"Days of this February were white and magical, the nights were starry and crystalline. The town lay under a cold glory."
- from "Descriptions of Things and Atmospheres," The Crack-Up
"Days of this February were white and magical, the nights were starry and crystalline. The town lay under a cold glory."
- from "Descriptions of Things and Atmospheres," The Crack-Up
When you stop on your way to your friend Frank’s funeral on a blustery February morning to get a cup of coffee, and for whatever reason you make it a hazelnut, which you haven’t done for years—in fact the last time, or at least the most emblematic, was a similar morning when you first arrived in New York in 2000. You picked up a hazelnut coffee from the bodega near your stop on the 7 train in Sunnyside, Queens on your way to your first temp job stuffing envelopes at the New York Observer, and that hazelnut coffee filled you with hope—you were getting a coffee on the way to work, you were a part of the city, it let you drink its coffee. Less than a month later you started reading your words at open mike nights, where you met Frank—you immediately wanted to know him because he looked like Lou Reed, and you soon found in him perhaps the kindest New Yorker still that you’ve ever met. And as the Q takes you over Manhattan Bridge this morning, you remember seeing the seagulls on a cold winter day in 2001 while on your way to a job you hated and writing about those seagulls like they were those shorthand birds—just two little arches, creatures composed only of wings—and then, at the end of that summer, walking home over the Manhattan Bridge in a vehicle lane while lower Manhattan seethed in the rubble of its cracked landscape, and not leaving your apartment for days until you invited Frank and the rest of your crowd to your rooftop to observe together your broken city. You remember looking at Moira, Frank’s girlfriend at the time, and saying, I feel for the first time like this is my city. And then Moira broke up with Frank a couple of years later, and he began what ended up a decade-long circular—or perhaps spiral—pattern of losing his mind, then gaining it, then losing it again, the periods of lucidity shrinking by the year as his body wore away, the heavy medication he used to preserve his mind turning his backbone to dust. And you remember the last reading you saw him give, when he stopped midway to wipe the profuse sweat from his face with a handkerchief and said to the crowd, “I’m dyin’ up here!” then, “No, really. I’m dying up here.” And as your train arrives at the stop in Astoria where you will attend Frank’s funeral, you want to thank this hazelnut coffee, to give it a toast: Salud! To life, as in death!
THERE ARE LOTS OF YOU BITCHES, AND I'M SURE YOU'RE ALL HAVING A NICE LAUGH NOW THAT QUEEN BITCH TRUMP HAS CIRCUMVENTED THE LAW TO GET YOU YOUR EASEMENT WITHOUT DUE PROCESS AND LET YOU FINISH YET ANOTHER EXAMPLE OF 20TH-CENTURY "BUILD IT AND FUCK IT" INFRASTRUCTURE PLANNING: RUSH THE JOB, AND DO A COLLECTIVE SHOULDER SHRUG WHEN THE STRUCTURES FAIL AND DESTROY THE SURROUNDING LANDSCAPE, LIKE HERE AND HERE FROM THE PAST TWO MONTHS ALONE.
FIRST, MORTON COUNTY POLICE DEPARTMENT: YOU GUYS MIGHT BE THE MOST MALICIOUS, CORRUPT GOOD OL' BOY NETWORK THIS SIDE OF 1964. I SAW WHAT YOU FUCKS DO WHEN I WAS THERE AND AFTERWARD, WITH YOUR WATER CANNONS AND RUBBER BULLETS AND JOY AT THE OPPORTUNITY TO PUNISH A BUNCH OF REDSKINS, HIPPIES, AND DO-GOODERS FOR DARING TO PUNCTURE THE DELICATE BUBBLE OF WHITE POWER AND CORPORATE GREED YOU'VE MANAGED TO NURSE IN THE FACE OF A COUNTRY HELLBENT ON CULTURAL SENSITIVITY AND MISCEGENATION.
SHERIFF KYLE KIRCHMEIER AND COUNTY COMMISSIONER CODY SCHULZ: CAN'T YOU HAVE THE CREATIVITY TO AT LEAST IMAGINE YOUR OWN STATEMENT? ONE OF YOU COPIED THE OTHER'S WORK. WHOEVER MADE IT UP, THIS SHIT IS RICH:
"Today's decision from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is a step toward the closure necessary for pipeline construction. If protestors continue to take unlawful actions in response to the Corps’ decision, law enforcement will be forced to continue to put themselves in harm’s way to enforce the rule of law. Our hope is that the new administration in Washington will now provide North Dakota law enforcement the necessary resources to bring closure to the protests. This has never been about the pipeline or the protests. This has always been about the rule of law, protecting both residents and peaceful protestors from criminal elements that have significantly harmed people and property – all with very little assistance from the federal government in the last administration."
TRANSLATION: "THANKS, TRUMP! NOW WE CAN CONTINUE TRYING ON THE RIOT GEAR WE LEASED FROM THE MILITARY, ATTACKING WOMEN WITH DOGS, USING WATER CANNONS WHILE SAYING WE HAVE NO IDEA WHAT WATER CANNONS ARE, AND DETAINING AN INDIGENOUS WOMAN ARRESTED MONTHS AGO FOR HAVING THE NERVE TO LET US ATTACK HER. AND IF OUR MIGHT ISN'T ENOUGH TO OVERCOME ALL THESE TURRISTS, WE'LL GET TRUMP TO SEND IN THE FEDS! (ASSUMING THEY'RE NOT ALL IN CHICAGO DEALING WITH THEIR BLACK PROBLEM.)"
BUT HERE'S THE THING: THE FIGHT AIN'T OVER, BITCHES. OUR INDIGENOUS FOLKS HAVE SEEN A LOT WORSE THAN YOU'VE GOT, AND THEY'RE A LOT MORE DISCIPLINED, ORGANIZED, AND LOVING THAN I AM. I'VE WORKED WITH THEM, BEEN INSPIRED BY THEM, SHARED SPACE AND CEREMONY WITH THEM, SHIVERED IN THE COLD WITH THEM. YOU ARE WEAK-WILLED LITTLE FOLLOWERS OF YOUR CORPORATE DADDIES. AND EVEN IF YOU THINK YOU WON, YOU LOST. WE ALL DID, BITCHES.
THIS ONE'S BEEN BUILDING FOR A LONG, LONG TIME, YOU TURTLE-FACED, WEAK-CHINNED, SLANTY-SMILED MOTHERFUCKER. YOU MAKE IT YOUR STATED GOAL TO MAKE OUR FIRST BLACK PRESIDENT A ONE-TERM PRESIDENT, AND FAIL. YOU REFUSE TO DO YOUR JOB IN REVIEWING A QUALIFIED APPOINTMENT FOR SUPREME COURT JUSTICE, HAMSTRINGING OUR SUPREME COURT FOR A YEAR IN THE PROCESS. AND NOW, YOU USE AN ARCHAIC PARLIAMENTARY RULE TO SILENCE A FELLOW SENATOR'S READING OF A LETTER FROM THE WIFE OF ONE OF OUR MOST BELOVED CIVIL RIGHTS ADVOCATES, AND REPORT A "HIGH LEVEL OF SATISFACTION" WITH THE RACIST BILLIONAIRE CURRENTLY OCCUPYING OUR PRESIDENCY. CONGRATULATIONS, YOU ARE A PIECE OF SHIT, AND AN ENEMY OF THE UNITED STATES.
LEST WE FORGET, YOU BARELY GOT PAST YOUR LAST REPUBLICAN PRIMARY, AND THEN GOT ONLY 56.2% OF THE POPULAR VOTE IN THE GENERAL ELECTION OF ONE OF THE MOST HEAVILY CONSERVATIVE STATES IN THE UNION. YOU NOW OWN THE LOWEST APPROVAL RATING OF ANY STANDING U.S. SENATOR. IT MAKES SENSE THAT YOU WOULD SUPPORT A WILDLY UNPOPULAR PRESIDENT WHO LOST THE POPULAR VOTE BY ALMOST 3 MILLION VOTES. YOU STAND FOR NO ONE BUT YOURSELF AND THE MONEYCHANGERS WHO FUND YOUR WRINKLY SOURPUSS.
“When you realize that much of your adult life is a performance—for your wife, your children, your friends and colleagues—to show them that you are normal, that you have internalized your memories of being raised by sad and angry children and are now the kind of father whose children feel he knows them, that the model of conflict-based marriage that led you to think Bitch and Asshole were proper synonyms for Wife and Husband are now a critical palette from which you (mostly) do not draw when resolving conflict within your own marriage, that your friendships are multifarious and drawn from a wide range of geography and experience that qualifies you to call yourself ‘cosmopolitan,’ that you even have colleagues, a word you can’t imagine uttering to anyone you knew before leaving home the first of many times decades ago. The critical distance you feel from terms like ‘colleague,’ though, also puts space between you and words like ‘friend’ and ‘family’—their meanings are so multiple, so evanescent that you sometimes wonder if you will ever truly know anyone, because every person you know exists to you only in the context of your performed relationship with them. Perhaps every expression is a performance—a quotation from an unnamed source.”
When you’re on the train at 6am reading an essay by a writer about the pleasure she derives from fucking married men (“I allowed myself to sleep with men for whom I felt just the right level of contempt”) and the guy sitting next to you keeps spreading his legs a little too wide so that you would have to sit slightly bowlegged if you let him continue, so you give his right knee a brief but insistent tap with your left knee and then look into the window facing you, and in the darkness of the tunnel you see the dim reflection of his face and think you may know him, but you keep reading. “I do not mean to say that the contempt we contain, which flares in us, need always be visible to others and acted upon, but I do know that its existence can be of use. The kind of contempt I am praising is but a sliver, a powerful small thing, which holds a space, preventing inappropriate enmeshment.” The man is looking at you, but you don’t feel like talking to him, figuring out whether you know him from a party or some past overlapping life or whatever, but you enjoy the sense of sharing space with someone you might know and choosing not to interact with him—you enjoy this so much that you think this might be your most natural state, a body in space, perhaps sharing a commonality or two with the other bodies sharing this translucent moment, warm packets of constant, sloshing motion encased by membranes so thin you can almost see what’s inside each of them as they bump and jostle on their respective ways like spermaceti, like metastasis, like sun rays.
When your wife is away for the weekend at a conference and you binge-watch Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight, and you remember seeing Before Sunrise at the student union in 1995 and when Jesse and Celine kissed for the first time while overlooking the ferris wheel you remembered two years earlier riding a ferris wheel with the first girl you loved right after she broke up with you and she let you hold her hand one last time and you knew at that moment that you’d thought she would be the only one you would ever tell you loved, and then you watched Before Sunset in 2005 alone in the room your friend Frank rented out to you after you ran off and left the fourth or fifth woman you thought would be your Celine, and then again in 2007 with the woman who would become your wife, only she thought it was a bit maudlin, and so six years later when the third film was released you didn’t bother asking her if she’d want to watch it, instead waiting until she’s out of town and your two children have gone to bed to share space with these two fictional characters whose fates parallel yours, realizing that you’ve been wondering for years how they’ve been, whether Jesse stayed in Paris, and now, seeing them in Greece having the same sort of existential negotiations you have with your wife, you feel more comfortable in the world knowing they exist in it, even as fictions. And you realize, watching these three films in succession after your children are asleep, while your wife is away, that for twenty years now these fictions have provided a template for your life, and there is a reason that like, say, the tears you shared with your mother over repeated viewings of Terms of Endearment made you wish you were a girl so you could share the kind of a bond with your mother that Debra Winger shared with Shirley MacLaine, you’ve internalized the three evenings you’ve shared with these two people, they have become your new mythology, a paradigm by which you understand love and death and time and love. And love.
When, your junior year of high school, you played tennis at Lyons Park with a boy who lived down the street from you, whom you’d known since grade school, only neither of you knew how to play tennis. You didn’t really hang out at school much—he was a senior and seemed to talk only of girls he was trying to work up the nerve to call, girls with more money than he or you had ever known, and you perhaps wondered why he never saw you this way but you never said a word about it. You appreciated the way he always talked to your brother, who had a degenerative condition that caused his mouth to perpetually gape and slobber as he slapped this boy’s back and loudly told him Hi at the lunch table or at the grocery store where your brother bagged people’s food and took it to their cars. Maybe you saw your tennis games with this boy, filled with calls of “Strike!” and backhands over the fence, as a break from the relationships boys and girls were supposed to have in high school—absent the struggle of whether to call you or not, the cotton mouth when you did answer the phone, this boy treated you a lot like he probably did in grade school, only now standing on opposites side of the net on the cusp of adulthood. Hopefully now, on the other side of the curtain with children of your own older than you were then, not having kept in touch since those dates on the court, you remember these tennis games every now and then, as this boy does.
When you read Buzz Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights after your senior year of high school in 1991 because you had no idea what you would do with the rest of your life and still held onto the small bit of hope that standing the sidelines in your ill-fitting pads and watching your own high school team win State championships gave you. Reading about Boobie Miles’ quixotic dream of getting out of a town where he was “just another nigger” coming to an end after a season-ending ACL injury despite the school spending more of its budget on sports medicine than the English department, the sheer luck that even got the team to the state playoffs on the flip of a coin, the seeming ease with which their head coach could just leave them all to coach linebackers at Texas Tech the next year: all of these cleared your palate of any perceived purity of the sport. And in 2004, almost 15 years after the book was published, when a movie adaptation was released and a popular TV series adaptation soon followed in 2006 that ran until 2011, and now, more than 25 years after the documented season, Friday Night Lights has entered the realm of American trope, a three-word cultural flashpoint whose connotations almost everyone knows. And now that those original players are in their late forties and in varying degrees of recline or decline after being made to feel immortal at 16 years old, the brief excerpts of their much longer lives have morphed from documented nonfiction to fictionalized national TV mythology: the coach comes back to the team after one year at Texas Tech (er, Methodist), female characters like the coach’s wife and daughter become just as focal as the players, and each season is a laboratory for values that everyone involved with the ’88 Odessa Permian team would probably consider overly effeminate, liberal, and/or big-city, and your Jewish Upper East Side friend Sarah, no fan of football or heartland values, says it’s her favorite TV show.
When the formalist term systematic defamiliarization assumes a primary role in the construction of your self-image. By removing yourself from the family, friends, and social mores of your initial iterations—birth, childhood, adolescence, education—and placing yourself as object into a new system—city, subway, urbanity—you sought, by estranging yourself from the comfort of familial tradition and placing yourself in an insular new system with no job and $200 in your wallet, to find a new way of seeing yourself: As both artist and artifice, simulacrum and simulation. And then you get married in this new iteration, have children, find your artifices hardening into modes of being, and you finally feel equipped to begin the journey into the central questions this work of art that you call your life seeks to address. Only these questions are sublimated in daily struggles like talking to your mother on the phone when she believes—truthfully—that you are no longer the person who accompanied her through her own transformation from high school dropout to abused spouse through divorce and remarriage, or going to the beach with your new family and squaring the sand beneath your feet with the simulations of beach and mountains you only read about until first travelling over the Great Divide with a church group the summer after high school and first seeing the infinity-like expanse of ocean meeting sky for the first time when at Daytona on spring break in college. And finally, sneakiest of feels, when you wonder if your childhood, your education, your experiences were all simulation, and only recently, after years of faking it, are you penetrating the skin of what it means to be human.
When your four-year-old daughter tells you, “You’re the best dad in the universe” and you reply, “No, I’m not.” When she says the same thing the next day, and you remember wanting to say the same thing to the man you called Dad but the best you could say—at the city fair when he allowed you to ride the Zipper the first time—was, “You’re a good dad.” And when she says the same thing the next day, and you put her cheeky little face in your hands, plunge your own face into her little nest of hair, and breathe deeply her talent for the superlative.
When you start telling your secrets to your primary care physician on the day before Thanksgiving. While she checks your ears, you tell her you don’t hear voices but you’ve thought about suicide in a purely theoretical way; when she asks if these thoughts are making it hard to function in your daily tasks, you ask if she means like going to yearly doctor checkups; as she checks off your yearly mental health survey you tell her you think you might want to revise your answer about childhood sexual abuse—does making you keep the bathroom door open while you get ready to bathe when you were a child while calling you a faggot and then taking pictures of you crying count as sexual abuse? And now when you enter any restroom you immediately lock the door and run cold water over your wrists to cool the panic, you tell her, and how your wife has never seen you cry, you’ve cried only twice since junior high school in fact, and maybe panic attacks are your tears now. You repeatedly tell her “I’m sorry,” when what you really want to say is “This really happened,” not to her but to yourself.
As I look at my yearly tabulations on Excel, I see that if I write 1,185 words I will have averaged over 4,000 words per month on the year. Given the myriad other elements of 2016, it’s important to me that I achieve this meager milestone. (Hey, I’m already down to 1,139 words!) (1,132!)
I’m currently sitting at a table in Montpelier with five other writers, all on our laptops. It feels good. I’m helping out with the winter residency at Vermont College of Fine Arts, my beloved alma mater, prepping for a two-day generative microfiction workshop we’ll be conducting this week before attending a lecture by Trinie Dalton that will most probably remind me how much I have yet to learn. I’ve just decided on the fly that I want to have students read my friend Jeff Rose’s year-end collected chili meditations for the workshop, and I encourage you to as well, even (or especially) if you’re not that into chili.
Wow, I already ran out of ideas before I even came to a real one. In desperation, I just posted a call for suggestions on Facebook. The first came from my friend Richard:
Neutrality aids the oppressor. And go!
This is something I’ve thought about quite a lot as a teacher and as a human this year. Here are a couple of examples, one from my teaching life and the other from my human life.
I team-teach most of my classes during the fall semester, as the writing professor attached to a thematic seminar taught by another faculty member. One partnership this semester was with an International Politics professor who was teaching a class on dystopia in modern media and mythology. She is incredibly intelligent and on a work visa from Bangladesh, and also not that much older than our students. As November 8 approached, a couple of students in our class let her know they were voting for Trump, one fairly belligerently and with a looming hint that the student hoped Trump might the professor’s status as an immigrant and a Muslim against her. All of the students mentioned a particular class experience to me in which my teaching partner challenged the class to elucidate their argument; the class seemed to think that her perspective was not “neutral” enough, and that mine might be more neutral, the implication seeming that I might be more neutral as a white non-immigrant.
After the election I traveled to Standing Rock, ostensibly with my Trump-supporting childhood friend. He backed out as I was traveling to Kansas to pick him up, but before that happened another friend sent me a message that "30 hours in a car with a Trump supporter would be less feasible for a lot of people who feel color, gender, or orientation difference."
As I was thinking about that, I also thought about how I arranged this trip before the election in part as an olive branch to my friend, who would be downcast after the country finally came to its senses. I have to say, I wasn’t entirely disappointed when my friend backed out, and I’m starting to see that a lot of (white) people, in pretense to neutrality, have given a con artist with no virtuous qualities and his brood of leisure-class insiders the keys to the White House, mostly out of a sense of perceived familiarity with a guy who shares no cultural or financial referents with them except his self-identification as a Winner.
In both of these cases, I think, neutrality is essentially identification as the cultural “winner” – the person who, in setting and defining the rules of the game(s), is most apt to control the outcomes. This is not neutrality, and this is not moral. This is violent, and oppressive. And it’s why I’ve decided it’s important that I, as one white male, am not neutral.
Ok, I’ve now eaten dinner and sat back down, and my Facebook thread has waaaaay more responses than I could possibly respond to in the waning hours before the new year. They require much more thoughtful discourse than I’m capable of right now with a beer at my writing table and fireworks booming outside my window, but I’ bet listing them might both queue them up for near-future development and push me over my word count:
I’ll squirrel these away for future essays/blog posts, or if anyone wants to run with any of them, consider it my New Year’s gift to you.
And that, my friends, just put me over. Here's the evidence, on advice from my old friend Darin: “Why numbers matter and how to fudge them”:
When on a snow-ridden afternoon you venture out into the backwoods of Montpelier, Vermont: down a steep hill past people on snowshoes who look curiously at you and your peacoat, scarf, and galoshes, up an even steeper hill where you see fresh tracks in the snow that might be a wolf or might be a dog’s diverging from the path into the woods, then you see a broad figure hunched over at the crest of the hill and think it’s a bear but it’s just a guy strapping his feet to a snowboard, and you keep walking until you realize you’ve gone in circles looking for this special place, an old slate quarry you used to enter in past summers—a 300-foot gash in the planet’s crust that you’ve heard people describe as a natural wonder, which strikes you as curious considering this is not a seismic fissure but a by-product of human industry, natural only in the evidence it gives of the planet healing itself. But this is not why—finally, after two trips round the makeshift canyon—you slip in through its cervical opening, travel in through its narrow slate passway that blocks out all sky, finally reaching its cool, warm center. You go here now because it is so solitary and so so silent, the discarded cans and Wu-Tang graffiti reinforcing a sense of community you value most: Those who were here, but are not here now, speaking with you in my voice.
I had nothing to add here. Feliz Navidad, everyone.
Ok. After yesterday's fiasco, I've got to hold it together today. And the only way I can do that is through a Christmas song by Sufjan Stevens. You can feel free to take lyrics about K-Mart being closed, to Santa Claus and Little Lord Jesus, to your sister's self-cut bangs and jumping off a ladder with your boots tied together as seriously as you like, but hopefully not so much so. I mean, the title does have not one but two exclamation points.
When you’re on Facebook and you read your childhood best friend, who has been in and out of prison for much of his adult life, talk about how Donald Trump is going to prevent sand jockeys from blowing us all up, and then you read a post by a colleague, a Muslim and a black man, about his granddaughter graduating college after her father, your colleague’s son, was shot and killed by a police officer twenty years ago, and you want to put your childhood friend and your colleague into conversation with each other. But you know that would be a bad idea, that every major American schism—race, religion, education, class—separates them, that the only connection they have is your affection for both of them, and you realize that your affection probably means very little to them when faced with the social constructs to which they’ve adapted themselves. You see in advance your colleague trying to teach your friend, your friend demanding what right your colleague has to teach him anything, and both of them blocking each other, and perhaps you, on Facebook, and you realize how shallow, how easy to break our connections with each other are, how deep and impenetrable our differences.
I had another "I Am Old" moment this year while watching the newer CGI Alvin & the Chipmunks. I won't go too far into it (it's embarrassing) but suffice it to say, I had a hard time with these new guys, much like I had ten years ago with the Jim Carrey How the Grinch Stole Christmas. I love the idea of carrying on and updating our collective mythology, but all this just seems so...commercial. But if I'm going down this rabbit hole, it's probably worth admitting that almost all of our 20th-Century American mythology is commercial at root, especially our Christmas mythology. Christmas isn't the season of giving, it's the season of spending.
Take the Chipmunks, and their most famous commodity - a song about opening presents, most notably a relic of the late 50s (the hula hoop) that culturally appropriated a sacred object of indigenous mythology, mass produced it out of plastic, and marketed it every thirty years so heavily that it became a symbol of the two most flippantly consumptive decades of the last century, the Fifties and the Eighties. It's no coincidence that Alvin and the Chipmunks' peak popularity was in those decades as well, so I guess that they're now being exhumed for their next every-thirty-years cycle right about now.
Did I mention I was a kid in the Eighties? When "The Chipmunk Song" was most ubiquitous as the song Rocky's trainers played in the cabin between workouts in the Siberian wilderness in one of the most obvious pieces of late-Cold War propaganda films of the period? God, we feared and loathed the Russians then, with their brutal dictator Putin, I mean Gorbachev, while Donald Trump amassed his wealth while getting a good laugh with Reagan over the great trickle-down economics sham.
Fuck, this was supposed to be happy.
"It's Christmas time in Hollis, Queens. Mom's cookin' chicken and collard greens. Rice and stuffin', macaroni and cheese, and Santa puts gifts under Christmas trees": This is as much a part of my Christmas lyric vocabulary as "Faithful friends who are dear to us, gather near to us once more" or "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire." I'm still unsure whether this or "Walk This Way" (which established the black/white mashup that Anthrax/Public Enemy, Danger Mouse, and Girl Talk ran with) was more important to my junior high experience.
Ok, maybe not technically a Christmas song. BUT: 1) I'm about to visit the Trapp Family Lodge for Christmas for the third time, despite the fact that I haven't even seen The Sound of Music once and only have a vague understanding of who the Von Trapps were. But I know a few of one of their favorite things. 2) It's on Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass's Christmas album, and I know it more by Alpert's trumpet than by Julie Andrews's voice. 3) HAPPY. So happy.