From Russia with love

He used FaceApp, sure. It seemed harmless enough. And it was fun to see an older version of himself staring back from the screen. He felt in touch with some deeper layer of his identity. He felt that he could see mistakes he hadn’t yet made—and learn from them.

Then he FaceApp’d his elder image. He FaceApp’d himself again and again, producing contorted carbon copies of great-grandfatherly incarnations. His face disappeared into folds of time and liver spots. His silver eyes drooped below the crag of his nose. The computer began to sag under the pressure of it all. He continued the overlapping FaceApp experiment through the night and realized with a start that a whole week had passed by. He was starving. The face was detached from written history, a blur of centuries and atavistic yearning.

“If this is really me in there,” he thought, “then who am I?”

When his boss sent the summer interns over to make sure everything was alright, he was gone. They found the computer toppled on its side in the dining room, belching infinite lines of binary code on a cracked screen. The room stunk of sulfur and rotting kudzu vines.

One kid, a junior from Ball State, snapped a picture of the strange tableau for his Instagram followers. They need to see this, he told the others. I need to show them how the story begins.

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Voyager

Believe it or not, 311 has a new album out today. Whether it’s any good is hard to say at this point; the apparent “Crossfire” scandal has pretty much ruined the event for me.

But what makes an album “any good”?

Why is it important to write about 311?

The band rests at the very gravitational core of my life, intrinsically linked to my zig-zag conception of what it means to build a world. I’ve gone here, I’ve gone there. Chapters in a story. The future emerges from an unknowable ether. All along, 311’s been with me.

I remember listening to Soundsystem in my friend’s mom’s van, trundling between Little League baseball and Tangletown. Developing the strands of hazy memory that make a childhood. The local pool. A Fender Strat propped up against the wall. CKY videos on a loop, forever.

Why write about music at all?

Maybe it’s a different band in your universe. Maybe it’s Shania Twain. Hopefully you’ve got a few whose music walks with you. Hopefully you’re not lonely.

The band is not infallible, no, obviously. That would be a lie. (One of the lyrics on the new album is actually, “Smoking that good weed, getting high, we are stoners on a highway with all of our friends.”) But it’s like watching the ripples made by a rock thrown into the lake. In a certain light, you wouldn’t consider it to be poorly rippling water, right?

If you look fast—don’t miss it!—you’ll see how much can happen in the course of a life, a cosmic splash, growing from a babbling/wriggling baby in the crib, walking from here to there and stumbling serenely onto the joy of it all with every passing moment.

 

Down on Willey Avenue

You can always say you were “just going to look.” You can even tell yourself that this was the case, years later, only half-joking, but you know that the plan was set in motion long before you and your girlfriend, now your fiancée, got in the car and trundled down to the Animal Protective League to see about a dog. It was a Saturday morning. Partly cloudy.

He perches watchfully on the windowsill. He tracks the afternoon traffic of West 6th Street down below, birds alighting on lampposts and tall pedestrians skittering between work and play. Clouds hang thinly at eye level. A broad windowsill decorated with houseplants and pillows and the hound himself. Forrest. You named him after another dog, the Forrest you read about in the paper. He’s part of a lineage of something you’ll never completely understand.

You walk into the howling den of wiry cages, the both of you, and look each dog in the eye. They’re afraid, angry, unsettled, anxiety-ridden and scattered. Gawky, furry. Canine psyches stretched to an uneasy breaking point in a low-slung building on Willey Avenue. It’s clamorous in here, and they keep running up against thin steel bars and jutting great jaws against the possibilities of a future with you. Maybe today’s the day! Maybe we’re going home!

He’s waiting one aisle over. Alone.

There’s a spot at the dog park, right beneath the ramp, where he digs a little hole each time you bring him to play. He contributes his ideas, puts in his time at the shop; every dog sort of takes his or her turn, digging, scraping at the pebbles and the dirt, tossing debris to the wind. It is an ongoing project. The project is the ongoingness of the thing. The goal is the continuation of something that never ends.

When another dog walks by, down along the crooked riverbank, he stands at the fence, alert. He sees a friend. Everyone’s a friend.

He whimpers. Head down. He paws gently at the cage. Whether it’s shame or not, you can’t tell. Boy’s got the blues, alright. He was adopted by a family three months back, you learn, later, when you’re out in the lobby asking about him. The name on the card is Capone. The family called him Chance. They brought him back three days ago. Returned to the shelter. What if the two of you had come last week?

What if you’d waited to go have a look?

Sleeps in your bed. Of course he sleeps in your bed. Most nights, he’ll start out on the couch in the living room. Toys everywhere. He loves the ones that squeak. The louder the better, frankly. Always ends up in the bed, though.

Stretching. Curling. Paws and limbs arranged at odd angles. He snores, too. Barks in his sleep. Runs in his sleep. Stretching. Curling.

They bring him out to you and your girlfriend. You’re in a little room off to the side of the place. A few tennis balls and ropes on the floor. How’s this gonna go? What are we doing here?

He likes the postal carrier, the sparrows, the denim-clad herd that rides motorcycles through the city. He likes the movement of life. He likes the sun. He likes walking with you two. The park around the corner, the one with the statue of Jesse Owens. He barks at the statue. Why’s that man standing so still? Shouldn’t he be moving like me?

Everything moves.

He loves car rides. There’s always a past and a future, and isn’t that the point? Sunbathing in the backseat.

You’re waiting, but you already know how the stories goes. The narrative advances. The projector clicks.

There’s the park down by the lake, the one with the big willow tree and the rocks. Low waves crashing. Gulls overhead. He loves the gulls. And the fish in the sand. The smells. The atmospheric spray. You walk along the beach together, you and her and him. The family.

“He loves love,” you say to her.

He’s bounding into the room now, proceeds to sniff the walls, the corners, the chairs. He’s casing the joint. Getting a read on you. Could be another false start.

You pick up a red tennis ball.

Back at the dog park, another day. Click. He’s running with his friends. Playing a game, playing at something unseen. A ballet of dogs. You get the sense that this is what freedom looks like, if it looks like anything at all.

He’s feeling you out. He chases the ball, sniffs the floor, comes back and sniffs your shoes.

The only direction in life is forward. Flowing forward into the present, a verdant river emerging from the unknown fog before you. Time collapses in reverse.

There’s a picture of you and him. Smiling. He’s looking up at you. Just a Saturday morning in a little room at the animal shelter. Down on Willey Avenue. Partly cloudy, the morning charged with brisk energy. Smiling. You only went to look. Sure, but this was always the plan.

Running in circles now. Doggy grin a mile wide.

The state of the state

“People had hoped to be caught up in something bigger than themselves. They thought it would be a shared crisis. They would feel a sense of shared purpose, shared destiny. Like a snowstorm that blankets a large city – but lasting months, lasting years, carrying everyone along, creating fellow feeling where there was only suspicion and fear. The war would ennoble everything we say and do. What was impersonal would become personal. What was solitary would be shared. But what happens when the sense of shared crisis begins to dwindle much sooner than anyone expected? We begin to think the feeling lasts longer in snowstorms.”

Don DeLillo, “Human Moments in World War III”

 

Roth

Philip Roth, one of the all-time greats, died one year ago today. I’ve turned to his books again and again to feel out the grim scars of America, the stains of human psyche. The uproarious comedy. Gets me in the mood to work. Atrocity everywhere, shaded with tender stories about who we are.

He is an American visionary.

I read Sabbath’s Theater over a four-day trip to Mexico and back, in February, spellbound at 30,000 feet over the relentless malice of it all. The intricate layers of love and hate as the broad grind of culture churns onward in the background. Hell of a book.

“Writing turns you into somebody who’s always wrong. The illusion that you may get it right someday is the perversity that draws you on. What else could? As pathological phenomena go, it doesn’t completely wreck your life.”

Out from under

All this talk of another full-album 20th-anniversary tour (in this case, Incubus’ 1999 scratch-funk-pop trip Make Yourself) has got me thinking about how the albums we stumble into as wayward youths end up rippling outward in meaning for, oh, say, how about 20 years and then some.

So. Make Yourself.

It’s the sort of phrase you might be given from an aged monk in a quiet room, tinted in ocher and low-lit greens, after a long pause, following the only question you could cobble together in the haze of incense and curiosity: What should I be doing here?

“Should” is an interesting and irksome word, but it’s one with which we reckon constantly, I think. The method and practice of zazen is almost explicitly meant to dissipate the word “should,” to sweep it out the back door of the mind and into some non-place on another plane. If zazen means anything at all.

The answer to a question unasked, then: Make yourself.

The album fell into my hands a year later, through the Little Nicky soundtrack, of all things. (It was a great CD. Deftones. Incubus. Pharoahe Monch. Cypress Hill.) “Pardon Me” was on the soundtrack, and, for a kid only just coming into the world of 311, post-grunge, nu-metal, etc., the space-rock inflected with near-hip-hop vocal stylings was a real motherfucker. It was a hybrid along the lines of stuff I hadn’t yet entirely realized in pop culture. 11 years old. Whole world of music unfolding beyond me.

It could have been a different time. My birth could have been earlier, later, whenever. But my intersection with something like Make Yourself was preordained. Middle-class, white suburban Cleveland. Friends. We all played guitar, or something approximating guitar. Started skating and listening to heavier stuff. Time ticked onward. High school. Hip-hop, the old-school stuff at first, then more metal, strange indie wanderings backward into the mid-90s and so on. Started smoking weed.

Along the way — and I remember this clearly, because I played this sort of stuff all the time in my ’93 Geo Prizm, en route to wherever, ca. 2005 or so — we skipped into Incubus’ earlier records. S.C.I.E.N.C.E. and Enjoy Incubus and, my personal favorite for a spell, Fungus Amongus. This is where we found seeds sown in the vein of funk, deep DJ scratchwork, psilocybin-infused lyrical humor and all that. Seeds that would blossom in different ways for all of us. For me, this music scanned as a ticket into early hallucinogen experiments and a steady appetite for cannabis. Antics ensued. The music never stopped.

S.C.I.E.N.C.E. is a powerful album, and I think it’s necessary to fully understand how the band was changing during the Make Yourself sessions.

Released two years priors, S.C.I.E.N.C.E. spends significantly more energy on the mania of late youth, red-eyed adventures at 3 a.m., conspiratorial questions. The album is relentless, and it works both in a chill, late-night billiards sort of way and a head-banging surrealistic binge. The band poured its previous years of touring and stoney head games into these songs: “Deep Inside” is one that stands out for obvious reasons. And the transition into “Calgone”? This is the mark of a paranoid beast, and only those who’ve gone over the edge of goofy-ass sativa will understand. I think.

That’s what this music means to me, years later.

“Come sail aboard S.S. Nepenthe!”

Then came Make Yourself. It’s a remarkably cleaner record, and not simply because of track No. 9. The lyrics contend more with self-actualization than lunatic drug fun. Anyone who’s eaten the god’s flesh of mushrooms will know the sense of clarity and crystalline sight that comes in the wake of a mind-altering trip in the woods or along the riverbed or in some weird, wood-paneled living room. You can’t help but see things differently. Decode the external world in a more fundamental sense.

You can’t return to the source, but you can deliver its promises into the enveloping future-now.

The only response to the unasked question, baked under haze of sunlight and hallucination, is: Make yourself. Take what you’ve learned and create your world.

And the only sensible way to do that? “Resist, unlearn, defy.” This is pure zazen.

I fail more often than I succeed, but I’m still unlearning all the built-up mental sediment from the foggy past. Still working on the resistance to something unseen, something felt in between the waves and radiation pulsating groggily between the present moment and the collapsible planes that revolve around me.

If it takes 20 years, and then some, of listening to music, sonic roots driving deeply inward, then so be it. There are far worse ways to spend my time.

Steal

I heard that Lorain Mayor Chase Ritenauer is leaving his post for a regional M&A directorship with Republic Services. (Lorain will be part of his territory, apparently.)

In the late summer of 2016, before one of the great all-time goons slithered into the White House and our civic-religious dogma forever, I wrote a long story about what was going on in Lorain. A city of immigrants, built and sustained by steel. An American patchwork of undulating prosperity and crushing downtime.

featurepage1I don’t think anyone in Lorain or elsewhere seriously placed any working-class faith in either presidential candidate back then. The rationale behind the national vote in 2016 was angrier, more visceral and bleached with hate. You can still hear the echoes today, growing louder, in fact, studded with personal invective on your made-to-order social media platform of choice.

No, the answers to problems like the idled steel mill at the end of your street or the crowded (or non-existent) homeless shelters in your city are found in questions asked of local political representatives, of local community organizations, of ourselves. That, to me, seems like the political action — even rhetoric! — that matters. Lordstown is a great example in the news this week, a way to grasp how different levels of government shape reality and a local economy for families on the ground.

Now Ritenauer’s gone. A lot of work left undone, but that’s how it always is. And more power to him, finding more time to spend with his family. Time to ask his own questions. But the party’s central committee has a shot at appointing a successor, which is never a great starting point.

What questions are owed to the people?

Onward.