorky was driven out of town and nearly killed, according to Yeldin. For the rest of his life, he loathed the peasantry and the countryside. He spent the next five years writing short stories and wandering, surveilled and periodically arrested for propagandizing among students, before landing a job at the Samara Gazette in 1895. The position allowed him to write commentary and polemics—often against the populists—from within the populist fold. Gorky’s stories and commentary garnered him cult status among the young Marxists and the attention of important editors, critics, and writers. In 1902 the thirty-four-year-old iconoclast was nominated to the Imperial Academy of Sciences, to stand alongside Gogol and Pushkin. It was a cultural coup on par with Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize in Literature. Tsar Nicholas II personally annulled the nomination, writing, “He is under police surveillance. And the academy is allowing, in our troubled times, such a person to be elected!”

There is a romantic idea that certain editors or literary people have of the “true” self-contained genius who spends all his or her time alone writing one brilliant novel after another, floating like a snowflake above the vulgar world of politics, petty journalism, and reviews. But Gorky was immersed in the battles of his time, too contrarian and idiosyncratic to be fully contained by a party and periodically lashing out at all factions to remind them that intellectual vanguards were worthless compared to the will of the people. First a partisan for the populists, he eventually fell in with the Marxists, and soon thereafter the nascent Bolshevik faction. Perhaps more than with any other writer, Gorky’s life paralleled the rise and spread of Marxism in Russia, his fate intertwined with those of his contemporaries who would eventually come to power in 1917. Yeldin wrote that Gorky was referred to as “the herald of the coming storm,” adding that “it was as if Gorky and the Russian proletariat had been born at the same time.”

While Tolstoy fled to the countryside, away from the world of culture that was his birthright, Gorky, an outsider and a poor kid, crashed the literary party uninvited, charmed everyone, and became the guest of honor. He cherished culture with a zeal that only someone not born into it can possess, perhaps accurately sensing that it was all he had. In the late 1920s he wrote in a half-finished draft letter to an unknown correspondent, “For me, culture is something dearer and more intimate than it is for you. For you it’s a habit of yours, something into which you were born and as necessary as trousers.”

Gorky avoided both introspection and narcissistic self-disclosure in his writing. In all of his memoirs and sketches, he appears as a roving eye, a distant first-person voice without internality. He viewed literature as a vocation and himself as an industrious, if not particularly talented, worker. This sense of himself as a laborer fit in with his later Bolshevism and his professed belief that art was not only for the elect and that all people had talent. Yet there was a harder side of his personality that could write off whole groups in defense of the regime, calling for the “enemy to be exterminated ruthlessly and without pity, paying no attention to the gasps and groans of the professional humanists.” (He also was responsible for the literary whitewashing of the White Sea Canal, Stalin’s notorious Great Pyramids–like forced-labor project.) His life and work were eaten through with still-unresolved contradictions—hating and resenting the intelligentsia while wanting to be part of it, he was both the humanist Bolshevik and the anti-Bolshevik Bolshevik. He was also the writer who ignored his own genius to support and even save the lives of other writers, the gulag lover who was always the first to weep at poetry readings. Fanger quotes Anna Akhmatova’s comment from the 1960s: “It is customary these days to curse Gorky. But without his help at that time we would all have died of hunger.” In his work, he occasionally could be masterful in depicting moral gray areas. But the constant suppression of his own internality and soul led to accusations that he was a shrewd operator and opportunist. He was ultimately more interested in communication in service of an ideal than in individualistic self-expression, a primary tenet of the socialist realist literary tradition he helped found. At one point, the poet Alexander Blok confronted him for sacrificing his idiosyncratic artistic vision in order to build socialist realism: “You hide yourself. You hide your ideas about the spirit and about truth. What for?” Gorky had no good answer. Fanger quotes the scholar Shentalinsky, who concluded: “Gorky’s constant waverings between the desire to preserve his spiritual independence and the fear of falling behind the locomotive of revolution…these are the contradictions that run through his whole life and constitute his tragedy.” Late in life, when Gorky gave in to the decadent act of scribbling down a few fragments explicitly about himself, he wrote, “Sometimes I feel an urge to write a critical article about Gorky as artist. I am convinced that it would be the most malicious and the most instructive article ever written about him.”

Read the rest of the essay at Lapham's Quarterly.