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Magnetism

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.

Shopping At Target (2009)

Lines at the Target store, filled with products, anything and everything anyone could ever want or need. All needs are provided for, all desires fulfilled—we no longer have any variance in the economic system. In the future all economies will be the same, serving the purpose of making the all-comforting technocapitalist machine smaller and more efficient, less noticeable as all products become more altruistic—30% recycled! All organic and fair trade! Some proceeds go to benefit breast cancer awareness! In line, with my batteries and aluminum-free deodorant, I smile at the lady in front of and behind me, and they don’t return my glance. As the bearded guy at the register opens the clear magnetic chamber box that seals the DVDs, I can’t help but think of homo habilis—fiddling with tools, trying things, attemping.

“What if a thief had one of those keys?” I asked the bearded man.

“More power to him.” He doesn’t skip a beat. “Swipe your card,” he demands. I do. “You sure have a lot of ways you can pay,” I say, making conversation. He lowers his eyes conspiratorially. “Yeah…” he shakes his head and grimaces, “Wish we just took cash.”

“Yeah, the good old days…”

“Yeah…the good…” he mutters, his glasses sliding down the nose. “I wish we could just…you know…get back to bartering…”

“No economy, no jobs…”

“A sense of community…no more stupid uniforms” he says, toying with the lapel of his bright red shirt.

“Trading…we could trade all of our old junk in rather than sending it to the landfill.”

“We could trade…” he says

“I wouldn’t have to give you a plastic card” I say, delighted

“No money” he says

“No money” I repeat. He puts my products in a plastic bag. I stare into his bird-like eyes. “No bag for me, thanks” I pull them out of the plastic, “you save this for the next person,” I smile, satisfied with myself for reducing my carbon footprint, for my non-participation.

“Some people like the bags…” he says, crestfallen, “When it’s raining…”

“Have a good day, Sir” I say, and I mean it.

“You take care!” he commands. Another conspiratorial glance, seems to say We could burn this whole thing down. The automatic doors open soundlessly, releasing me back into suburban pseudo-nature, the rain and mist.

Rage Against the Dying Light (2011)

25c0a96e70c675af7eff6c40a116ba8b Growing up near Raleigh, I spent many years after high school getting lost on the one-way streets in the shadows of downtown. It’s a large inland city with no geographical features or monuments rising above the skyline to help orient you—all directions look the same, skyscrapers and art-deco architecture fading through a border of warehouses into stately old neighborhoods, some of which have been revitalized, others of which are in decay. When you leave the center city it seems to spin like a wheel of fortune, popping you out wherever it sees as fit. One night after a couple of beers at the Raleigh Times, I take a wrong turn in the labyrinth of skyscrapers and one-way streets and pop out in one of the neighborhoods that ring Raleigh—the rundown shotgun shacks, the rusted over country stores on lonesome street corners and the high concentration of guys in wife beaters wandering the streets. Through twists and U-turns, I somehow find my way back out to the escape hatch, broad Capital Boulevard, which shoots through downtown Raleigh like a vacuum tube. On Capital, I turn up the music, roll down the windows, and throw the car into high gear, speeding past the neon lights of the rotted boulevard—old warehouses, fresh-built gas stations, motorcycle shops and late-night Krispy Kreme donut shops. I’ve had a couple of beers and feel warm and relaxed inside, and lean back in the leather seat feeling, finally on the right frequency with the universe—mind and body feeling fresh, awake, and alive, aligned with the magnetic poles of fate. I made my way back to Hillsborough Street, that great college artery through town, which looks so different than when I first drove down it to shows at a tiny little rundown club where the Circle Jerks and Bad Brains used to play called the Brewery. Hillsborough is now cleaned up and redone—the lanes widened, all new businesses, and the old staple and flier-covered grimy old flickering streetlamps now replaced with a bright new energy-efficient model, positioned close together so that the entire boulevard is now brightly lit up like a pedestrian mall—shadows are kept at bay, and danger and darkness has been abolished in the general vicinity. I drive on past all the memories—the campus where I went to college, the street corner where we served Food Not Bombs, a house where I fell in love, on up the rode to the nerve center of the local youth culture, the Cup A Joe coffee shop, where the evening shift baristas are flapping out the rubber mats and emptying the mop buckets. I park right up in front of Cup A Joe and press my face up against the fliers taped up in the front panes of glass. By years of habit, my eyes are instinctively drawn to a photocopied black and white hardcore flier among the silkscreened posters for trivia nights, indie rock festivals and experimental theater performance. Four bands I’ve never heard of and one local band playing at a grimy bar downtown called The Berkeley. The flier says that the show is tonight and in fact started a couple of hours ago.

The thought crosses my mind to just call it a night like every other night—to go home to my mother’s house and read until I fall asleep and then wake up early and do it all over again. I feel old and literary, separated by a chasm from the manic youth energy of the hardcore show. There was a laundry list of good reasons not to go—“you won’t know anyone. You’ll be the oldest person in the room. You’ve already spent 1/5 of your life standing around watching bands, why would you want to spend anymore?” But something inside, perhaps the booze coursing through my veins, urges me to break out from the castle I have built for myself and take action against silent despair. Once the fire of the self-dare is lit it’s hard to put out. I jump back in the car and speed downtown, skidding to a halt at the park across the street from The Berkeley. A couple of deranged looking youth—weird haircuts, big black-frame glasses, laughing, stumbling, outsiders—are hanging out against the brick wall outside of the club. Inside, the familiar grubby darkness and interlude music playing over the club’s speakers and a doorman wearing a Totalitar t-shirt. “How many bands left?” I ask him. “Just one…” he smiles. I reach for my wallet but he waves me in, “Don’t worry about it, go on in” he says stamping my hand. I get a beer from the dead-eyed goth bartender and then head into the cave-like interior of the Berkeley’s belly. The space is half-empty and black-clad attendees mill around idly browsing records and merch. A quick scan of the crowd returns the disturbing fact that I am the only one with a beer and am probably the only one old enough to drink—none of the kids in the crowd have a 21+ armband and they all look like they just got out of high school. So young and fresh-faced, the world of hardcore like an ever-expanding balloon that slowly fills up their lives with purpose. A band of punk kids that look like they’re trying to look like they’re in Judas Priest are setting up on stage—a huge, lead singer with long, flowing blonde hair and a leather jacket, like some kind of Scandinavian incarnation of Joey Ramone is stooped over and awkwardly adjusting the height of the microphone. Sensing that they are about to start, all of the kids move up toward the stage, standing around with crossed arms and backpacks, so excited for the entertainment to begin. “We’re Rational Animals” the singer mutters and they launch into a dissonant Priest-like metal anthem. Raleigh has always been a metal town—Corrosion of Conformity solidified that back in the early 80s and little has changed since then—its as if the town is protected by an orb that repels the corrupting cultural trends of the outside world. In Raleigh, scraggly-bearded, Southern fried metal lives on. When I was coming of age there spending my late nights at the Waffle House there was a brief, fleeting era of artsy hardcore influence but in the intervening years that seemed to have died—Today, the twenty year olds filtered into Raleigh from the surrounding towns of Fuquay, Cary and Apex to see capital-M Metal and hardcore in the classical style, as it was intended.

It was immediately apparent that these kids hadn’t yet dulled themselves down to the point where they came to shows out of ritual, to socialize and stand around with crossed arms not having fun. They were there to feel alive and they weren’t going to waste their chance. Passion burbled up in them from hidden wellsprings and they couldn’t disguise it, couldn’t control it—they were excited and were burning. 

One or two kids started whipping around and moshing and then the rest joined in—a petite little girl tore through the room, scattering the boys, bounding around like a kangaroo ballerina.

On A Plane

The lady beside me nods out to the closely packed plane. “Tight squeeze” I smile. “Sure is. Like a sardine can.” I crawl into my seat and we don’t say anything else to each other for the duration of the flight. I think about her though. She seems like a Midwestern business lady, flying back home to Chicago from a family tragedy or a somber business merger. I read a book about the discovery of America: the saga of Cabeza de Vaca, the Spanish conquistador who wandered lonely and mad without any clothes, like some kind of proto-Christ-hippie centuries before Lewis and Clark crossed on their carefully planned, sober expedition. After having his ship stranded off the coast of Florida, Cabeza and his crew got lost in the Florida wilderness near Talahassee and were left behind by a Spanish legion of ships, who assumed they had met their end. Cabeza wandered across the Gulf Coats with a small gang, stopping in Indian villages along the way and convincing the Indian tribes he was a mystic in exchange for food—in this way he gathered followers until his company crossing the desolate Southwestern landscape on foot numbered in the thousands. The merry band shed their clothes, grew out their hair, and became stark raving mad for lack of food and water and possible consumption of peyote and other hallucionagens. While reading about Cabeza, I couldn’t help but periodically glance at my seatmeate, imagining what it might be like to be lost and hungry in a strange land, Christ-like wandering across a new continent, and then see a familiar person, like a font, a spring in the desert. Then the plane landed and the spell was broken. My seatmate pulled out her smartphone which blinked with a barrage of new messages, many of them containing the word “hedge funds”—our two hour flight with no cell phone reception had put her sadly out of touch. The old couple in front of us, obviously from the South, called home on their cell phones, the gray woman shaking her head after the short call. “They’re more paranoid about us flying than I am! I’m the one that has to fly!” her husband adding with that sweet Southern fatalism, “If something happens, what can you do? You know you’re not going to survive if the plane crashes out in that big ocean—what a joke! Even if you did survive, you’d be eaten by the sharks before anyone got to you.” The woman grimaced and said: “When it’s your time, it’s your time—ready for it, or not.”

Social Life (2007)

My social relations have flat lined, lost all their peaks and valleys. Rather than experiencing things with friends, struggle, danger, or even making the long journey through the night on a raft of booze, I have compartmentalized every cooperative human experience—friends belong during the day, with a drink, with a cup of coffee, shared human experience an excuse to ‘check-in’, “You good? Yeah I’m good” and thus stagnated—we share nothing, experience nothing, and essentially just share our small victories and our nagging problems with each other over and over in different ways, a Groundhog day of doing-things-with-other-people rather than the magic, binding adventure that it could be. I feel sorry for the lonely masses, but at least they dwell up on a spire of Cold Mountain rather than this kind of social Midwest, dull and flat and bland in all directions, and all my fault. I took no risks, I got no rewards. And the process itself was unpleasant.

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.