Talk to teachers

“Let’s begin by saying that we are living through a very dangerous time.”

I’ve been spending a lot of time with James Baldwin this fall—and not for nothing. His words are timeless, sadly, in the broken American construct that rattles and clangs and kills even today. And yet, as frantic as the passing years seem to be, I always find a source of comfort in good writing. Baldwin distills the essence of American energy.

This is a 1963 essay delivered for teachers (you and me and everyone) to draw attention to the long, slow crisis in this country. It’s written for our moment, too. And to anyone who thinks history will leave you alone if you simply tune out the hatred and violence in America, well, the truth will have its way with all of us.

“The obligation of anyone who thinks of himself as responsible is to examine society and try to change it and to fight it – at no matter what risk. This is the only hope society has. This is the only way societies change.”

It’s easy to let mass media/social media swarm your mind, but I think this work happens on a granular, individual level. In the classroom, in the local paper, in a book club. When we change ourselves, we change the world.

Silly mountain

I was looking for a poem last night, a short piece written in 1573 by the Buddhist monk Han-Shan Te’-Ch’ing. It took me until this morning, with The Beatles’ “Help!” playing at my desk, to find it. (Overnight, I dreamt that I’d dreamt the poem, a hazy fragment from a mushroom trip or a Tom Robbins novel read long ago. But no! It was real!)

This silly mountain doesn’t go around aping people,

Playing the clown, society’s fool.

It sits here alone, contented in solitude, perfect in peace.

I should be so silly.

The reason I was looking for it last night has come and gone, so I share it with you now. Maybe it will change everything. Maybe it’s the answer to the question you’ve been asking.

The NYT and the case against… something… not quite sure… Trump?

Far be it from me to hoist a New York Times editorial aloft on this otherwise sacred ground, but I do think we can find some helpful language in the board’s relatively searing indictment against our shit-eating president. We can find a sense of the national media’s guardrails, at the very least.

Maybe you’ve voted already. Maybe you don’t give a fuck. But, either way, whatever is going on here in America (and whatever the NYT editorial board is crowing about) is something very deep and hateful and almost mythological in its detail. Something very old, thematically speaking.

Yes, it is a national crisis. And, yes, perhaps, it can be struck down by the electorate. (With voters like these, though…) But I just can’t help feeling/knowing that this is a cultural sickness more than anything. It is metastasizing rapidly, and I’m not convinced that policy criticism or common-sense entreaty will help us here. Not only are America’s perennial truths blooming once again, but the strident hatred and the profit-or-violence construct underlying this country are thrown into the spotlight by a global pandemic and the stem-deep brainwashing of social media. You can start to see the shape of the 21st century, and it is astonishing so far. This warp-speed blending of zoonotic disease and technological advance is cranked up further by the precarious teetering you can feel in the national economy, in the housing sector, in the theocratic puppet show in D.C. this week… People like Trump love this shit. It provides them something to cheer, some primordial source of entertainment. See Asteroid Annihilate.

(And that’s not even addressing the freefall of climate disaster, the great story to be told this century. The death rattle gift we’ll bequeath to future generations.)

So, sure, vote! It’s hard to escape the pious clamoring for that old chestnut this fall. Vote! But what’s the deeper question here? How does one steer into the calamity? Steer into it, yes, immersing yourself in the century’s problems but resisting the surface-gleam enticements of hatred and fear. That stuff is too easy to exploit, and I worry that a long, draining election season is just keeping our minds wired on the most obvious fungal node of this catastrophe: the big dumb asshole from TV who now sits in the White House. A helpful course of action is much less entertaining and, often, much more personal. Because what’s left for us to do is move forward and participate and speak and read and write, move forward into our local community and shine a light on darkness, shine a light on meaninglessness. It’s everywhere already, and it’s spreading.

The swarming

This piece nails the tension between history and memory, a tricky landscape that I’ve been trying to write about lately. How do we know where to place ourselves in the past when we’re stuck in the present? What is the real story this year? Life is not a movie, so how are we supposed to make sense of all this extraordinary outrage in America?

“The real question is, who are you?” Indi Samarajivaasks. “I mean, you’re reading this. You have the leisure to ponder American collapse like it’s even a question. The people really experiencing it already know.”

The upcoming election seems like an obvious tipping point, but it’s not difficult to imagine that we’ve been sliding into an authoritarian nightmare for much longer than the past four years. Like so much of history, though, there are no signposts along the way, only the “dull and unlocatable roar” as Don DeLillo would describe it, “just outside the range of human apprehension.”

I’m less interested in laying the collapse at the feet of a chump president and his all-time loser family, but, no, his tendencies aren’t helping anyone. His inclinations and savage outbursts. He is capable of delivering far more damage to the American psyche than we need right now, but so too can the restless and blind-angry society devour its own. Imagine how much worse it can get in America (leaf through history books, pull up some documentaries on Netflix, take a look at all the many examples of collapse in human history), and then add in the particularly flavorful elements of 21st-century surveillance and climate crisis.

I’m not writing this to bring ya down, man, not at all. But I’ll echo Samarajiva in this piece right here: Who are you? What values guide your decision-making? How do you realize happiness?

Digital literate epoch

I’ve long argued that everything you write on Facebook or Twitter or some such social media platform should be considered “publishing.” Much like a newsroom staff, your mind and fingers are “publishing” this status update or that vaguely nihilistic riff or this inane story about how you spilled coffee all over the banana bread. It’s a process that ends with a publicly available creative work. My point, taken from my time in newsrooms, I guess, is that you’re presenting your writing/ideas to a certain marketplace. Act accordingly. Write (publish) with meaning and vision.

Needless to say, I don’t run into this kind of enticing forethought too often in the terrible cave of my Facebook news feed.

And so, anyway, I find this review of The Twittering Machine fairly helpful.

The Twittering Machine is powered by an insight at once obvious and underexplored: we have, in the world of the social industry, become ‘scripturient—possessed by a violent desire to write, incessantly.’ Our addiction to social media is, at its core, a compulsion to write. Through our comments, updates, DMs, and searches, we are volunteers in a great ‘collective writing experiment.’ Those of us who don’t peck out status updates on our keyboards are not exempt. We participate too, ‘behind our backs as it were,’ creating hidden (written) records of where we clicked, where we hovered, how far we scrolled, so that even reading, within the framework of the Twittering Machine, becomes a kind of writing. The rise of print, Seymour points out, played a crucial role in developing the idea of the modern nation, not to mention the bureaucratic state and ‘industrial civilization.’ Now that epoch is ending, and a new revolution in literacy is extending the ability to write in public to billions of people worldwide. What will our new digital-writing culture call into existence?”

À tout à l’heure

A while back, about five years ago now, I was hanging out at a Phish festival in upstate New York when this song came on the event’s commandeered local radio station, The Bunny. Totally entranced in the cerulean-sweet moment and the trippy thrill of the weekend, I snapped into the song and immediately tried to write down the lyrics so’s I could look it up later. Scattered rhymes and a dash of French riffing on a clear blue afternoon. The bass line alone is about as chilled out as they come. This song will always remind me of the past.

And now, zapped headlong into the future-present, it’s a balm for strange summertime violence in America. Like so much of my favorite music, these songs tilt me into some sort of adjacent mindset, a nearby meadow or a backwards-flowing river.

Often, when I write, I loop the same song over and over, letting the reiteration wash over my thoughts as they spill through fingers onto page (screen). It bears the effect of a mantra. It carries me from there to here.

Facebook ramblings, Tuesday morning

Too often, I get about 1,000 words into some screed On Here about the state of affairs (this time dismantling the Washington press corps’ pearl-clutching reaction to Woodward’s new book) and then just think, “You know what? Fuck it.” Delete!

Back in the old days, I shared my thoughts in the dark corners of dive bars. I spoke conspiratorially over sudsy brews and too many shots of Red Stag. I gestured wildly. I pointed vaguely at television screens to illustrate my argument. “There! There, you see! How he crosses his arms when he’s confronted with damning truths! This whole fucking planet’s in trouble with these jackals at the helm!” And now? I type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type

type type type type type type type type

And the more you type the word “type,” it starts to read like you’re just writing total nonsense. Is that even a word? “Type”? Do you mean, “Taipei”?

You may as well open your car door and shout BLURG A-DURG at the guy one lane over, spittle flying out of your mouth. That’s all it is, this Facebook stuff. Shouting insane syllables at strangers on the information highway, all cruising at about 110 toward some flame-throwing angel-demon alighting on the horizon. The brakes are cut, everybody. There is no exit ramp. Crank the volume on that Neil Young CD and pinch the rosary beads off the rearview. WE’RE COMING HOME!


And that was the summer when we moved a ways up the river, far from the city and its National Guard exhaust fumes and its plywood windows and its hunched men selling baseball programs for games that would never be played. Fires over knotty pine, cirrus clouds drifting lazy in the sky. Our dogs ran circles ’round the flames. We toasted high-watt spirits and roasted marshmallows while wisps of the future floated past the blaze. Night fell deeply near the tree line, and we relished the strange summer of 2020. A great comet sailed over the roof, dark ice and rock gliding forever from the far-flung corners of unwritten history. (We tried to hail a ride.) And that was the summer when nothing was certain and nothing was known.

The future belongs to crowds again

The rich smell of cannabis has always reminded me of crowds, like being caught on a summer-stunned day in the herd of weirdos shuffling around the lawn at Blossom or packed tightly into a humid club on the outskirts of a town you’ve already forgotten existed. The band plays on. And why not? The plant and its sweet chemicals are perfectly suited for dissolving a mob of egos into the now. This is maybe why I get freaked out when I’m smoking herb by myself, probably late at night with an old Deftones album in my headphones. Totally melting into the sound, into the dark. And then the terrific odor of the bud starts to settle in the room and I begin doubting what’s really going on here. Is there someone in the kitchen? The music is floating in my ears, and then I yank out the headphones, staring straight into the middle distance of the room and waiting to hear if that voice is going to say something again. Look through the little porthole in the front door, all wobbly hallways and windows. Now, what was I doing? The tree-shadows pirouette along the ceiling. Everyone I’ve ever known is there with me, milling about the living room, running thumbs along the slanted bookshelves, but I can’t see anyone. I feel like Frodo Baggins with the fucking ring on my finger. And who’s banging around the kitchen, for god’s sake?

And I guess the reason I’m writing this is to say I really miss hanging out in crowds, the slipstream of shows and games and local arts festivals, the breezy drift of cannabis in the air. The gathering of a moment. It’s a certain kind of freedom, social circles blending into one another, the parts becoming the sum, the story of a community written anew and all that. Those moments stitch us together. Carefully balancing beers, poured to the very brim, back to the spot stage-left before the set begins. The unmistakable recognition of a joint threading the swarm, returning us again to where we are.

I know enough to know the music never stopped, but now it feels like a dream in the moments after waking. Bleary-eyed and half-remembered. The story is fragmented, breaking apart as the days go by. There’s someone in the kitchen again, telling us to chill out a little longer. Stick around for the next chapter. It’s going to be incredible.

This is not an election campaign

I’ve shared Umair Haque’s blog several times here over the years, and his 2020 writing is only growing more vital and urgent (pardon his need for a good copy editor). Now, we’re flying fast toward a point of no return. A stolen election is a neat and symbolically rich method for consolidating power on a level that Americans, lost outside of history, stuck inside the television forever, simply can’t comprehend.

If you think it can’t happen, I implore you to start thinking critically. Vote, of course (local elections matter!), and do what you can to track your ballot, but look within yourself for the values that will fortify your mind and body for a truly warped sense of reality, for “2 + 2 = 5” stamped onto your forehead each morning when you try to speak the truth.

To quote the authoritarian in the White House, speaking to you and me and everyone else is this Great and Mighty and Blameless country, “What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.” (July 2018)

He is not a president. This is not an election campaign.

I’m thinking less of Republicans and Democrats when I write about this, and more along the lines of what sort of ideology controls our very past and future. What is the meaning of America in the 21st century? What is “real”? Who are you? This is what Simon Sinek would call “the infinite game.”

I write this only to say to friends who’ve ignored the warning signs and disregarded words like “fascism” and “raids” and “shock troops” as alarmist, friends who secreted away their 2016 votes for a deranged tycoon, friends who now discount the total collapse of America—words matter. Reality is a fragile thing.

You still have the power to think for yourself, and that’s a rare treat on the long road of human history.