Holy Day

The time changed last night. 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. Changing the clocks should be the biggest holiday of all because it’s a glorious reminder that 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 1977 and write a different future. It’s such a beautiful thing, to collectively tinker with our fictions and rules.

Lama Sabachthani

Barnett Newman’s The Stations of the Cross at the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

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 nearly spiritual. Newman’s choice of title did most of the lifting here, juxtaposing the weight of violence and supernatural suffering against fifteen canvases of brittle monochrome. My eyes tried to map these stern lines and rectangles against the familiar scenes of bloodshed, weeping, and trembling from 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 place, 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.

October 8, 2017 | filed under Citations

Mono No Aware

The original Blade Runner was a rare gift of pure atmosphere. Since 1982, Ridley Scott’s dark and overheated Los Angeles has been steadily remodeling the architecture of the modern psyche when it comes to imagining the future. Now we envision fires in the sky, broken weather, and sprawling fields of scrap and junk. And we can be pretty sure that no matter what the future brings, elaborate advertisements will leer overhead like a hallucination while we fight, haggle, and jive beneath neon lights at the foot of buildings heavy with memory and rot. And it’s a strangely 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 poignant concoction of nostalgia, dread, and the possibilities that live in the margins. But above all, 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 something plumbed from a dream, a Surrealist fusion of our synthetic world and 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 startlingly 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. To my mind, it’s on par with a Dali painting.

If the first Blade Runner was about confronting god, 2049 attempts to calculate the value of the soul. If artificial intelligence can become so self-aware that it is capable of feeling flawed and lonesome, does being human mean anything beyond legal ramifications? This question was first introduced when Roy Batty shed his iconic 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

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.

October 1, 2017 | filed under Snapshots

Pantheon

I gazed up at the oculus while families and lovers whipped me around as they snapped their self-portraits, and 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.

Self-portrait in front of the Pantheon ’round midnight.‬

We Need New Gods

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 until some bottomless void is filled. 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.”

Saturday Night

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.”

June 29, 2017 | filed under Philosophy

The Stellar Sphere

Last night I stepped away from the screen and looked at the stars, which is something I rarely do. But why not look at the stars every night? What could be more important? As I sought out the belt of Orion, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the desire to know the language of constellations, the location of celestial bodies. It seems a tragedy to go through life not knowing the names of the lights overhead.

Perhaps I’ve overlooked the sky because there is a touch of sadness whenever I watch the stars. I cannot help but search for my parents up there. Although I do not believe in heaven, I remember the people I lost each time I stare into the night, obeying a hardwired impulse rooted in the magical thinking of the ancients, a muscle memory beyond language or thought. Here is a sublime image of the afterlife from Posidonius, written two thousand years ago: “The virtuous rise to the stellar sphere and spend their time watching the stars go round.”

There is also consolation in the words of Plotinus, who believed the soul joins the stars because “the heavenly bodies naturally inspire and make man less lonely in this physical universe.” Plotinus was one of the last philosophers to celebrate beauty before it became coupled with temptation in the Western mind. “A man may be a cheerful pessimist or a melancholy optimist,” writes Bertrand Russell. “Plotinus is an admirable example of the second.” Living in the final days of the Roman Empire, Plotinus turned away from “the spectacle of ruin and misery in the actual world to contemplate an eternal world of goodness and beauty.”

Difficult times can lead to otherworldly philosophy.

To know the mind of the divine, said Plotinus, “we must study our own soul when it is most God-like.” Amidst the daily howl of opinion, snark, and outrage, these spiritualized encounters are often rare glimmers, fleeting moments of ecstasy in its strictest sense: ecstasy as a Greek word that describes standing outside of one’s body. To be elsewhere. To escape the self. And once freed, where else would you go but towards the stars? Thus the painter and the poet’s fascination with nature, their desire to name a sensation that can only be described in terms of trees reaching for the sky and rivers pouring into oceans before joining the clouds.

“When we are thus in contact with the divine, we cannot reason or express the vision in words; this comes later.” Plotinus’s meditation on the heavens provides one of the most elegant descriptions of the creative impulse that I have encountered. In our rare moments of communion with the stars, he says, the soul “contemplates the inward realm of essence and wishes to produce something as like it as possible,” something that can be seen “by looking without instead of looking within” such as “a composer who first imagines his music, and then wishes to hear it performed by an orchestra.”

Standing outside tonight, peering beyond the lights of the city, I do my best to listen to these echoes from the ancients who knew how to listen to the sky. I’d like to recover some kind of wonder in the digital age.

Between the Stories

What is the role of fiction in an age of perpetual outrage, engineered distraction, and vicious governance? After returning to the monochrome worlds of Brave New World, 1984, and Fahrenheit 451 in the wake of Trump’s installation, I began re-reading Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which might be the most urgent dystopian vision due to America’s increasingly empowered ecclesiastical hatred of women. Written in 1985, Atwood’s novel describes a militarized theocracy built from the dogma, rituals, and prejudices of the past and present. Women are stripped of all rights and some are rendered into, in the recent words of one Oklahoma lawmaker, ‘hosts’ for the unborn. Science is rejected. Writing is banned. Yet the most chilling dimension of the novel might be the narrator’s account of how this oppression and violence became the status quo while everybody was asleep at the wheel. What fills the vacuum when the institutions of democracy become feeble, when we prefer to focus on the self? “Whatever is going on is as usual,” says Offred, shortly after seeing the bodies of doctors dangling from the city’s walls. “Even this is as usual, now.”

My thoughts keep returning to one particular line: “The newspaper stories were like dreams to us, bad dreams dreamt by others.” This sentence nags in the margins while I compulsively scroll through the day’s digitized outrage, perplexed by the dogged faith that these technologies are doing us any measure of good. The words of Ray Bradbury’s fire chief in Fahrenheit 451 come to mind here: “Chock them so full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely ‘brilliant’ with information. Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving.”

Atwood extends this idea of ambient distraction into tragedy. Not only is information overload a means of social control, it is a privilege that is often not recognized until it is too late, until it becomes clear that our fates are inseparable from the victims in the day’s headlines: “How awful, we would say, and they were, but they were awful without being believable,” says Offred, remembering the days when she had the freedom to spend her mornings in bed, lazily flipping through the newspaper’s reports of murder and terror. “They were too melodramatic, they had a dimension that was not the dimension of our lives. We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom. We lived in the gaps between the stories.”

Perhaps the task is to close the gaps between these stories.

Choral Drift

Soundtrack for leaving Iceland: the choral drift of Popol Vuh’s ‘Aquirre I Lacrima di Rei sounds like glaciers, mist, and devotion. After listening to this song six times in a row it occurred to me that the word ‘theology’ means the ‘logic of god’—which seemed rather profound at 35,000 feet.

March 1, 2017 | filed under Citations

Some Excessive Humiliation

Meanwhile the president’s seething need for adulation continues to blow through the nation’s skull like a playground shriek that will never end. “Usually the megalomaniac, whether insane or nominally sane, is the product of some excessive humiliation,” wrote Bertrand Russell in The Conquest of Happiness, a meditation on the anxieties of modern life first published in 1930—and a reminder that today’s agitations, while refracted into a blinding glare by our screens, stem from the age-old conflict between fact and delusion, whether in our private lives or on the public stage.

Russell’s diagnosis of a creature like Trump is unnerving: “Since no man can be omnipotent,” he writes, “a life dominated wholly by love of power can hardly fail, sooner or later, to meet with obstacles that cannot be overcome. The knowledge that this is so can be prevented from obtruding on consciousness only by some form of lunacy, though if a man is sufficiently great he can imprison or execute those who point this out to him. Repressions in the political and in the psychoanalytic senses thus go hand in hand.”

Although there are slow-moving rumblings of buyer’s remorse and investigative committees, there are no meaningful constraints on Trump’s lunacy. If we had a functional government or a press that did not rely upon clickbait, a cruel toddler never would have made it into the primaries, let alone the White House. Perhaps the only saving grace is that Trump is uncommonly stupid—and hopefully his need to be admired will lead to a magnificent unravelling before he becomes ‘sufficiently great’.

I find reassurance in another passage from Russell written shortly after World War II. In Philosophy and Politics, he outlines the insanity of any kind of fanaticism, no matter how well-intentioned. The inflexible views of fascists and ecclesiastics as well as communists and anarchists cannot be tolerated because they prefer to “inflict a comparatively certain present evil for the sake of a comparatively doubtful future good.” Reminding us that we should always aim for “order without authority,” Russell tackles the perception that liberalism is too squishy to succeed against the ferocious single-mindedness of conservatives:

“It is commonly urged that, in a war between liberals and fanatics, the fanatics are sure to win, owing to their more unshakable belief in the righteousness of their cause. This belief dies hard, although all history, including that of the last few years, is against it. Fanatics have failed, over and over again, because they have attempted the impossible, or because, even when what they aimed at was possible, they were too unscientific to adopt the right means; they have failed also because they roused the hostility of those whom they wished to coerce. In every important war since 1700 the more democratic side has been victorious. This is partly because democracy and empiricism (which are intimately interconnected) do not demand a distortion of facts in the interests of theory.”

Liberalism and reason may indeed triumph in the long run—but at what cost today? How many of these unnecessary battles persist due to a failure to communicate rationally and compassionately, and a refusal to tackle unchecked capitalism and the legal obligation to maximize profits at the expense of citizens? People who do not feel financially exploited do not tend to respond to strongman politics of tribalism and fear.

I no longer understand the daily shock and anger towards Trump or the Republicans who pretend the emperor is clothed. They are the viper in the fable and it is useless to complain about being bitten. The ire and energy of anyone who cares about decency should be directed towards the Democratic Party; its refusal to articulate or support a  coherent liberal vision created this breeding ground for America’s most self-destructive instincts.

Ubiquity and Lunacy

A powerful meditation from Andrew Sullivan on the nature of freedom and the psychic beating that comes with living in Trumpland:

“With someone like this barging into your consciousness every hour of every day, you begin to get a glimpse of what it must be like to live in an autocracy of some kind. Every day in countries unfortunate enough to be ruled by a lone dictator, people are constantly subjected to the Supreme Leader’s presence, in their homes, in their workplaces, as they walk down the street. Big Brother never leaves you alone. His face bears down on you on every flickering screen. He begins to permeate your psyche and soul; he dominates every news cycle and issues pronouncements—each one shocking and destabilizing—round the clock. He delights in constantly provoking and surprising you, so that his monstrous ego can be perennially fed. And because he is also mentally unstable, forever lashing out in manic spasms of pain and anger, you live each day with some measure of trepidation. What will he come out with next? Somehow, he is never in control of himself and yet he is always in control of you.”

“One of the great achievements of free society in a stable democracy is that many people, for much of the time, need not think about politics at all. The president of a free country may dominate the news cycle many days — but he is not omnipresent—and because we live under the rule of law, we can afford to turn the news off at times. A free society means being free of those who rule over you—to do the things you care about, your passions, your pastimes, your loves—to exult in that blessed space where politics doesn’t intervene. In that sense, it seems to me, we already live in a country with markedly less freedom than we did a month ago.”

February 1, 2017 | filed under News

And she said, “Looking at this makes my heart black.”

Candy Chang and I recently collaborated on a mural in the Lakkos neighborhood of Heraklion, Greece. Grief Is a Beast That Will Never Be Tamed combines a short meditation on mourning with a retooled collage of the Pietà. The title came one morning while I wandered the strange region between wakefulness and sleep, surfacing from another dream of my parents, their faces before me and very much alive yet I could only say you’re not supposed to be here. I do not know how to grieve. Without faith in an otherworldly logic to the universe, two options present themselves: wallowing in pity and guilt, or moving forward with my chin up and the sensation that I’ve buried something.

One particularly hard day, I was wandering through the supermarket, lost in a dim memory of childhood shopping trips with my mom, remembering the way she held my hand as we scrolled down the aisles while I gazed up at the fluorescent lights, wondering if that was heaven. Now I was a confused adult, standing before a display of energy drinks while I watched the people flow past me—men and women in their thirties, forties, fifties, sixties—and the obvious finally occurred to me: Everyone here has lost somebody too. Or they will. We are all carrying the ghosts of parents, lovers, and even children. Why should I feel so alone? Perhaps this is why grief often feels indulgent, even shameful: if everybody else seems to be carrying on happily, why can’t I? As I passed through the sliding doors, the city’s billboards for widgets, entertainments, and endless youth felt particularly tone-deaf that night.

Six weeks later, Candy and I began spreading black paint across a wall in Greece. I had reservations about the project. Was the word ‘grief’ too obliterating? Was there anything to say about the subject? After we pasted up the text, an elderly woman stood before me with a passionate expression, her arms outstretched as she spoke to me in Greek. “She wants to know if you wrote the story on the wall,” someone explained. When I nodded, the woman clasped her hands together and her eyes went damp. The translator continued: “She says she just lost somebody too, and you describe her grief very well. She thanks you.” This moment made the project worthwhile.

The next day a woman with a stern ponytail told us the mural was horrible, that it was not art and, to be clear, she absolutely hated it. “Looking at this makes my heart black,” she shouted as she walked away. Part of me agrees with her, for I remain uncertain about whether a public conversation about grief can be constructive—or if it is too dark, a wall that forecloses discussion. But we have received several extraordinary responses from people who have lost fathers and godmothers, wives and sons. And I must remind myself that the only things worth making are the things which ask questions I cannot answer.

Hymns for the End of the World

Slow-motion strings and liturgical drones from Athens, Greece. Mohammad‘s latest album reaches towards the sublime in its strictest sense: wonder coupled with dread, the jittery thrill of the dark and unknown. Available as a digital download and triple 10″ vinyl from Antifrost.

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 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 suttee 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.

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.

March 12, 2015 | filed under Citations

Decree #1 on the Democratization of Art

Published in Moscow in 1918, this document first thrilled me as an undergraduate when I began drifting from my studies in film towards graphic design. Its optimism is infectious—and heartbreaking, considering the shadows gathering in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution.

“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 evergalloping 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.”

The Woman in the Dunes

Published in 1962, Kōbō Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes is pegged to a single bizarre image: a man trapped in a sand pit with a mysterious woman. Their survival depends upon shoveling the accumulating sand each night, a metaphor for the labor of existence which the man alternately resists and accepts. Does shoveling an endless pit of sand make him any less free than his former life of paperwork, obligations, and bills?

He meditates on the reasons the mind craves routine: “It goes on, terrifyingly repetitive. One could not do without repetition in life, like the beating of the heart, but it was also true that the beating of the heart was not all there was to life.” Yet what else is there? This question becomes more difficult to answer as the man contemplates the woman’s resignation to this strange life. Shoveling gives her existence as much meaning as any other activity might. Meanwhile, villagers peer into the pit to ensure his compliance. “More than iron doors, more than walls,” Abe writes, “it is the tiny peephole that really makes the prisoner feel locked in.”

In the vein of Camus’s stranger, Abe analyzes human behavior with the detachment of a scientist observing an insect: “Repetition of the same patterns, they say, provides an effective form of protective coloring.” Yet routine offers no shelter from spiritual loneliness, and his description of its effects reads like an epitaph for the digital age: “Loneliness was an unsatisfied thirst for illusion. And so one bit one’s nails, unable to find contentment in the simple beating of one’s heart…one smoked, unable to be satisfied with the rhythm of one’s brain…one had the shakes, unable to find satisfaction in sex alone.” Although an extension of Camus and Kafka’s absurdism, the surreal society formed by Abe’s dunes transforms this philosophy into myth. This story has seeped into my dreams, grinding at my thoughts like sand in the teeth.

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.

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.”