Guilt and Grace

On January 5 I walked along the sea in Crete and remembered my father who died on this day last year. The things I should have done, the desire to rewrite the past. But why punish myself with guilt? A line from Bergman’s The Seventh Seal nattered at my thoughts: “I often wonder why people torment themselves as soon as they can.” I ran my hands along the stone wall of an ancient fortress while tormenting myself for everything left unsaid and undone. Perhaps this self-punishment was an echo of the blood sacrifices of the past, a modern variation on the ritual of sati or the tribes who chopped off their fingers to illustrate their grief for the ones they’ve lost, to relieve their guilt for continuing to live.

A pier in the Aegean sea.

As I walked along the sea of a strange country, I recalled the day-to-day details of my last year with my father. Our morning drives to physical therapy, his constant tidying of our tiny pantry shelf. The comfortable rhythm of our conversations and silences, our routines and quiet complaints. We built a little life together, two men living in small clinical rooms, waiting for a lung. Looking up at the clear winter sky, I realized my parents would kick my ass if they saw me brooding like this—and I was surprised to find that I was still having a conversation with them. I walked on, feeling less alone, and I found a small moment of grace at the end of a pier in the Aegean sea.

The First Two Paragraphs of My Novel

He is an old man, beleaguered and muted like the last televised days of Richard Nixon, a bleary man with washcloth skin, all jowls and inflamed joints. He is a failed philosopher, a fading gentleman frightened by the sensations of the modern world. The painful taste of breath mints, the velocity of hand dryers in the men’s room. Everything is extreme these days. But he has always been a coward. He was afraid of the sun for years and he still jumps at unfamiliar noises, sudden changes in temperature, and the sight of Antarctica on a map. Looking at all that blank land feels like leaping off a rooftop. When he had a door, he would check its lock at least three times before getting into bed. He is afraid of many things and he has imagined his death via car wreck and home invasion many times. Now he is an antique in an overheated world of plastic and pixels, a silly and superstitious man who calls the crusts of bread ‘bones’ and refuses to eat them. But perhaps his fears have kept him alive for these ninety-one years.

His lover was a dangerous woman who feared absolutely nothing, not even when they came after her with fire and guns. She once told him that she made a deal with the devil and now he believes her.

A Description of Riot and Devotion

Fast food restaurants burn in the night. Discount superstores explode into bloody riots without warning. When the cameras arrive, witnesses provide conflicting accounts while shivering beneath a wool blanket or moaning on a stretcher, saying there was a strange vibration, the sound of a dial tone or maybe a demon. Conspiracies spread. Factions emerge. People invent makeshift gods. An old man who is afraid of the sun watches all of this through his windshield as he crisscrosses the country, searching for the woman he loved and lost. She had told him the future would be filled with dangerous signals moments before she disappeared into a crowd. But that was a lifetime ago. Now he dreams of retreating into the quiet halls of a museum or a far-flung desert town. Until one night he turns on the radio and hears her voice in the static, calling his name—and humming a song of riot. Reverberating with the echoes of ancient myth and speeding towards a broadcast that will grip the nation, Riot and Devotion is a modern fable about anxiety, compassion, and faith in uncertain times.

Riot and Devotion is complete at 84,572 words and I’m currently seeking an agent or publisher.

The Story of Philosophy

Finally tracked down a clean hardcover copy of Will Durant’s Story of Philosophy, which might be the book I return to the most. Something about it feels like home. Aside from elegantly navigating the depths of Bacon, Spinoza, Kant, Schopenhauer et al, Durant might be the most kind-hearted and humble writer I’ve ever encountered. A valiant warrior against the incomprehensible language of academia, he seeks to “break down the barriers beyond knowledge and need,” arguing that the academic’s “barbarous terminology” has forced the world to choose between “a scientific priesthood mumbling unintelligible pessimism, and a theological priesthood mumbling incredible hopes.” Instead, he is on the side of warmth and humor, “not only because wisdom is not wise if it scares away merriment, but because a sense of humor, being born of perspective, bears a near kinship to philosophy; each is the soul of the other.” And all of this is in the first three pages of the preface.

Fripp and Eno on the Hi-Fi

‘Heavenly Music Corporation’ is the glorious sound of power lines humming on a Saturday night long before the age of pixels and screens. Robert Fripp suggested naming the track ‘The Transcendental Music Corporation’ but Eno worried this would “make people think they were serious.” An interesting point, that ‘transcendental’ is chained to fuzzy and oftentimes sanctimonious New Age jargon whereas there’s a wink behind ‘heavenly’, an acknowledgment of its impossibility that lends itself to irony.

Fripp & Eno — Heavenly Music Corporation

Polydor, 1973 | More information

A Beautiful Piece of Winter Plays on the Dash

“We are choked with news and starved of history,” said Will Durant.

I remember driving down Interstate 75 just before dawn with the Detroit skyline on my left while a muddy cassette filled the car with reverberated drums. I remember believing the world would make sense when I grew older. Twenty years later, Basic Channel’s Inversion remains the most melancholy machine music I’ve ever heard. This is the sound of industrial decay twinned with a very human longing for faith. These are eighteen minutes of the most nostalgic head-rush music that I’ve ever heard.

Basic Channel - Inversion

Inversion/Presence, 1994 | Spotify | More information

Decree #1 on the Democratization of Art

Published in Moscow in 1918, this short manifesto first thrilled me as an undergraduate student when I began drifting from my studies in film towards graphic design. Written by Vladimir Mayakovsky along with other members of the nascent Russian futurist movement, its optimism is infectious—and utterly heartbreaking, considering the shadows gathering in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution that would turn this vision of democratic expression into a dark joke.

“Comrades and citizens, we, the leaders of Russian futurism–the revolutionary art of youth–declare:

1. From this day forward, with the abolition of tsardom, the domicile of art in the closets and sheds of human genius – palaces, galleries, salons, libraries, theaters—is abrogated

2. In the name of the great march of equality for all, as far as culture is concerned, let the Free Word of creative personality be written on the corners of walls, fences, roofs, the streets of our cities and villages, on the backs of automobiles, carriages, streetcars, and on the clothes of all citizens.

3. Let pictures (colors) be thrown, like colored rainbows, across streets and squares, from house to house, delighting, ennobling the eye (taste) of the passer-by. Artists and writers have the immediate duty to get hold of their pots of paint and, with their masterly brushes, to illuminate, to paint all the sides, foreheads, and chests of cities, railway stations, and the ever-galloping herds of railway carriages.

From now on, let the citizen walking down the street enjoy at every moment the depths of thought of his great contemporaries, let him absorb the flowery gaudiness of this day’s beautiful joy, let him listen to music—the melody, the roar, the buzz—of excellent composers everywhere. Let the streets be a feast of art for all.

And if all this comes to pass, in accordance with our word, everyone who goes out into the street will grow to be a giant and in wisdom, contemplating beauty instead of the present-day streets with their iron books (signboards), where every page has been written on their signs by greed, the lust for mammon, calculated meanness and low obtuseness, all of which soil the soul and offend the eye.”

A century later, Mayakovsky’s salvo continues to circulate through the veins of nearly every idealistic design manifesto, from Ken Garland’s First Things First to the proclamations of Adbusters to the contemporary writing of Mike Monteiro.

Shoes

Somewhere in Nevada

Tied together by their laces, the shoes are flung at wires or branches until they catch and hang. Very few people have seen these shoes actually thrown and of the twenty-eight witnesses who have been surveyed, their reports vary as to the average number of attempts before the shoes find their mark, ranging from three to fifteen. This practice is more frequent in urban areas, although this may simply be a function of population density rather than any fundamental difference between the psyche of the city and the country. The style of shoes and their arrangement, however, are worth noting. Lone sneakers are common in the city, but when shoes appear in rural areas the formations are much more elaborate. In the Mojave desert, work boots are clustered in dead Joshua trees. In Oklahoma, black army boots hang from irrigation pipes over neglected crops.

Some say that a pair of tennis shoes draped over a telephone line indicates a place to buy drugs. Often referred to as ‘crack tennies’, they serve as a storefront shingle for the local crackhouse. They may also mark a shooting gallery where heroin is used, a reminder that once you get hooked you can never walk away. These theories, however, do not explain the shoes that hang on remote county roads or beneath the highway overpasses where even drug dealers won’t go.

Many of these shoes once belonged to children. Seeing a toddler’s shoes dangling over a bottle-strewn alley or swinging from a lonely tree bothers the soul, calling to mind Hemingway’s famous six word short story: For sale: Baby shoes, never worn. Some say these abandoned shoes memorialize a site where a child was murdered or possibly a gangland killing. Others believe they mark the sighting of a ghost. More levelheaded folks chalk them to up to run-of-the-mill bullying in which a kid steals another kid’s shoes and tosses them beyond his reach.

If any of these theories are true, there are an awful lot of victims, ghosts, and bullies in the USA.

April 10, 1965

Look at that face with the Valentine eyebrows and pin-up girl pout, her little ribbon mouth blowing a plume of smoke like come here and give me a kiss. Nobody could smoke a cigarette like Linda Darnell. And here she is at forty-one, curled on a friend’s couch in a Chicago suburb, lighting up a Pall Mall while watching one of her old movies and thinking about her strange relationship with time. That’s what happens when Life magazine calls you ‘the most physically perfect girl in Hollywood.’

After twelve years of bombshell service in romance, noir, and adventure films, Twentieth Century Fox let her go, citing concerns about her weight gain and heavy drinking. “Leaving the studio was like leaving home at twenty-eight years old,” she said. “I’d been there since I was sixteen.” When she was nineteen, she eloped with the camerman. He was forty-two. Then came Mickey Rooney and Howard Hughes and a dozen scuffed-up footnotes on Hollywood and Vine. There was the screenwriter with the yacht and the powerful director with rough hands like an ape. Yet the only man she truly loved was her high school sweetheart, a quiet Mexican boy who was terrified by her fame and moved away. She took her broken heart to Rome and did spaghetti westerns and opened an orphanage. “At thirty-two, I can see tell-tale marks in the mirror,” she said, “but the ravages of time no longer terrify me. I am told that when surface beauty is gone, the real woman emerges. My only regret will be that I could not have begun it earlier, that so many years have been ruined because I was considered beautiful.”

She dozed in the warm living room, listening to her younger Star Dust self say “Do you want to kiss me?” Maybe her Pall Mall dropped to the floor. Perhaps it landed on the script she was studying, a play at the local theater. The fire bloomed fast. Afraid to jump from the window, she tried to make it to the front door. The doorknob was too hot to touch and the flames took her as she heard herself on the television saying, “Now this is romance.”