November 28, 2020


C. and I bought an artificial Christmas tree today, another unexpected development in 2020. We haven’t celebrated the holiday in years. It wasn’t a conscious decision, more of a gradual drift as the hassle of storing boxes of ornaments and trying to guess what to buy one another faded into a preference for end-of-year travel or logging time in dim sum parlors and movie theaters. But these options are no longer available this year, and we need something to anticipate, so we bought a fake Alberta pine from the superstore, twenty-five percent off and fully loaded with faux pinecones and prewired lights. We even bought some Christmas tree perfume, a remarkably specific product that makes it smell like a real tree.

I admire the artifice of our Christmas tree, from its polyvinyl chloride leaves to its pine-scented cologne. It makes me feel very modern, simulating an ancient ritual with murky origins that can be traced to the Roman mid-winter festival of Saturnalia or perhaps the Viking worship of trees. Bring outdoor scenery indoors and push it to the brink of flames.

Domestic rituals of all kinds will be critical during this long winter.

Apex Twin – Tree

Selected Ambient Works II | Warp, 1994 | Bandcamp
Somewhere in the Middle West
November 26, 2020


Tonight I am grateful because I have a safe place to sleep, food to eat, and the freedom to make my own decisions. Sometimes I overlook just how rare these things can be and how lucky I am. I’m thankful for those I love and those who are patient with me. I am grateful for the memories of the people I’ve lost and that I’m slowly learning to hold them close, although they are no longer here. I am thankful I can walk and run without complaint, and I must remember to savor this, for this will not always be the case. I’m damned grateful for seven years and nine months without a drink. This year I’ve finally learned to fall asleep in silence, and I’m thankful for that too. I’m also thankful for the first sentence of Neuromancer: “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”

November 25, 2020


Hunkered down somewhere in Ohio, and there’s not much to do except finish my book. I’ve made a commitment to wrap it up by the end of this terrible year, and I managed to write 1300 words today, which is logorrheic for me. Then the gears ground to a halt as I began to doubt this enterprise. Maybe I should shift the point of view to the first person. Perhaps I should rewrite the entire thing in the present tense. And so on. I often think about this observation from Annie Dillard: “I do not so much write a book as sit up with it, as with a dying friend.”

Writing for longer than an hour leaves me craving a cigarette, even though I quit three years ago. I miss the dopamine loop, the carrot and the stick, and the rhythm of stepping outside for five minutes after each page or paragraph. I would probably start again if it didn’t leave me feeling like a pariah. My memories of smoking will have to do.

Four years ago, C. and I worked on a project in Greece, where they still believe in smoking. Someone invited us to dinner, and we spent five hours in a dim café with a fireplace, shouting with strangers over endless cigarettes. Metal cups of wine covered the table, and people jostled their chairs to accommodate new arrivals. I don’t remember any food. A few Greeks sang dirty songs while an earnest French backpacker chattered in my ear about his support for Trump. A German flutist described her meditation practice, and I nursed a coffee and smoked until my lungs felt burnt. An elderly woman in a red cloak settled herself next to me, drained her glass of ouzo, and began to roll a cigarette. She had the judging look of the elderly, the deep-staring eyes. She asked if I had any brothers or sisters, and I shook my head no. “I thought so,” she said. “Being an only child is like living in the desert beneath a mountain of feelings.” And later, her parting comment as she toddled toward the door: “I am still naive, and I will always choose to be that way.” The party ended when a dog was dropped on the table, knocking everyone’s glasses and ashtrays to the floor.

That night feels like another life. I miss the cigarettes, of course, and also the ability to travel. Most of all, I miss the heat and noise of strangers who are chattering, singing, and saying whatever comes to mind.

These days are so quiet.

Ensemble Economique – I Light My Cigarette, I See You There

No Vacation | Sound of Cobra, 2013 | Bandcamp
November 24, 2020


This morning my meditation tape asked me if there’s an observer or just the act of observing. I have no idea what to do with questions like this. I’m trying to focus on concrete things these days. Like iceberg lettuce. Whether I’m in Ohio or New York, a bodega or a supermarket, the iceberg lettuce looks increasingly ratty. The other vegetables are growing larger, genetically engineered into Platonic ideals of carrots or tomatoes, but iceberg lettuce seems to be getting smaller, wilted with brown bruises. Perhaps this is an ambient sign of an emergency, like the dwindling bees.

C. and I scrolled up and down the aisles of the megamarket in full hunter-gatherer mode, aiming to collect enough supplies for a few weeks. While contemplating the fish tank, I tuned into the woman’s voice looping over the P.A. system, struck by how it sounded simultaneously rational and insane: “…everything to keep you safe this season. We’ve widened our aisles to help with social distancing, we’ve enhanced our sanitizing practices, and we’ve increased our options for contactless payment…”

A new culture of shame is emerging, and not just in the trenches of social media. Reporters at the airport harass travelers on television, asking them if they even care about humanity. The New York Times is publishing heat maps of where people plan to spend their Thanksgiving—and with how many people. I’m not sure what I’m expected to do with this information.

Smackos – Shopping at the Survival Store

Pacific Northwest Sasquatch Research | Strange Life, 2007 | Bandcamp
Somewhere in the Mojave desert, 2019
November 23, 2020


It’s been a long year of predictions: infection rates, election outcomes, the future of cities, and the nature of work. This year has also been a hard lesson in the inability to predict anything. Nonetheless, I’m constantly pattern-seeking, hoping to glean new information from the rhythms of my life: morning routines and habit fields, the glitches and loops of ambient thought. But my conclusions are arbitrary, tinted by how I squint at my compulsions or occasional moments of coincidence. Maybe I’ll find better information by examining the pattern of the tiles in the bathroom.

There was a time when people believed the stomach’s gurgles and rumbles belonged to the voices of the dead. Ventriloquism began as a religious practice; the term is Latin for “speaking from the stomach”: venter (belly) and loqui (speak). The ventriloquist would decipher the belly’s sounds and predict the future.

Labradford – Listening in Depth

Prazision | Kranky, 1993 | Bandcamp
November 22, 2020


Today we packed up a rental car and drove to Ohio to hide from the world this winter. We’re going to hunker down and shelter-in-place through this terrible season that has adopted the grammar of a hurricane. After navigating the manic tangle of New York’s bridges and New Jersey’s turnpikes, it was a straight shot across Pennsylvania on Interstate 80, my least favorite stretch of American highway. Nothing but Amazon delivery trucks and cops in my headlights. We drove through McDonald’s for lunch. We stopped at a rest area where a man stood on the grass, grinning at the moon. Six hundred miles later, we arrived in the Middle West. I love the full-bodied thrum in my nerves after a long drive, as if the mechanical has merged with the neurochemical.

Suss – Road Trip Part 4 (Fork in the Road)

High Line | Northern Spy Records, 2019 | Bandcamp
November 21, 2020


Last night I dreamt about a world where we were required to wear plastic bags over our heads. A dead man sat in the backseat of a car, and an unseen voice told me to pretend he was alive. And somewhere on the rooftop of a parking structure, there was an image or memory that would make sense of my life, but I woke just as I was about to reach it.

Maybe it’s hardwired, this idea of an image that might provide revelation. The cross, the host, and the idol. I read about a temple where an image is treated as the living incarnation of an infant god. Over the years, this belief gradually became ritualized into elaborate festivals. Worshippers prepare food for the image, including fifty-seven delicacies and 125,000 fresh mangoes. They bathe and dress it several times each day. There’s something beautiful in the idea that an image might shape collective behavior, and perhaps it speaks to our relationship with the image world today. This phenomenon also points to the very human trait to take a simple idea and complicate it until it must be torn down and made simple again.

Vatican Shadow – Church of All Images

Kneel Before Religious Icons | Hospital Productions, 2011 | Bandcamp
November 20, 2020


These have been days of long walks through the city with friends before the weather forces us indoors. Our conversations loop and wander, fueled by the jittery energy produced by information overload. This line from Don DeLillo captures the gestalt: “Too much of everything from too narrow a source code.” From Battery Park to Herald Square. From Red Hook to the Brooklyn Bridge. These rare hours of in-person chatter are a sanity check. Are things going to be okay? Were they ever?

I often hear people say they feel as if reality is slipping away. But perhaps reality is becoming more evident. Disease and indifference. Institutional decay and mortality. These harsh facts might explain the increasing appetite for conspiracy, the nonsense that bleeds through our screens. More of us are inventing our own narratives, hunting for clear-cut villains and overarching themes. Meanwhile, there’s a very real morgue crisis in El Paso and new curfews in California, Colorado, and Massachusetts.

Tonight I watched a man on a crowded train, unmasked and defiantly eating a slice of pizza. He chewed at us like a dare. An hour later in the park, a woman harassed anyone within earshot if they weren’t wearing a mask, even if they were alone and far away, quietly looking at the city lights over the river.

Belong – A Walk

Common Era | Kranky, 2011 | Bandcamp
November 19, 2020


My mom would have turned 68 today. I never know how to mark this day. Growing older means that more and more days on the calendar become attached to the memories of those no longer here. But a negative suggests a positive, an absence reminds us of a presence, and contemplating our short time here requires remembering why we want to stay, why we would be sad to leave. To consider the work and conversations left unfinished; the things left unsaid, the ideas that were not shared. We are but fitful flashes of an eternal light, said Spinoza, and we can describe this light in any number of ways.

I found a rare picture of my mom young and smiling, caught beneath the overheated gloss of a 1970s photo and sporting an incredible yellow collar. I wonder what she would have made of this world.

A defeated president fumbles toward a coup d’etat, generating insanities that have somehow exhausted their power to shock. Another recording-breaking day of infections and the outbreak maps require new colors. Orange and red no longer suffice; there are now deep burgundies and purples. Went to the doctor for my annual exam. Blood pressure taken, blood drawn, and heart monitored. I learned that it’s far more challenging to balance on one leg if you close your eyes. This seems like crucial information that I should have known by now.

Abul Mogard – Post-Crisis Remembrance

Drifted Heaven | VCO Recordings, 2014 | Bandcamp
November 18, 2020


Cold today, wind chill in the twenties. I’m getting crotchety. I increasingly find myself squinting at the world and wondering if maybe dignity disappeared around the time we began advertising our politics, gods, and the intelligence of our children on the bumpers of our cars. Thoughts like this must be resisted; I don’t want to become a prematurely old man, pining for a romanticized past. A chiding quote from Tristan Tzara comes to mind. Back in 1922, he said, “You’ll never know why you exist, but you’ll always allow yourself to be easily persuaded to take life seriously.”

Tonight I meditate to the sound of helicopters, sirens, and someone hollering on the street, repeatedly shouting, “You just don’t understand.”

The Detroit Escalator Co. — Abstract Forward Motion as a Mission

Soundtrack [313] | Ferox, 1996 | Bandcamp
East River, NYC
November 17, 2020


The president still refuses to concede the election; he’s firing his critics as well as the few remaining officials who tell the truth. An 87-year-old senator tested positive for the virus. Ten o’clock curfews in Ohio and New Mexico. Mask mandates in Iowa, North Dakota, and Mississippi. They’re closing the schools in New York City.

Meanwhile, I keep forgetting the screen is a tool, not an environment. Sometimes it feels like a sense of obligation, the way I keep clicking and scrolling—as if I’m abandoning my post if I press the off button. The decent urge to bear witness has been hijacked and thoroughly mangled. I think of Jung working and writing in a tower without electricity: “Simple acts make man simple; and how difficult it is to be simple!”

Fuck Buttons – Stalker

Slow Focus | ATP Recordings, 2013 | More
Monday morning at the Met
November 16, 2020


This morning I wandered through the museum with reverberated gloom in my headphones. I wanted to visit my favorite statues and paintings before things begin closing again. The galleries were mostly empty and I felt a little shady, wearing a mask while my footsteps reverberated through the silent halls of Greek marble, European oils, and Asian scrolls.

I always find solace in the depictions of Venus mourning the death of Adonis, the way she cradles her lover’s body while gazing into the heavens for answers, her face flickering between longing and defiance, depending on my mood.

Anjou – Fieldwork

Anjou | Kranky, 2014 | Bandcamp
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