Refractions of fear in modern America

In less than 24 hours, David Wallace-Wells wrote a vivid account of “The Terrifying, Already Forgotten JFK Shooting That Wasn’t.” It’s sort of an unwieldy title, but here’s the gist: On Sunday night, applause for Usain Bolt’s 100-meter dash win — airing on televisions in Terminal 8 — was mistaken by someone, and then many people, for gunfire. Fear settled in immediately, and then rampant confusion spread out among stampeding airport travelers and security personnel en masse. Wallace-Wells describes a horrifying setting, an interminable and brutally post-modern nightmare. To reiterate, yes, this happened on Aug. 14 in New York City, in America.

It’s hard for me to find words for the feelings this story conjures. The writer does a great job of it, and he was actually there.

I think there are a lot of lessons to be drawn from this event, and I hope we continue to talk about it. If nothing else, I suppose, it’s one of the most chilling examples of gazing into the abyss — and sensing the abyss gaze back — that I’ve ever encountered.

The airborne toxic event

This morning, I connected with a college student out in Claremont, Calif., and we talked about ideas relating to what one should do after school. (A mutual friend set up an email between us, noting our similar inclinations toward, as the mutual friend put it, “life mastery.”) I described following my dream of being a writer and how, despite the lackluster pay, I feel fulfilled as a late-20s professional. To wit, I’ve never held a job in my life that I haven’t loved and that hasn’t transcended the term “job.” I enjoy my work.

But the point here is that, among other things, this cat was asking me about how to redevelop the student press at his school. I told him what I’ve told many others: The story, as a tool, is one of the most powerful pieces of technology ever conceived by humans. It’s one of the great things that separates us from the rest of the planet (one of the good things, mind you, as I tend to err on the side that believes our species’ distinguished skills are hindrances in the great development of Earth). But, hey, stories matter. That’s at least one reason why you’re reading this now, scouring the blogosphere for a morsel of narrative.

I write this to say that I was thinking about that conversation all day. The power of stories, of encoding and decoding cultural messages. No one really talks about this shit. It’s important. We’re a society that “likes” memetic story arcs without actually taking a moment to engage with them. And, OK, that’s fine, but when the bell tolls you’ll find me on the sidelines of this contemporary muck, trading stories and laughs and insights with the people who truly get it — the fringe characters who’ve always been gripping the great wheel of American morality.

One final note: I haven’t read a novel in months. Today, I picked up Don DeLillo’s White Noise, and even just the first 50 pages or so have reminded me again of the power of great storytelling. This is a chilling, remarkably realistic book about the recent history of the American family writ large, the cognitive dissonance inherent in trying to carve a path through the bullshit of our culture. So far, it’s excellent.

Here are the other books stacked upon my coffee table:

  • A Whale Hunt by Robert Sullivan (finished, excellent)
  • River of Shadows by Rebecca Solnit (almost finished, excellent)
  • Our Band Could Be Your Life by Michael Azerrad (halfway through, insightful insofar as I enjoy the bands he’s writing about [e.g. Dinosaur Jr, Fugazi, etc.])
  • After the Tall Timber by Renata Adler (working my way through, very cognizant of the genius within… She’s a journalistic icon)
  • Deep Work by Cal Newport (just a few chapters in… This is something I need to, uh, deeply work on… Really insightful so far)
  • Stories I Tell Myself by Juan Thomson (almost done, this is the memoir of Hunter Thompson’s son… It’s angry and sad and reflective and optimistic at times, but it’s not my favorite piece of HST reading by any stretch)
  • The Meadowlands by Robert Sullivan (see A Whale Hunt above… Sullivan is my new writerly interest; he’s incredible)

Encore

I’ve been moonlighting at Rocky River Brewing Co., where I worked as a cook back in high school and summers in college. It’s been a weird and awesome thrill to return to the root of it all, the backdrop of some wildly formative years. The Brew Co. is one of my favorite places in the world, and working the line again has been a great experience so far.

This is the place where I was turned on to Phish, early Modest Mouse, Atmosphere and much more – to say nothing of the late-night antics that studded those halcyon summers. (This was also back when Glenn worked there as well, and our weekends were kickstarted with sly beers from the bar and smokes out back.) I started off washing dishes at 16 – I was hired by former Faith No More singer Chuck Mosley and started working that same day — and by 17 I was cooking, surrounded by a fascinating group of people living lives far different than mine. This place – along with my early work as a journalist – is where I found an immense source of social confidence at that age.

I post this to say: If you’ve never been, you should stop by for a couple beers and some dynamite food. The owners were onto the microbrewery thing well before Cleveland became synonymous with the genre. Tell them Sandy sent you. You’ll find yourself at home in no time.

Very

It’s hard to say what there is to say after the RNC and three nights of the DNC. Probably doesn’t mean much. Election Day will be a fucking ride.

But I can’t help but think tonight, as I pour a few glasses of whisky and watch President Barack Obama deliver one of his last major speeches while in office: I’m very glad he was running this show while I was 20 – 28.

I certainly won’t rubberstamp the whole of his administration, but I’m going to miss his leadership, his character. He didn’t rule from a pulpit of fear, and that’s really all I can ask from whoever sits in the Oval Office.

Selah.

Is it over yet?

At first, I thought the street-level narrative of the RNC was the overwhelming thirst of the national media presence. Cameras focused on one another, with no real story to grip. It’s been surreal and mind-numbing.

But, after talking with local entrepreneurs and business owners, I think the story is how the city’s economic hype fucked over entrepreneurs in Cleveland. I’m gathering near-unanimous reports of “the worst week ever” from local businesses (bars, restaurants, galleries, etc.). They seeded hope and got private business to buy in.

We were fine without this thing. It’s not “Cleveland,” at least in the way that I understand my city’s true character.

By all accounts, out-of-towners are *loving* Cleveland — and that’s great! — but I’m not convinced that good optics will matter much after the circus splits town. I’m happy for any good national press that Cleveland picks up, and I’m happy that we’ve seen that good press for at least the past two years — thanks solely to our local entrepreneurs and hometown leaders. The RNC has nothing on the grit and determination of Clevelanders working to change things for the better.

I want to go back to the NBA championship, and I’d like to see the city address its pie-in-the-sky narrative.

Halftime at the RNC

Taking a moment back home to think about what I’ve seen so far at the Republican National Convention…

It’s hard to say, actually, what’s happened. On one hand, it’s been a fairly uneventful 48 hours in downtown Cleveland. (I took the train into downtown at 6 p.m. Sunday, and, apart from a few hours of sleep last night, I’ve been around Public Square or East Fourth or Quicken Loans Arena or the office on Bolivar ever since, filling the time via one-note conversations with what have become recurring archetypal characters here.) On the other hand, this is the epicenter of the eerie political front that we’ve been watching blow inland for the past, what, decade or so? Whatever the Trump nomination means, it’s happening here.

For about an hour earlier today — Day 2 — Public Square became a weird fortress of fringe groups vying for camera time as police officers did what they could to literally separate everyone into their own little spaces. One could have called it “heated” for a moment when punches were thrown shortly after Alex Jones arrived with his cadre, but, really, it was quite inert. My buddy leaned over at one point and said, “This is some really tense boredom.”

A far cry from the specter of violence and riots that haunted every mention of the RNC, to be sure. Which is fine, really, but it certainly leaves thousands of out-of-town media types looking for the slightest provocation to film. Apart from a fairly compelling Tamir Rice-related soliloquy on Public Square earlier, I haven’t seen any notable protest rhetoric at all. It’s mostly Westboro dipshits and the like, proclaiming somethingorother in the name of Jesus. It’s extremely trite nonsense that, for lack of anything else happening, gets the attention of roving reporters. (I did see a photo of someone in a polar bear costume on East Fourth with a sign that read: “What Will You Do To Save Me?” That was the one climate-related thing to my eyes, and I kinda wish I had run into that guy.)

(Which brings up another thing, real quick: I saw this guy walking another guy on a leash like a dog. He was singing and asking people to kick his dog. “Make America great again? Make my dog great again!” “It’s not politically correct, because life isn’t politically correct.” Every time he said “Donald Trump,” the man-dog barked. It was one of the weirdest things I’ve seen in my entire life. That was Monday morning — the first notable moment after hitting the streets around 11 a.m.)

But it really is just a frenzy of cameras pointing at one another, waiting for something to happen. When a basic Trump-Hillary argument approaches even low-level screaming, the cameras and phones rush forth to gather that sweet, sweet content.

So that’s outside, among the people. Inside is a different story. That’s where the delegate gentry are charting a course to the future and flaunting what they hope might be a return to conservative rule in this country. I ducked inside for some of the Monday night speeches, and I was taken with how brutishly paranoid and violent they were. This is a national political convention, and the bulk of first night’s discourse revolved around how the inevitability of murder at the hands of an undocumented immigrant. (One of the speakers was actually introduced to the crowd as “a victim of illegal immigrants.”) The speeches invoked fairly graphic descriptions of death and violence — although everything was strained through a filter of nonchalance, as though the thousands of us inside the Q were simply gathered around the dinner table of a conservative in-law on Thanksgiving. This — the “Hillary for Prison,” the “All Lives Matter,” the “U-S-A” chants — this is standard fare for an alarmingly large part of the U.S. population. It’s kinda fucked up, because: a) It’s rooted in fear and b) It’s not even fun.

Two more days to go, and then we waltz into the DNC and, ultimately, toward November and beyond. I’ll be pouring the tequila at Casa Isabella with all due enthusiasm throughout all of it. Stop by for a spell, and we’ll toast the weirdness together.

Fireworks

Fireworks burst in the air over the old neighborhood here almost nightly now. I’ve noticed this more and more as the Fourth of July careens into view. Here, in Casa Isabella, I can often be found jolted out of writerly reverie at the first kaboom of a string of maybe eight kabooms at, say, 11:28 p.m. on a Tuesday. Invariably, I look out of my second-story window, because I like fireworks and I’m never one to turn down a free show.

My neighbor, Nick, told me that there used to be something of a fireworks war every summer. Around the end of June through the middle of July, West 67th and West 69th would have a sort of competition to see which street could offer up the best fireworks show each night.

We were at a cookout, Nick and I and his family and the rest of our neighbors and a dog with an Irish name, and I couldn’t help but be thankful that I lived in a neighborhood where a fireworks competition was a thing. It’s so goddamned halcyon and American. It’s summertime in flight.

I was told before moving here that this neighborhood is not like other neighborhoods. I didn’t really grasp what I was being told at the time, except for the fact that vigilantism is a cultural meme here and that I could appreciate such a thing; I simply liked the apartment and needed to beat out “this one other couple that’s looking at it too” and secure the thing. Done.

The other day, I stepped outside and started unraveling my headphones before running down to Edgewater. Three kids down the way rolled a basketball hoop into the street. They were just sorta messing around, but then I realized what they were doing as I tuned in. The one kid, the oldest one, I guess, was dribbling and going up against a shorter kid. “Here, yeah, like this,” he was saying as he ducked forward and back, dribbling low to the ground. “And then he was like this.” Lean back. Up. Shoot. Rim. Try it again.

“Yeah, and then you come over here and guard me,” he says, as the play starts up again.

They were acting out Kyrie’s three-pointer from Game 7 in the NBA Finals.

I felt like I was in a painting.

When I got back from my run, the sun was beginning to set slowly across Lake Erie. A train chugged across the Norfolk Southern. The stately neighborhood chicken strutted into the street, greeting me with a filial nod. Over on West 67th Street, a deep explosion rattled the neighborhood, and, once again, I glanced upward and watched the yellow glare drift over the rooftops.