Main Street at Midnight

Main Street at Midnight

Volunteers in Hell

At a Memorial Day service in a small town cemetery, the sheriff bemoaned the “unpatriotic media that criticizes our American values and mocks our president.” What should have been a compassionate speech honoring the sacrifice of our soliders was instead laced with the venom of talk radio. Standing among the flags and tombstones, hand over my heart, I listened as he spoke of a hallucinatory war on terror, “a war which may never be won.” I glanced at the nearby graves of my father and grandfather, both veterans, and wondered what they would think of this sheriff. His message was clear: we live in a state of perma-war therefore we should not question our government. The crowd quietly dispersed for hot dogs.

“There are only volunteers in hell,” the radio said as I pointed the car south. Strange how many towns in rural America are named after other places: Lima, Sparta, Warsaw, Lahore, Cairo, Versailles, and Lebanon. Did their founders expect they might one day rival these cities and nations? I scrolled through the vicious ecclesiastics and berserkers of talk radio, an endless opera of fear masquerading as fury. “This is a war for our souls, ladies and gentlemen, so join the conservative army—” static “—fight to remain a Christian nation—” static “—where the second amendment comes first.” Conservative talk radio is the sound of hysterical white skeletons indoctrinating a cult, nudging its members toward real-life violence in the name of Jesus Christ and George Washington. And there is something very rotten in Christendom today if it can be used to sanctify greed, bigotry, pollution, and automatic weapons. This is where the battle for America’s soul must be fought: against a church that provides spiritual cover for corrupt politicians and our cruelest impulses.

After sixteen hours of talk radio, interstate winds, and screaming into metal boxes for food, my grip on the world grew slippery, an effect heightened by a new chorus of voices that began flickering through the static after midnight. Why can’t we escape the earth? they asked. Why is the universe so hostile to life? One caller was convinced we’re living beneath a dome on a different planet. Another worried that humans might be a dark army for an alien force. Maybe the universe does not exist, they said. Perhaps the sun is hanging from a tree somewhere. Compared to the talking points circulating through our radios and screens, these people sounded positively open-minded.

Kristoffer Lo - Front Row Gallows View

The Black Meat | Propellor Recordings, 2016 | Spotify

Perhaps the most frequently played song in my library over the past year or two, this endless brass drone is perfect for a night drive towards a horizon dotted with the gas flares of oil refineries and the blinking red lights of distant antennas.

Melancholy Gulf

Midnight in Brooklyn. You could find her near the pump island at the gas station, singing broken torch songs for anyone who might listen.

My Grandfather's Lamp

My Grandfather’s Lamp

One of the finest things I own is a lamp with a stern brass pirate, one hand on his hip and the other gripping a long sword. This pirate is a landmark in my mind, a mythic figure who haunts my first memories. For decades he stood on a spindly desk in my grandfather’s basement that smelled of spider poison and Saginaw Bay, and I was fascinated and frightened by the lamp’s strangeness, oftentimes afraid to look at it, perhaps sensing it was a relic from a different world yet unable to imagine it would one day become part of mine.

My grandfather inherited the lamp from Queenie and Hazel, his spinster aunts. They say Hazel bought it at a Detroit pawn shop in the early 1900s, but nobody knows for sure. They said a lot of things about Queenie and Hazel: that the sisters hopped a fence and walked across a military airstrip in Kalamazoo, determined to register as nurses in World War I. That when a man tried to steal a kiss from Hazel, she grabbed her rifle and chased him down the street. She even fires off a couple of shots in some versions of the tale. I only know Queenie or Hazel from their images scattered in attic boxes, their faces unseen on glass Kodachrome slides. For me, this lamp is where they live.

The pirate watched over my grandfather’s spindly desk for nearly thirty years, switched on only when he went downstairs to putter in his wood shop where he produced his vases, bookends, and chests. When he moved to a retirement home, most of his belongings were packed up, divided among family, or sold. But he brought his lamp with him.

To make it easier for residents to find their rooms among the endless corridors of look-alike doors, the nursing staff encouraged each patient to place a memento on the little shelf mounted next to each door. Plastic flowers, birthday cards, family snapshots, and woodland figurines lined the halls because it’s easier to recall a photograph of your grandchild than room 27b. My grandfather placed this lamp outside his door, where it threatened the tiny shelf with its brass weight and the pirate looked as if he might murder the neighbor’s ceramic kitten. The lamp unnerved the residents and some of them complained. When he asked my opinion, I told him that I loved his pirate. “Me too,” he said with a relieved grin. “I think it classes up the place.”

He taped my name beneath the lamp before he died. Today it sits on my desk and although I still see the stern pirate that frightened me as a child, I see many other things as well.

Scenes from America’s Taj Mahal

Surveillance signs say Krishna is Watching. A life-sized plastic elephant sleeps in the parking lot.

Big Wheeling Creek Road runs through the hills of West Virginia and dips straight into the uncanny valley where a pair of thirty-foot gurus dance against the naked winter trees. Maybe it’s their bug-eyed grins, flowy arms, or brightly painted skin, but something about these statues bothers the soul. They’re too lifelike. Too chipper. And they’ve deeply complicated my ideas about West Virginia.

Approaching New Vrindaban

Across the road there’s a massive gilded palace that looks like a postcard from a distant time and land. A life-sized plastic elephant sleeps in the parking lot. Gazebos surround a man-made pond where a sign warns about the possibility of violent swan attacks. Surveillance signs say Krishna is Watching. This is the campus of New Vrindaban, once the site of America’s largest Hare Krishna community.

Since its founding in 1966 in New York City, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness has become comic shorthand for the wild-eyed ideologue you find the margins of subway stations, airports, and crowded streets. Or rather, the ones who find you. The street preacher and proselytizer, the ones who are armed with trinkets, literature, and impossible questions. Do you know the truth? Have you been saved? Where will you spend eternity? But I cannot fault their enthusiasm. Given my excitement whenever I discover a new favorite book or song, I can only imagine my behavior if I thought I’d found some kind of god. If I ever peek behind the veil and see the secrets of the universe, I’ll probably want to tell people about it too.

The woman at the welcome center caught me off guard. I expected a saffron robe and a hard-sell for conversion. Instead I felt as if I was checking into a hotel or signing in to see my dentist. “Feel free to wander around the grounds,” she said, offering a map and a few memories. “When we built this place in the 1970s, we built it with love. If we needed a chandelier, we’d go to the library and read about how to build one, and we’d make the best chandelier you’d ever seen. It was beautiful because we worked for free. Because we worked with devotion. Not like today.” She gave a little sweep of her hand, as if gathering the broken pieces of a grand vision, a tiny gesture which somehow summed up the realities of late-stage capitalism.

Idols inside the temple

The temple was a vast polished floor beneath an ornate ceiling of carved teakwood. Black metal cages lined the walls, holding imprisoned gods and idols. A lion-headed Vishnu. Bug-eyed creatures like a scene from a child’s nightmare. Spangled saints, garlanded gurus, and yes, very beautiful chandeliers. All of this was monitored by a disturbingly lifelike recreation of the Hare Krishna founder, Swami Prabhupada. A gold watch glinted on his mannequin wrist.

A scene inside the temple

Statue of Abhay Charanaravinda Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada

Grinning young faces with big bright teeth fill New Vrindaban’s brochures, faces delivered straight from central casting for one of those docudramas we know by heart by now: the idealistic American utopia that veers into something much darker than the world it hoped to replace. A quick search of “New Vrindaban” is appended by words like scandal, abuse, and murder. A 1987 headline from the Chicago Tribune: “Murder, Abuse Charges Batter Serenity At Big Krishna Camp.” A year later in the Los Angeles Times: “Hare Krishna Swami in Prison for Killing Serves as Guru to Inmates.” Or ten years later in  The New York Times, 1998: “Hare Krishna Movement Details Past Abuse at Its Boarding Schools.” In the wake of two dead bodies and rumors of sexual abuse and drug trafficking, New Vrindaban’s guru faced charges of racketeering, mail fraud, and conspiracy to murder two ex-members who said he was abusing children. After hiring Alan Dershowitz as his defense attorney (see Mike Tyson and OJ Simpson), Kirtanananda Swami served two years of house arrest. A few weeks after his release, he was caught molesting a boy in the back of a Winnebago.

Yet another tale of people hungry for meaning falling prey to a charismatic predator who stripped his flock of their possessions, reason, and dignity. Moments of violence, abuse, and exploitation are happening right now in every corner of the world, but when these stories emerge from utopian communities, they feel much more damning. As if proof of our nagging suspicion that there’s no such thing as harmony in any society. That no matter how far-flung we travel or how ascetic and spiritualized we become, the wickedness of men will always find us. A line from Voltaire’s Candide comes to mind: “If hawks have always had the same character, why should you imagine that men have changed theirs?”

Work on the temple continues

When it first opened in 1979, Prabhupada’s Palace of Gold was heralded as America’s Taj Mahal. “A spiritual Disneyland,” the newspapers called it. As New Vrindaban’s membership and finances dwindled in the aftershocks of scandal, its palace fell into disrepair. The painted teakwood began to flake. The 22-carat gold leaf started to peel. Today the temple is back in fighting shape, part of an ongoing renovation funded in part by the community’s decision to lease its land for natural gas drilling. Returning to the car, I remembered the cynical little gesture of the woman at the welcome desk. Then the palace shrank in the rear-view mirror, vanishing behind a curve like something I had dreamed.

Driving out of the hills towards the interstate, the Christian mega-churches, American flags, and billboards for faster download speeds, adult videos, and all-you-can-eat buffets seemed just as crazy and dark as America’s Taj Mahal, a collective hallucination like any other. I thought about our dogged faith in the fictions of nations and money. All of it growing a bit rickety, ready to be replaced by something new.

Artificial Skies

The Temple of the Attainment of Happiness, originally built in 1398 in Nara, Japan, now at The Philadelphia Museum of Art

Artificial Skies

Premonitions beneath a painted sky.

I get weak in the knees whenever I stand beneath an artificial sky. A ceiling painted pale blue. Diffuse lighting. An artist’s rendition of clouds. These things trigger a blush of dopamine, an uncoiling of the nerves. There is nostalgia here, a smudged memory of the safety I felt doing arts and crafts in a classroom while a storm beat against the windows: a child’s fantasy of living within a diorama, of inventing better worlds without any sense of time. And I catch a small thrill in the belly because there’s the sensation of a premonition realized, of standing in the future while my brain lights up with aerodynamic phrases like Spaceship Earth, Biosphere, and the tape-recorded skies of Neuromancer’s Freeside.

But there’s also dread. I remember the illuminated photographs of cherry blossoms in the drop ceiling of the hospital room where my father lay dying. This synthetic attempt at normalcy reminded me why clowns are so disturbing: their happiness without reason, the painted smile that must conceal a terrible expression underneath—else why the make-up? The cocoon of a climate-controlled simulation promises protection from the world’s unpredictability and violence, but sooner or later you begin to wonder what might be going wrong behind its walls. A representation implies the real thing must be lost, ruined, or otherwise unavailable. And there’s a connection here that I cannot quite articulate without sounding clumsy, some deep-boned fear that the screens we inhabit today are rapidly becoming an artificial replacement for something that can no longer be salvaged.

Holy Day

Time stands still somewhere in the middle of the nation

We stopped the clock for an hour last night and even though we do this every autumn without much fanfare, it still feels like some kind of magic. The end of Daylight Savings Time is my favorite holiday because it creates more night. And if you’re staying at a motel, you get a free hour. It’s such a beautiful thing, this annual reminder that we can collectively tinker with our fictions and rules. There ought to be fireworks, parades, and gift-giving. Changing the clocks should be the biggest celebration of the year because if we can rearrange time, we can do whatever we want. Reorganize the alphabet. Invent new colors. Add more days to the week. Replace money with hugs. While we’re at it, let’s turn the clocks back to a Saturday night in 1978 and write ourselves a different future.

The Caretaker - Misplaced in Time

Everywhere at the End of Time, 2016 | More information

Leyland Kirby’s ongoing series as The Caretaker uses deeply reverberated ballroom songs from the 1930s as a departure point for a sprawling investigation into the nature of time, memory, and age that flickers between haunted nostalgia and moments of pure sonic heartbreak.

National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Lama Sabachthani

Alienation and communion in monochrome.

Barnett Newman’s zips and fields have never moved me beyond a chilly appreciation for their role in pushing painting towards the vanishing point. Walking into The Stations of the Cross, however, felt almost spiritual. Newman’s choice of title does most of the lifting here, juxtaposing the mythic weight of violence and supernatural suffering against fifteen canvases of brittle monochrome. My eyes tried to map their stern lines and rectangles against the familiar scenes of bloodshed, weeping, and trembling on that day at Golgotha. But I could find no correlation, and I was left alone with that heavy title, those dispassionate shapes, and a woman sitting on a bench with her pencil paused in the air, hanging somewhere between contemplation and frustration. A security guard rocked on his heels at the edge of the room, emitting an occasional rubber squeak that emphasized the hush of the gallery, a place with the secret air of an empty gymnasium after hours. I walked towards the explanatory placard on the wall and, as is the case with most modern art, this moved me most of all.

When the series was first displayed in 1966, Newman said these images were based not on the flagellation and martyrdom of the crucifixion but Jesus’s cry of lema sabachthani: Why hast thou forsaken me? “This is the passion,” he said. “Not the terrible walk up the Via Dolorosa, but the question that has no answer.” And for a moment I felt it, a sense of utter vacancy, an emptying and hollowing of thought that left space for…something. In my notebook, I quickly scribbled this sentence: Aesthetic alienation leads to a desperation which leaves one greedy for any thread of hope, no matter how brittle. This felt like a profound insight at the time, one of those camera-flash thoughts that comes on bright and quick before fading away forever. Artists like Newman and Mark Rothko insisted their blank fields of color were not academic exercises but spiritual statements. Although I feel lucky to have caught a brief sense of this, I also left the room wondering if you can nail any damned thing to the wall as long as you attach it to the bloodshed and drama of myth.

Mono No Aware

Rough notes on Blade Running in 2019 and 2049.

The original Blade Runner was a rare gift of pure atmosphere. Since 1982, Ridley Scott’s dark and overheated Los Angeles has been steadily rearranging the furniture of the modern psyche when it comes to imagining the future. We envision fires in the sky, broken weather, and sprawling fields of scrap. And we can be pretty sure that no matter what the future brings, elaborate advertisements will leer overhead while we haggle and jive beneath the neon lights of buildings heavy with memory and rot. And it’s such a beautiful sight. For me, Blade Runner is the cinematic sensation of laying on a bed in a dark motel room while listening to distant traffic speeding through the puddles of a rainy street: a concoction of nostalgia, dread, and the possibilities that live in the margins. More than anything, Blade Runner is a story about god, a fever dream about grabbing our creator by the throat and asking, “Why did you make me? And why must I die?”

The new iteration of Blade Runner is one of the few beloved things to reappear three decades later in better than expected condition. I won’t discuss the details of the film—not because I worry about spoiling it for those who haven’t seen it yet, but because things like characters and plot are peripheral elements used only to generate a mood. Nearly every scene in Denis Villeneuve’s sequel looks like material scraped from a dream, a Surrealist fusion of our synthetic world with ancient myth. At first I craved the clutter and heat of the original film’s vision of a scuzzy and polyglot tomorrow, for the landscape of 2049 is remarkably monotonous and arid. But its bleak architecture and sterile streets are probably a more accurate rendering of the future as our democracies calcify into corporate aristocracy and our cities become increasingly homogenized spaces which cater to the individual rather than the crowd. Beyond this resonance, however, most of 2049 stands outside of time like one of the eerie monuments in the front yard of the Bradbury building.

I couldn’t help but snap this photo during the film. It’s on par with a Dali painting.

If the first Blade Runner was about confronting god, 2049 tries to calculate the value of the soul. If artificial intelligence can become so self-aware that it is capable of feeling flawed and lonely, does being human mean anything beyond legal ramifications? This question was first introduced when Roy Batty shed his tears in the rain; the sight of a robot weeping at the impermanence of existence left us wondering if mono no aware is a uniquely human feature—or bug. (Mono no aware is such a beautiful term for the pathos of things, the recognition that all things must end; see also lacrimae rerum). 2049 extends this theme by pondering our hardwired desire to feel unique. We follow a humanoid’s search for meaning and connection as he ruminates about miracles and wonders if he might be special. At first he is frightened by the possibility, then energized. Perhaps here is meaning at last. The action circles a vague notion of finding purpose through sacrifice for others, but the bigger question of what distinguishes a human from any other mechanism capable of brooding hangs in the haze without answers, evaporating into the haunted scenery of an utterly misanthropic world where morality is garbled by the ways we define us and them.

When Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford race towards a speedy-looking vehicle, 2049 seems destined to careen into the usual Hollywood showdown between good and evil. Instead, Villeneuve unexpectedly downshifts into the register of Bergman or Antonioni, leaving us with an extended meditation on cosmic-grade isolation that favors archetypes over characters and events. Rather than worrying about the bloodied hero crumpled on the floor, the camera is more interested in watching a black dog lope across the screen; instead of savoring the vanquished foe, our attention is directed to the mindless pounding of the surf. There is no good or evil here, only ghosts in the machine and glitches in the sublime. 2049 is not a perfect film, but it is another rare gift.

An Ode to the Tollbooth Operator

A brief excerpt from Riot and Devotion

His heart went out to the tollbooth operators, the grizzle-haired men and women with cigarettes nodding on their lips, their left hands forever clutching a quarter and a dime in change. They were the interstate’s guardians, unmmoved movers amidst the relentless current of people going someplace else. After looking into the eyes of thousands of travelers and handling their crumpled bills and sweaty coins, these cashiers probably understood the mood of the modern world better than anyone: its reckless teenagers, hungover commuters, and road-ragers; the cheating spouses and insomniac prophets. They peered into the lives of the broken-hearted and the hopeful with their belongings jammed in the backseat, their plastic-wrapped suits and blouses pressed against the windows like ghosts. Perched in nests of space heaters, thermoses, and radios, the tollbooth operators watched the taillights of desperate vehicles red-shifting through the night, darting across state lines in search of fresh lives, hoping to give Plan C or D a shot. And each time they told him the fee for a six-axle vehicle, he thought he saw a flash of compassion in their eyes, a look that reminded him of his mother’s cool hand against his forehead when he had a fever. They saw him for the man he had become, just another soul searching for deliverance beneath the highway lights.

National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

The Roman Pantheon

I gazed up at the oculus while families and lovers whipped me around as they snapped their self-portraits. Soon I was dizzy and stupid with tears in my eyes because I could not begin to comprehend how such a dome was constructed back in the year 120, and I mourned because such a sublime thing would never be built again. We no longer build to humble our pride.

We Need New Gods

A soundtrack for mourning the death of reason

The world is overheating, its seas rising while corporations prey upon the sick and weary. Pent-up vibrations of war fill the air and we have a vicious idiot in the highest office, determined to hold our thoughts hostage. Meanwhile we fight amongst ourselves, slinging hashtags and hysteria. As our cruel politics and callous technologies lead us to become ever more factionalized and tribalized, we need new unifying myths—and quickly. Give us new points of worship beyond the rickety fictions of free markets, nations, and garbled gospels. New gods. This isn’t a terribly original or feasible idea, but for a moment it didn’t seem so improbable when the first track on the new album by Leyland Kirby drifted into my headphones.

Here comes a heartbeat drum, thumping in the distance like a half-remembered b-side by The Ronettes or The Crystals, a vintage rhythm slowly falling to pieces in the ether while plaintive strings rise, as if mourning the death of reason. Like a heavily sedated love song from the hit parade of a more dignified age, Leyland Kirby’s We, so tired of all the darkness in our lives is a reassuring soundtrack for these undignified times. Dig that title. This album is an unexpected reminder that music can harmonize with—and perhaps even momentarily sooth—the crazy thoughts we’re forced to carry these days, if only for a moment or two. The dark yearning of a track like ‘Consolation’ leaves me thinking of a phrase from Will Durant: “We are choked with news and starved of history.”

Niland, California

Niland, California. Half-past midnight on the edge of the Salton Sea. “Everything is a mystery and I’m just a small part of it,” she said. “Maybe that’s all I need to know.”