Lake Superior, 2011

Crossing the 45th parallel always gives me a thrill. Whenever I see the green federal sign that marks the occasion, I instinctively hit the brakes and snap a photo that comes out blurry and gets deleted. The 45th parallel is the halfway point between the equator and the North Pole, and you can feel the geography shift when you see all that big pine and cold water. I’ve often crossed this line while speeding towards Michigan’s upper peninsula on an empty road in the dark.

Lake Superior frightened me when I was small. My parents enjoyed camping along its shore on long weekends, and I’d doze on the sticky pleather backseat of our Pontiac while we drove from Detroit to Marquette. I remember squirming in my pup tent, unable to sleep with that mysterious lake sitting out there in the night like it was waiting for something. In second grade, we studied the Great Lakes and read a pamphlet that described Lake Superior as the deepest and coldest of the five lakes: Scientists have not yet reached the bottom of Lake Superior, and they do not know what lives there. I studied that sentence until it became a hymn, and I’d lie awake chanting it in my head while thinking about what might live in all that uncharted space.

There’s enough water in Lake Superior to submerge all of the Americas. Its southern edge is known as “the Graveyard of the Great Lakes” due to a cascade of shipwrecks. On July 30, 1985, Jeffrey Val Klump became the first person to reach the bottom of Lake Superior at 1333 feet. This must have occurred after I read that pamphlet. Over the years, I’ve made my peace with Lake Superior. Antarctica scares me today. My head goes swimmy if I look at it for too long on a map. All that blank land feels like leaping off a rooftop. Maybe this is why I’m drawn to signs that clearly position me on the planet: the 45th parallel, the Continental Divide, and my telephone’s pulsing blue dot that accompanies me wherever I go.

Porter Ricks – Nautical Dub

From Biokinetics | Chain Reaction, 1996 |More

One of techno’s finest moments: a mechanized rendition of endless water and rain.

She films an Alaskan strait

Why are so many visions of the future cast in cool tones? We watch science fiction movies and look at renderings tinted in blues and greys, whites and silvers. We do not imagine tomorrow in shades of yellow or red, olive or tan. Perhaps this reflects a desire for cleanliness and order, but it also points to something darker: a fusion with the machine.

Walking through the city, I try to remember how the world looked when we held books, newspapers, and maps rather than gazing into glowing screens. How quickly we’ve traded aesthetics for convenience. But nostalgia is a fool’s game. What will nostalgia look like thirty or forty years from now? I try to imagine myself as an old man, telling the kids about the good old days when every inch of public space was branded with a logo, when every street corner had a Chase bank and a Walgreens.

Matrix – Blue Film #2

From Various Films | Chain Reaction, 2000 | More
Umberto Boccioni, Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913)

Cold today, the kind of cold that has people cursing in the streets. It’s the first day in weeks that’s felt like winter. Ducked into the Metropolitan Museum of Art to visit one of my favorite sculptures on Valentine’s Day. A vaguely human-shaped slab of bronze staggers into a ferocious wind, its body on fire, determined to walk. Thigh stretched, calf flexed as it lunges into the future, sheared and massive. This is Umberto Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity in Space from 1913.

In 1909 a manifesto appeared in the pages of a French newspaper like a flamethrower ready to reduce history to ashes:

We will sing of great crowds excited by work, by pleasure, and by riot; we will sing of the multicolored, polyphonic tides of revolution in the modern capitals; we will sing of the vibrant nightly fervor of arsenals and shipyards blazing with violent electric moons; greedy railway stations that devour smoke-plumed serpents—

Such overheated language, the cadence of a fist punching through the sky. The Futurist manifesto crackles with juvenile ego and spite, naively celebrating destruction and dogma five years before the world’s first mechanized war made these things a reality.

—factories hung on clouds by the crooked lines of their smoke; bridges that stride the rivers like giant gymnasts, flashing in the sun with a glitter of knives; deep-chested locomotives whose wheels paw the tracks like the hooves of enormous steel horses; and the sleek flight of planes whose propellers chatter in the wind like banners and cheer like an enthusiastic crowd.

There’s something infectious about this purple writing, and it tints my thoughts as I circle Boccioni’s bronze figure. A body warped and wefted like a terrible dream dredged from the sea. Its face is an anvil, maybe a crucifix. The end of religion. A new faith in the electric storms of the modern world. The Futurists believed museums were cemeteries yet here’s this statue a century later, captured and displayed beneath the timid gallery spotlights. Sheared planes and a knight’s helmet, venturing into a final crusade. A portrait of humanity marching into the heat of tomorrow.

Kraftwerk – Heavy Metal Kids

K4 Bremen Radio, 1971

Fifty years ago, Kraftwerk more or less invented heavy metal during a live performance on a radio station. Further reading: the Futurist manifesto; Unique Forms of Continuity in Space. See also: Futurism and Italian Fascism and When Futurism Let to Fascism—and Why It Could Happen Again.

Roundel with reminder of death (North Netherlandish, 1515) at the Cloisters, New York City

Woke with a yelp from a tense dream of standing on a Russian coastline while pieces of my life washed onto the shore. Will I ever believe in god? If so, it will probably begin in my dreams. The first gods must have been born while we slept. How else could our ancestors explain the fantastic scenes that unfolded in their heads each night? God was little more than a ghost in the machinery of the subconscious before gradually being refined into a spirit, a concept, and finally an animating force with ethical qualities. I often think about this phrase from Herbert Spencer: “God was, at first, only a permanently existing ghost.”

A haunted-looking priest stops in the middle of the sidewalk, staring at an advertisement for a career in nursing. “Maybe only 75% of my life was a disaster,” says a woman on the corner. “I don’t know, I never weighed it on a scale.”

Burial – Ghost Hardware

From Untrue | Hyperdub, 2007 | More

An appropriate song from a perfect album that still haunts today. See also: Herbert Spencer.

New York City

February, a month that sounds like a bruise. The weather in New York City feels like one, too. Purple skies and an endless string of cloudy days in the mid-forties. And still no snow. Meanwhile, two billionaires are vying to become the Democratic candidate for president by purchasing wall-to-wall advertising and buying everyone who’s for sale. Today the richest man in the world purchased the most expensive house in the world for 165 million dollars. It was only 0.8% of his wealth.

Seems like we spend a lot of time at home these days. Nearly every advertisement on the subway trumpets the virtue of having your favorite meals, outfits, entertainments, mattresses, and toothbrushes delivered straight to your door. Walking down First Avenue this afternoon, I caught a glimpse of all of us cocooned in our little overpriced flats, turning ever more inward. A dead city. This is a crotchety observation, I know, and it’s not particularly new. Here’s Richard Sennett in 1977, bemoaning the loss of ambient relationships between strangers that once defined parks, cafes, and sidewalks:

Each person’s self has become his principal burden; to know oneself has become an end, instead of a means through which one knows the world. And precisely because we are so self-absorbed, it is extremely difficult for us to arrive at a private principle, to give any clear account to ourselves or to others of what our personalities are . . . Masses of people are concerned with their single life-histories and particular emotions as never before; this concern has proved to be a trap rather than a liberation.

Sennett goes on to say that every individual is “in some measure a cabinet of horrors,” but The Fall of Public Man is fundamentally an optimistic book that celebrates living among strangers as essential to defining our personalities and purpose. With this in mind, I approach the lady behind the counter at Walgreens. “Use the self-checkout machine over there,” she says without looking up from her phone.

The Stranger – Exposure

From Bleaklow | Vvm Test Records, 2008 | More

Three recurring dreams: 1) a murderer who creates traffic jams in front of ambulances; 2) The “dishwasher episode” of a critically acclaimed drama; and 3) being told I’ve contracted a rare disease and no matter where I walk from now on, it will take one hour and eleventy-two minutes.

Waking up this morning, the world doesn’t feel much different from the illogic of sleep. Frantic spinning and slinging as exit polls dribble out of New Hampshire. The president is firing his critics and reducing the prison sentences of his friends. And with only one or two exceptions, our politicians continue delivering platitudes about “getting back to normal” and “remaining moderate” while the planet burns after so many decades of us being normal and moderate. It’s 65 degrees in Antarctica.

There might be a connection between the state of the world and our dreams. Schopenhauer comes to mind: “After all, what is to be expected of heads even the wisest of which is every night the scene of the strangest and the most senseless dreams, and which is expected to take up its meditations again on awakening from them?”

Flying Saucer Attack – My Dreaming Hill

From Flying Saucer Attack | VHF, 1993 | More

A jolt of rural psychedelia to accompany Arthur Schopenhauer.

Somewhere in Tennessee, 2016

My screen delivers footage of strangled sea turtles and disoriented walruses plummeting off a cliff. The United Nations says we’re on track to extinguish one million species from the planet. Tomorrow is the New Hampshire primary and all of the candidates are on television saying, “We’re surging.” The death toll from the coronavirus topped 1,000 today. The results of the Iowa caucus remain unknown. I keep scrolling, fighting the urge to click a headline that says “Ten things you’re doing wrong at restaurants.”

I stand in an Econo Lodge parking lot in the hour of the wolf, bronzed by the glow of the Walmart and Waffle House logos across the street. The only noise tonight is the highway and it sounds like the sea. I’m fantasizing about the desert again, a place for transforming a messy life into myth. One of these days I’ll point the car west.

An hour ago I stood in line at the Gas ‘n Go behind a furious man with a pistol tucked into the elastic waistband of his sweatpants, yelling that the cashier only gave him three Powerball tickets when he should’ve gotten four. I bowed my head and thought about patience and chance. The manager intervened and everyone narrowly avoided getting shot. Near pump number nine, a woman in the passenger seat of a jumbo pickup truck wiped away some tears. She caught me looking and I turned away and began fiddling with the radio. A chipper advertisement encouraged me to order nutrients harvested from jellyfish.

Standing in the grass near almost every city highway ramp, there’s a man holding a cardboard sign. Sometimes it says veteran, sometimes it says father, but it always says hungry. Sometimes I give him a dollar, sometimes I look the other way. I hate these moments when my nation not only feels cruel, it looks like a mirror. I stand in the Econo Lodge parking lot and think about what to do next.

The Detroit Escalator Co. — Shifting Gears

from Soundtrack [313] | Ferox, 1996 | Spotify

A selection from Neil Ollivierra’s gorgeous slow-motion score for post-industrial introspection. Motored by quietly churning machines, Soundtrack [313] rides a rare line between the plaintive and the hopeful. There’s an excellent in-depth interview with Ollivierra at Ambient Music Guide.

Somewhere in New Mexico, 2012

A man had a heart attack at a Starbucks the other day. I keep thinking about his glasses, fedora, and newspaper on the table next to mine—the remains of his plan to have a coffee and read the Times before his life blew apart. We’re all ticking bombs. Savor the mundane.

As if to confirm that dystopia has arrived, I catch a glimpse of a beloved actor from the 1980s smiling across three flatscreens in an empty lobby, encouraging everyone to triple reverse-mortgage their homes. Today a candidate called someone at a campaign event “a lying dog-faced pony soldier,” attempting to summon the ghost of John Wayne for some reason. But why do I know this? Strange how access to so much information somehow makes the world smaller, condensing it to a few lightning strikes.

As of 5pm today, New York City should have received fifteen inches of snow this season. So far we’ve had only four. Right now there are storms on Jupiter, unwitnessed and unseen. This morning I woke from a cluttered dream that included a giant who knelt down to tell me I was committing infidelity because I’m cheating on death with time. Taking a break from Photoshopping tonight, I laid down on the carpet and thought: Do it with love or not at all.

South Dakota, 2011

Some people worry the American president won’t cede power if he loses the election this year, an observation that would have been unthinkable four years ago. Our president. Strange how I am embarrassed to write his name into this journal, a name that looks like an obscenity on the page. Maybe it’s because I thought we deserved a worthy villain.

Nine years ago I was sitting in a Waffle House when my telephone buzzed with a CNN news alert: White House has pix of #Osama bin Laden with open head wound, his burial at sea, scenes from raid. The face of mass murderer, hashtagged and hyperlinked next to the word “pix.” Then I saw a headline that said, “12 Pop Stars Tweet About the Death of Osama bin Laden.” Nine years later and I still can’t get that phrase out of my head. It was a modern koan, a signpost of things to come. The trivial sits next to the catastrophic like never before, producing creatures like our president. I keep scrolling: American suicide rates continue to climb. Eight reasons why shampoo is a waste of money. Coronavirus death toll hits 812. Your pets might smother you while you sleep.

I remember racing against the sun to reach the Badlands before dark but I didn’t make it because I kept pulling over to photograph little white churches that flashed like teeth. I visited a tractor museum and a family playhouse. I cruised the streets of a leafy little town whose name I’ve already forgotten. When I reached the edge of South Dakota, the Badlands lay out there unseen, crouching in the dark. That night I dreamt of Natalie Wood, leaping and yelling hit your lights on the edge of a cliff, her arms swinging through the headlights again and again, my mind looping the scene until it felt like a critical message.

Dirty Beaches – True Blue

from Badlands | Zoo Music, 2011 | Bandcamp

From Alex Zhang Hungtai, Badlands is a perfect 26-minute record that soundtracked my drive across the Dakotas. “True Blue” loops the Ronettes into a beautiful blur of AM radio drums and desert twang that sounds like memory.

Some old first draft notebooks

Another day of headlines that describe people blasting, slamming, firing back, shutting down, lashing out, and tearing into one another—the overheated language of a national fever that has yet to break. I scroll up and down the aisles of the office supply store, soothed by the racks of folders, binders, and containers that promise an organized and efficient life. Maybe I will find the notebook that will solve all of my problems.

I spend too much time in the weeds, focusing on immaterial details until I am incapable of decision. Should my subheadings on this website be bold or regular weight? Should my photographs be 900 or 850 pixels wide? I burn up hours dithering over these questions, a baroque form of procrastination rather than finishing the book I’ve been writing for years. I fiddle for hours with a single moribund sentence, unable to decide between ‘which’ and ‘that’. Or I scroll through chatter, as if answers exist in the babble and thrum of screens. Why do these mental habits become hardwired so quickly? Time to blow off the cobwebs, hunt down that miserable little pedant in my head and bury his body in the yard. Get back to covering pages with ink. That’s where the unexpected action happens.

Deadbeat – Slow Rot from Rhetoric

From New World Observer | ~Scape, 2005 | Bandcamp
Somewhere in Kansas, 2009

One of those mornings when I put two contacts into the same eye. You really have to pay attention. On Lexington Avenue I heard a woman say, “It’s such a rare thing to have a human heart and live on this strange planet.” This sounded so profound as I moved through the city, not because of her words but the genuine sense of awe in her voice.

‘Civil twilight’ is an elegant term for the moment just before the sun sinks beneath the horizon. It might be a fitting name for these strange years. In The Age of Voltaire, Will Durant describes the texture of the days before the French Revolution: “Rococo was the art of an Epicurean monied minority eager to enjoy every pleasure before the disappearance of its fragile world in an anticipated deluge of change.” Perhaps these are also rococo days.

M83 – Lower Your Eyelids To Die With The Sun

From Before the Dawn Heals Us | Mute, 2005 | More

Another night of vintage M83 tracks filled with drama and deluge. This is music for speeding across the great plains with tears in your eyes. Further reading: The Age of Voltaire by Will and Ariel Durant.

Today the president was acquitted of abuse and obstruction because we live in an exquisitely detailed form of hell. This feels like the only logical explanation. My eighty-year-old German neighbor and I picked at our omelettes while a television in the corner of the diner delivered the vote count. “God is leading us through these dark days because we must learn humility,” she said. “But that fucker in the White House won’t be around much longer.” I want to believe her, but I’m not so sure. That fucker might be around for a while yet. And I’d like to believe there’s some invisible hand nudging us through trials and lessons until everything makes sense. I wonder it would feel like, to wake up each morning believing in that kind of god.

Tonight I’m thinking about image hygiene after coming across this passage in Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the New Millennium, a series of lectures about the future of literature that he wrote in 1985:

What will the future of the individual imagination be in what is often called the “image civilization”? Will humanity’s power to develop images in absentia continue to develop as it is increasingly swamped by the flood of ready-made images? The visual memory of individuals used to be restricted to the legacy of their direct experience and to a limited repertoire of culturally reflected images; the opportunity to give shape to a personal myth arose from the way in which fragments of that memory could come together in surprising and suggestive ways. Nowadays we are bombarded by so many images that we can longer distinguish direct experience from what we’ve seen for a few seconds on television. Bits of images cover our memory like a layer of trash, and among so many shapes it becomes ever difficult for any one to stand out.

All of which sounds eerily prescient thirty-five years later. Except one image does stand out: the profane face of our president, ever-present like the weather, the visual equivalent of Orwell’s black boot.

M83 – Don’t Save Us From the Flames

From Before the Dawn Heals Us | Mute, 2005 | More

A good night for old maximal M83 songs full of drama and light.

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