Main Street at Midnight
May 25, 2020

Memorial

Today is Memorial Day, and my screen is more schizophrenic than usual. Remembrances of lost soldiers and advertisements for summer sales collide with visual shrapnel from America’s pandemic-themed culture war. I scroll through images of unmasked men with defiant grins, semiautomatic weapons, and don’t tread on me t-shirts. I read messages shaming the crowds flocking to beaches and boardwalks. I watch shaky video footage of masked shoppers hissing and cursing at an unmasked interloper in the frozen food section. Leave it to America to transform science and a modicum of courtesy into political theater.

Three years ago, I attended a Memorial Day service in a small-town cemetery where the sheriff bemoaned the “unpatriotic media that criticizes our president.” What should have been a compassionate speech honoring the sacrifice of our soldiers was instead laced with the venom of talk radio. I stood among the tombstones with my hand over my heart while he described a hallucinatory war against American values, “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. America should always come first in our hearts, he said. We quietly dispersed for hot dogs.

“There are only volunteers in hell,” said the radio as I pointed the car south after the ceremony. Speeding from Michigan to New Orleans, I scrolled through the ecclesiastics and berserkers of talk radio, an 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 radio hums with the energy of cult indoctrination, nudging its members toward real-life violence in the name of George Washington and Jesus Christ. There is something very rotten in Christendom if it can be used to sanctify greed, bigotry, pollution, paranoia, and belt-fed weapons. What begins at the margins of the radio dial eventually circulates through our screens until it finds its way into the mouths of small-town sheriffs. And this pandemic has transformed the feedback loop of manufactured resentment into something immediately visible via the symbol of the mask.

After sixteen hours of talk radio, interstate winds, and screaming into metal boxes for food, my grip on the world grew slippery that night, an effect heightened by the voices that flickered through the static after midnight. Why can’t we escape the earth? they asked. Why is the universe so hostile to human life? And how can we be sure the earth is round?

One caller was convinced we’re living beneath a dome on a different planet. A man in Knoxville worried that humans might be a dark army for an alien force. Maybe the universe doesn’t exist, said a caller from Baton Rouge. Perhaps the sun is hanging from a tree somewhere. Compared to the talking points circulating through our screens nowadays, these people sounded positively open-minded.


Bohren & Der Club of Gore – Midnight Radio 7

Midnight Radio | Epistrophy, 1995 | More
May 24, 2020

Bell

Riffling through my small box of family memories, I came across a folded clipping that said my grandfather’s grandfather was appointed the postmaster of a small town in Michigan in 1905. A crinkled scrap of paper accompanied the newspaper with a note written in an unfamiliar hand: His was a secular duty but he found the pealing of the bell a very real link with God.

I know so little about this man aside from one piece of family lore: his daily four-mile walk began to tire him out as he grew older, so he asked the mayor to install a bench at the halfway point between his fishery and the bar. There he would stop each evening to rest and read the day’s paper.

My grandfather’s grandfather lived through the 1918 pandemic, and I wish I could talk with him about it. Did he meet it with acceptance or anxiety in his corner of the world? Did the virus breed conspiracy and delusion like it’s doing today? Picking up the crinkled note again, I began to wonder about his soul. What did he believe? And who was the author of this oddly formal message written on graph paper? What compelled this person to describe my great-great-grandfather’s spiritual relationship with the “pealing of the bell”? I wonder if there will be a pealing of the bell for me.


Arvo Pärt – Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten for Strings and One Bell

Rudolf Werthen & I Fiamminghi | More
May 23, 2020

Recursion

I’m slowly forging a path through High Weirdness, Erik Davis’s inventory of 1970s mysticism. He writes wonderfully about the feedback loops between our shared imagery and the sense of spiritual possibility that each of us carries: “The object of weird fascination is folded back into the subject, constructing a strange loop of cultural play, recursive enigma, and extraordinary encounter that makes a raid on the real.”

Every time I come across the word “ontological,” I need to look it up, and the definition always inspires a low-grade panic attack because I know I’m reading the same sentence about “being, becoming, and existence” for the thousandth time.

Contemplating the blurry line between media consumption and my soul reminds me of a moment in Don DeLillo’s Underworld when he moves one of his characters along the Jersey Turnpike:

…and he saw billboards for Hertz and Avis and Chevy Blazer, for Marlboro, Continental and Goodyear, and he realized that all the things around him, the planes taking off and landing, the streaking cars, the tires on the cars, the cigarettes that the drivers of the cars were dousing in their ashtrays—all these were on the billboards around him, systematically linked in some self-referring relationship that had a kind of neurotic tightness, an inescapability, as if the billboards were generating reality…

And I’m generating such terrible realities for myself whenever I vacantly scroll through the day’s headlines, clickbait, two-minute hates, and social media psychodramas.


The Field – Looping State of Mind

Looping State of Mind | Kompakt, 2011 | Bandcamp
May 22, 2020

Time

Time is a concept. Time is a flat circle. Clocks only measure other clocks. These ideas feel more valid than ever during these days of shuttered cities and social isolation. This morning I looked at my watch and wondered how it was already the 22nd. And the 22nd of what? For a moment I genuinely did not know whether it was April or May, and I had to double-check my watch against the calendar on my telephone. It was the sensation of freefall.

The world is speeding up, yet daily life feels as if it’s slowed to crawl. Science says it’s because new memories require the landmarks of new faces, sights, and experiences.


DVA Damas – Time Dilation

Nightshade | Downwards, 2013 | Boomkat
May 21, 2020

Babble

Last night I dreamt that I was on a massive ship with skyscrapers. We could not leave and we would never reach our destination. Every so often, new people would arrive and they were terrified when I approached, for I was a ghost, haunting them.

Where does the vocabulary of dreams come from? Each morning I wake to the imaginary babble of fully-formed news reports and television clips while skating across sleep—where is the line between a dream and a hallucination, voices in the head?

My writing is too tight, balled up in repressed emotion and god-knows-what. Perhaps I should jack into the subconscious life, have more confidence, and let reason fly. Learn to keep the pen moving without pause. Describe the umpteenth day of statistics and doubt in this endless spring, the brutal sound of someone eating an apple in the other room.

Bit of a Robocop aesthetic at my corner bodega
May 20, 2020

Cracks

Life has locked into a tight loop. I wake up and perform my morning ablutions. I tune into the governor’s morning briefing that veers from the data-driven to the deeply weird. I write and work. I step outside and look at the sky. Sometimes I go for an ugly run. I make phone calls. I tend this journal. Repeat.

The only variance is the impossible imagery that fills my screen. This morning I scrolled through images of floods in Michigan. Last night the Sears tower went dark, haunting the Chicago skyline with a dark silhouette that bordered on the sublime. A flurry of headlines mistakenly announced that NASA has discovered a parallel universe where time runs backward. They didn’t, but it’s a clear symptom of how much we’ve come to believe this is not the best of all possible worlds. Meanwhile the television says, “Things work out all the time for monkeys that turn out to be useless for human beings.” I think they’re talking about vaccines, but who knows anymore.

May 19, 2020

Dark

I remember watching the darkness in my bedroom when I was small, hypnotized by the grey-pink flecks that seemed to dance in the air while I waited for sleep. One night I climbed out of bed to tell my parents that I saw fairies in the corner of the ceiling. I still remember the disappointment when they told me it was just a trick of the eyes.

Eventually, I learned those shimmering dots are the natural interplay of light rays, retinal fluid, and optical cones. But part of me prefers to believe they are pieces of darkness, the living material of the night. Science shouldn’t explain everything.

Some habits come strange and die hard. I still watch the sparkles in the gloom, the rods and motes that flicker just beyond my vision. Although I no longer believe there’s magic among the edges of the ceiling, I still gaze at the high corners of the room whenever I feel overwhelmed, half-expecting to find an answer there. Maybe someday I’ll become an old man who searches for god in forgotten spaces with cobwebs and patchy paint jobs.


Andy Stott – Dark Details

Passed Me By | Modern Love, 2011 | More

A chugging soundtrack for the midnight hour.

May 18, 2020

Weird

The stock market spiked in response to encouraging test trials for a vaccine. Some say it might be ready for the public early next year. I feel compelled to write this down because I want to remember this moment of optimism; time will tell if this announcement was made in good faith or simply to juice a few pharmaceutical stocks. The design of America encourages suspicious thinking. At a press conference, our president proudly said he was dosing himself with an anti-malarial drug that has no proven effect on coronavirus but might trigger a heart attack.

Maybe we’ll have a vaccine soon. Maybe the president will poison himself. Things can go either way these days.

I’ve started reading Erik Davis’s High Weirdness, a catalog of 1970s visions, paranoia, and the “strange loop of cultural play” seen through the lens of figures like Terence McKenna, Philip K. Dick, and Robert Anton Wilson. Seems like an appropriate companion as we enter this deeply peculiar summer.


Shadrack Chameleon – Don’t Let It Get You Down

IGL Records, 1973 | More

One of my favorite 1970s songs, heavy and plush. Although I knew this album was recorded by a few teenagers in a homemade studio in Iowa in 1973, I didn’t know much else. While searching for more details, I came across this update from 1998 that’s a beautiful blend of the banal and reassuring: “Today, Steve Fox is an electronics technician in State Center, Iowa and also publishes analyses of social issues; Randy Berka is a genetic researcher in Davis, California and still plays music; Jon Porter is an insurance agent in Boulder City, Nevada and also a representative in the Nevada State Legislature; Dan Dodgen owns a retail store in Fort Dodge, Iowa and continues to play music locally.”

Central Park, NYC
May 17, 2020

Genre

They’re taking down the makeshift hospital in Central Park. Someone put masks on the status of Romeo and Juliet. Masked icons have quickly become a new genre, an emblem appearing on statuary all over the world.

The mood is shifting in New York City. The Chinese takeout spots along First Avenue have pulled up their metal shutters. The florist is open. More bars are serving takeout drinks, and there’s a block party atmosphere along the Avenues as people gather among the corporate art and concrete plazas of the corner high-rises.

Finished Ling Ma’s Severance this afternoon. Although I’ve had my fill of emotionally-detached narrators from Brooklyn, I admire how she places something that feels like a memoir within a dystopian frame. Her depiction of a pandemic-stricken New York harmonizes with our current moment to an eerie degree, particularly the slow unwinding of normalcy rather than the sudden cataclysm that defines so many other apocalyptic visions. And she writes wonderfully about how we cling to routine while craving disruption: “We hope the damage was bad enough to cancel work the next morning but not so bad that we couldn’t go to brunch instead.”

May 16, 2020

Symbols

Last night I dreamt that I could not read. Every book was filled with gibberish. The words shape-shifted and flickered between shades of red, white, and blue. My mom appeared and handed me a small paper bag of medicine and told me it would help. We were the same age. “You look so old,” she said. “But I have to get back to my new family now.” I woke up.

A loss of understanding. The colors of the American flag. The need for a cure. This dream feels stupidly obvious in this pandemic season, but I cannot puzzle out its personal meaning. I’m left only with a handful of symbols: garbled books, a bag of medicine, and my mother.

In dreams, the murk of emotions, traumas, and truths too raw for language become distilled into symbols, and these images hold more power than the mechanics of plot. We might remember crouching on the sidewalk, frantically trying to gather the teeth falling from our mouths—not the circumstances that led us there. A broken mirror or the sensation of falling from a terrible height. Our dead coming and going.

It’s remarkable how quickly we recover from our dreams, that we don’t spend our days staring into space with haunted expressions. A line from Schopenhauer: “What is to be expected from heads of which even the wisest is every night the playground of the strangest and most senseless dreams, and has to take up its meditations again on emerging from these dreams?”


Suicide – Dream Baby Dream

Island, 1979 | More
Friday evening on the Great Lawn, NYC
May 15, 2020

Grass

An eighty-degree day at last. We spent a few hours in the park because it’s almost possible to forget this pandemic while hiding in the grass beneath a tree. Almost. The virus tints every snippet of conversation from people passing by; these fragments from mouths hidden behind surgical masks and customized bandanas:

New Zealand beat it. Why can’t we?
Just stay over there.
Our fuckstick of a mayor.
They’re gonna have rules at the beach.
Oh wouldn’t it be a kick if our president got it?

We exchanged plague novels: she read Stephen King’s The Stand and I read Ling Ma’s Severance. Sitting on a scratchy blanket with our plastic bags, we envied the serious picnic game of other New Yorkers: their moisture-wicking blankets that fold into tote bags, the chairs that transform into backpacks, the collapsible containers and modular cups. Most of all, we admired how so many of us have agreed to cover our mouths and keep our distance.

Mono Lake, California
May 14, 2020

Mono

Fantasizing about the road again. I’m craving the sensation of speed and possibility like the time C. and I spiraled out of the mountains and rode along the California and Nevada border, racing past names like Lake Topaz and Antelope Valley. “I like the color palette of cows,” she said.

She recited the items on the menu at Denny’s like a koan: “Lumberjack slam, grand slam, triple slam, maybe the grand slamwich.” I could listen to that for days.

A tiny airplane flew low in the sky while we walked the bleached shores of Mono Lake, an otherworldly landscape of alkaline and soda towers that surrounded flat waters without a single ripple. We checked into a $40 motel on the edge of California City, where the only lights were fluorescent and the TV was on the fritz. Tonight I want to dream in the electric blues and spectral whites of Mono Lake.


Monolake – Cyan

Hong Kong | Chain Reaction, 1997 | More
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