First Avenue, New York City

New York City. Sunset: 4:28pm with clear skies and lows in the thirties. Last night I was sitting in a church basement when someone’s phone began to chime with notifications. Then a voice behind me said, “Omicron is here.” A chair squeaked. Somebody shrugged. Conversation resumed.

This afternoon I encountered an exciting holiday scene. A man carrying a Christmas tree pounded on the windshield of a Cadillac Escalade that nearly hit him in the crosswalk. “You wanna be an asshole?” he yelled. “Let’s see what kind of asshole you are.” The driver got out, and the two assholes circled each other, making threatening noises in the middle of First Avenue, one of them with a Christmas tree still drooping over his shoulder. For all I know, they could still be out there, shaking their fists and calling each other every name under the sun. I wonder what that man will be thinking about tonight while he decorates his tree.

But humanity isn’t completely hopeless. Wolfgang Voigt released a new installment of his Gas project today, and it’s as stately and monolithic as expected: an unshakable kick drum chugs through the murk of strings, frosty reverb, and smudged choral voices. Winter music of the highest order.

Gas – Der Lange Marsch 10

Der Lange Marsch | Kompakt, 2021 | Bandcamp
View from our window, New York City

New York City. Sunset at 4:28pm, and a new supermoon is on its way. In two weeks, C. and I will load up a truck, stash our stuff in a storage unit, and wander for a while. We’ll log some time in Ohio before spending a few months in London for a residency. Then we’ll finally move to the desert and get weird, develop theories, etc.

How do you say goodbye to New York? I feel an odd pressure to aestheticize my departure. Ever since Joan Didion published Goodbye to All That in ’67, there’s been a rich and irritating tradition of people romanticizing and rationalizing their decision to pull up stakes from the center of the universe. They moan about the hassle and cost. They complain about the subways, trash, and crowds. But that’s the point of this city. Living in New York means living in a drawer, and knowing it will probably cost $100 each time you leave your apartment.

Saving money is one reason why C. and I want to move. We want more space. More concentration. But more interestingly, there seems to be a new balancing of the scales as New York continues its grim march towards becoming a giant Chase Bank + CVS where entertainment is streaming and everything is delivered within hours. You don’t need to leave your apartment anymore. For some mysterious reason, Manhattan has been building luxury shopping malls while the suburbs are manufacturing downtowns with sixth wave coffee and cheap food from all corners of the world. Soon the city and the sprawl will belong to the same monoculture.

Over the next two weeks, I’ll look at the city more closely, hoping to etch its jangle and hum into a well-worn memory. I’ve done it before. This is the third time C. and I will leave New York. It might draw us back someday. Maybe the only way to say goodbye is not to say anything at all.

Vatican Shadow – Manhattan Is A Haunted City

Church of All Hallow’s Eve | Hospital Productions, 2019 | Bandcamp
New York City café reflection

New York City. Sunset: 4:29pm. Cloudy skies and temperatures holding steady in the forties. The United States detected its first case of the Omicron variant today. Christ, the cadence of that sentence is dystopian. Omicron. Like some sinister corporate project that serves as the centerpiece of a lazy 1990s thriller, back when the prospect of an interconnected virtual world still felt like a productive fantasy.

But the planet keeps turning while we go through motions that were once alarming but are now familiar. Finger-pointing and flight restrictions. An outsized concern about stock market performance. Frightening diagrams of mutated spike proteins. All soundtracked by the usual chorus of outragers, grifters, and opinion-mongers. Maybe it’s becoming too familiar, this absurd culture we’ve made.

There’s nothing sane to do except remain vigilant and uncertain. And that’s the hardest thing, isn’t it? Remaining uncertain until the shape of a thing becomes clear.

Tonight I remember my father. He was the tidiest man I knew. Every surface in his apartment gleamed. Everything in his refrigerator was lined up: armies of little water bottles, perfectly squared stacks of cheese. He carefully folded his bags of potato chips like an origami project, and he would cut down the plastic trays of cookies with each serving. These rituals became more pronounced as his lungs declined, and only later did I realize this was his way of controlling the few things he could.

Meanwhile, I blunder through life like a child, always patting down my pockets in search of a pen, never knowing where I’ve put anything.

Ensemble Economique – We Come Spinning Out of Control

Fever Logic | Not Not Fun, 2013 | Bandcamp
Second Avenue coffeeshop, New York City

New York City. Sunset: 4:35pm. A bright springlike day with a high of 70 degrees and lows in the fifties. Tonight the moon is full. This morning I flipped open my beaten copy of Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind because I needed what it advertised. Some zen. Some peace of mind. Some enthusiasm for this exhausted world. My finger landed on a heavy-duty sentence that I’ve been considering all day: “When you do something, you should burn yourself completely, like a good bonfire, leaving no trace of yourself.”

Suzuki emphasizes the importance of doing rather than thinking because ruminating leaves a trace. I like this image of traces, of thoughts that can tint and even stain. And my head is shellacked with so much babble and gunk. I can feel it in my nerves. Maybe even my soul, although I’m not yet sure if I believe in such a thing. Perhaps I must. Otherwise what is the Darwinian function of all this head noise?

I’ve also started reading John Yorke’s Into the Woods: A Five-Act Journey into Story to improve my understanding of how stories work. I wish I’d read something like this sooner. It’s both humbling and reassuring to see all of my tangled plots and narrative cul-de-sacs crisply addressed thousands of years ago by Terence, Horace, and Aristotle. 

And returning to the bonfire, I love the doom metal energy of this line from Shakespeare’s Richard II: “Let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings.”

E.R.P. – Burning Question

Afterimage | Forgotten Future, 2018 | Bandcamp
85th Street and Third Avenue, New York City

I was running the other night, heaving and hauling myself across 85th Street, when something clicked. I’d been ruminating about the novel I’ve been writing and rewriting for an embarrassing number of years. With each draft, my story got a little better, but something still wasn’t working. When I finally screwed up the courage to let someone read it, she confirmed what I knew: the main character was boring. He didn’t know what he wanted or what he believed. Of course he was boring: the main character was me—or some elderly, nostalgic avatar of myself.

So I went for a run because I didn’t want to start smoking again, and I was gasping and sweating and hating myself because I write so slowly while everyone else seemed to be cranking out new books every few days. I wanted so badly to finish this novel this year. Instead, I was once again dreading the chore of taking yet another stab at improving the main character’s wants, needs, and flaws. Then a thought landed in my head that literally stopped me in my tracks on the corner of Third Avenue: Just get rid of that guy. He’s dead weight, so ditch him. Replace him with the lady who’s been lurking at the margins of the story, the embittered Olympic diver whose devotion to a strange ritual accidentally maimed her neighbors and sent her daughter running into the night. She has flaws and wants.

Everything started clicking into place, and I haven’t been this excited about writing in a long time. It was liberating to realize the world I wanted to build would become much more interesting if I removed myself from the equation.

And yet. Here’s the reason I mention any of this: I resisted this idea for two solid weeks because the thought of undoing all that work and deleting all those words was too much for my pride to bear. My ego revolted. Look how much time you’ve spent on this! It’s good enough! But I know this story can be better, and that idea on 85th and Third Avenue was a rare gift, one of those moments of illumination that happens every five or six years, if I’m lucky. And who am I to turn my back on such a thing?

MMMD – Egoismo

Pèkisyon Funebri | Antifrost, 2016 | Bandcamp

An all-time favorite: slow-motion strings and liturgical drones from Athens, Greece.

Saturday night on the FDR Drive with C.

New York City. Sunset: 4:39pm. A waxing gibbous moon. There was a flurry of thunderstorm warnings and a tornado watch on this November afternoon. The sky turned black and exploded with summer rain. Everything feels out of season these days, slightly out of step. I keep waiting to click into a groove and return to some familiar rhythm, but this might be a fantasy.

It’s Saturday night, and a familiar melody started looping in the background of my usual head noise, something sleazy and a little menacing. It took some work to track it down, and it was worth the effort: Kit Clayton’s “Belt Frictional Problem,” a luxuriant synthesizer workout from the overlooked Too Many Clowns, Not Enough Jokers compilation released over twenty years ago. This piece of Detroit vinyl had everything: a glitchy clown graphic on the label, lock grooves, and tracks that played inside out. This is the sound of late-night Michigan radio, of mysterious transmissions that felt like they were pushing us towards a better future: streamlined and anonymous, faceless and collective. This is the nostalgic music of my youth.

Kit Clayton – Belt Frictional Problem

Too Many Clowns, Not Enough Jokers | Throw/Twilight 76, 1999
Q Train over the East River, New York City

New York City. Sunset 4:43pm. Another bright spring day in November with a high near 70 degrees. Last night, I finished one of Stephen King’s early novels, The Long Walk, published in 1979 under his Richard Bachman pseudonym (a fascinating, almost avant-garde exercise in testing the dynamics of raw talent versus name recognition). I read it because the premise was so simple: One hundred boys must walk. If they fall under four miles per hour, they get shot. The last one walking wins the prize. I wanted to see how King pulls it off and, for the most part, he does.

I often overlook King’s ability to make a few hundred pages disappear in a night, which feels like an increasingly rare gift to the reader, given the glut of books with writers working so hard to remind you they are clever. And there are moments of excellent description, such as when the boys are followed by a “small evil-sounding high school marching band.”

Most of all, I’ve been thinking about his personification of the bloodthirsty crowd along the roadside, the villain that allows this slaughter to continue year after year. There was “only Crowd,” he writes, “a creature with no body, no head, no mind. Crowd was nothing but a Voice and an Eye, and it was not surprising that Crowd was both God and Mammon . . . Crowd was to be pleased. Crowd was to be worshipped and feared. Ultimately, Crowd was to be made sacrifice unto.”

This image struck a chord because it captures my anxieties about online living, the mental work required to avoid each day’s two-minute hates and think my own thoughts. But the internet is a cheap scapegoat. Tonight I helped my extremely offline elderly neighbor with some errands. Before I left her, she said, “Have you noticed how much evil fuckery there is in the world lately? These people seem to operate with impunity.” Seems like Crowd is everywhere these days—no choice but to walk through it.

Dalhous – He Was Human and Belonged With Humans

After the Affair | Blackest Ever Black, 2012 | More
A midnight mahjong session

New York City. Sunset: 4:44pm. A high in the 50s and a low of 39 degrees. Last night the clocks fell back an hour, and it’s my favorite moment of the year because we create more night. Changing the clocks should be the biggest celebration of the year with parades, feasts, and fireworks. Because if we can rearrange time, we can do anything. Invent new colors. Eliminate money. Add more days to the week. Rewind the internet to 2004. Erase the borders on maps.

We celebrated last night with a heavy mahjong session: four of us talking junk and eating spicy noodles for seven hours while the tiles clacked and swirled like an ancient ceremony.

This morning I woke up feeling acutely aware of time as I considered everything I’d like to do before the year ends. Buckle down and finish this damned novel once and for all. Need to get back to writing for two hours every morning. And I’d like to return to cold night-running, maybe five miles each weeknight. It’s easy to feel ambitious when you’re still under the covers. Then I dozed to the holler and hum of the crowd along First Avenue as it cheered the city’s marathon runners.

Pye Corner Audio – Sleep Games

Sleep Games | Ghost Box, 2012 | More
The Frick Collection, New York City

New York City. Sunset: 5:47pm. Sunny with a high of 53 and lows in the upper thirties. There’s a new supermoon tonight, which means the moon is invisible but massive as it draws near its closest point to Earth.

Writing. It’s such a slippery, terrible habit. Always thinking I should be writing. Or that I’m not writing enough. Or I’m not writing well. How did I wind up in this position? Maybe writing isn’t so important anymore. The baton has passed to other forms. Then again, perhaps it’s more vital than ever, this need to pin down and make sense of an increasingly insensible world.

Today I learned the definition of abattoir—one of those half-familiar words I’ve glossed over whenever it appears. I’d always thought it referred to something churchy and medieval, maybe a monastery. But it’s a slaughterhouse. Now I’m wondering what the hell I was reading where my religious definition made any kind of sense.

But I can’t remember. I seem to remember less and less. I worry about my attention span. I worry about my brain. I often think about an essay Douglas Coupland published last summer. He notes that “around 2010 my own brain started feeling truly different. I realised that I was never going to go back to my old, pre-internet brain: I’d been completely rewired. Ten years later I don’t even remember what my pre-internet brain felt like.” Coupland takes comfort in the idea that we’re all in this together, that we’ve all been “neurally homogenised.” But I find this idea frightening, even if this means punishing myself for no longer living up to some romanticized ideal of literary discipline.

Maybe the only solution is some cognitive leap similar to how the Constructivists and Futurists plunged into the future a century ago, determined to fuse with the machine. Embrace speed. Groove on distraction. Let everything get garbled and weird.

In this spirit, today C. and I visited the Frick Collection, where Renaissance paintings hang in Marcel Breuer‘s brutalist ziggurat. The only way to access any information about each painting was via your phone. People gazed into their personal devices, hunting for details as they stood before oil portraits of the dead. I go to museums to get away from screens, so I walked around feeling very old and confused.

Topdown Dialectic – 03

/​\​\​02 | Aught, 2014 | Bandcamp

My new favorite band: blurred transmissions from an unknown station that conjure the lowlight hiss and mystery of vintage Basic Channel. Be sure to check out their new release on Peak Oil.

Michigan, 2014

Sunset: 5:51pm. Partly cloudy in New York with a high of 60 degrees and lows dipping into the 40s at last. Now begins my favorite season, the deep stretch of time when the landscape weighs upon the mind and perhaps the other way around. This is the season of choral music and childhood memories drifting through the heating vents, of headlights in the gloom and trees that look like old gentlemen.

Tonight I’m grateful I’ve returned to this channel in the static, writing for whoever might find it. The idea of an audience, real or imagined, forces me to move beyond fractured scribblings in my notebook towards complete sentences and, occasionally, better thoughts. I’d like to read more blogs. If you’re still broadcasting on the information superhighway like it’s 2004, please let me know so I can add your station to my feed.

Gas – Oktember

Oktember | Mille Plateaux, 1999 | Bandcamp
Midnight desert highway

Sunset: 5:52pm. A waning crescent moon on Halloween with a high of 64 degrees. I’m back in New York City, where everything is smaller and harder, and the city is constantly inserting itself into my thoughts like another person in the room. The city is still glittering and grand. The problem is me. I think I’ve had enough input. Enough inspiration.

My body moves down First Avenue, but my brains are still in the desert, driving around the quiet margins of Vegas through roomy streets with tan bungalows and garbled strip malls with every service from every nation. C. and I have decided to move to Nevada next spring—partially for the lower cost of living, mostly for the aesthetic of night-driving down the parkways of a desert city with neon spraying across the windshield and the Chromatics on the radio.

This is the plan, and I’ve made a note to reread this entry six months from now. Because life has a funny way. If you want to hear God laugh, etc. But I hope I’ll be reading this from the desert.

Chromatics – Lady Night Drive

Cherry | Italians Do It Better, 2017 | More
Mojave desert, California

Twentynine Palms. Sunset: 6:00pm. Sunny with a high of 80 degrees and lows in the forties. The Mojave desert is my favorite place on the planet. For fifteen years, this landscape has pulled at my thoughts like a magnet. Maybe it’s the cadence: Groom Lake. Chocolate Mountain Gunnery Range. Devil’s Hole. Mythic names that speak of salvation and redemption.

The desert is a land of religious vision, the home of desperate saints and ascetics dragging themselves across the sand in search of revelation. Airplane graveyards glint in the desert sun, perfectly preserved by the unoxidized air. I once heard about a woman who can tell your future by deciphering the contrails of experimental military aircraft. Driving out of the town of Mojave, there’s a sign that says, “If my people humble themselves and pray, I will heal their land.”

The desert offers a promise: drive a little further, keep racing through nothing and you might see something grand, something that will help you make sense of the world. A tragic ghost town. An abandoned gag shop that sold alien beef jerky during the UFO craze in the summer of ’71. A place in Death Valley where a woman performed an opera each night to empty seats. A historical marker where they detonated the first atomic bomb. And so much sky and land there’s nothing to think about except something resembling god.

SUSS – Kingman, AZ

Night Suite | Northern Spy, 2021 | Bandcamp

The new EP from SUSS is the perfect companion for night-driving through the desert.