The thing I’ve come to distrust most is certainty. I see/read so many friends and acquaintances and mindless strangers showing off and strutting how deeply right and righteous they know they are. There’s a piety in almost every conversation about political trends, public policy, pet health, a piety that would seem to me otherwise reserved for the courtroom or for the hymnal. It’s rotten. I think the thing I’ve learned—am still learning—is how wrong we are. And even in this, I must imagine, I’m wrong. I’ve got the whole thing wrong.
There’s a playlist on my Spotify account called “&c.”
I remember creating this, or at least I remember creating the title and planning to build something long-lasting outside of my typical playlists. I usually set up a new playlist every season, quarterly, recording the songs that I’m discovering or even just plain listening to a lot during the spring of 2018 or the fall of 2015 or what have you. This one was going to be something different.
It’s situated between Fall 2016 and Winter 2017. I could say so much about this fleeting chapter in my life, in part because I’ve etched its memory in music. But the actual experiences, like so much else, are better left for another night of story-telling. I’m in a delectable chapter right now; everything that’s come before has its place, but I’m enjoying the present too much to split backward all that often.
I’m listening to this playlist as I drink a few Jackie O’s See Foam IPAs and work on what could be a short story or the earnest stirrings of a novel. It’s about a goofy-ass Northeast Ohio pothead who… Well, I’ll leave that for another time, too.
Here’s the playlist. I’m loving it right now. These songs have meant so much to me for various, unending reasons.
Factor Chandelier – Buildings
ALO – Barbeque
Tauk – Afro-Tonic
The Wood Brothers – The Muse
Railroad Earth – Hard Livin’
The String Cheese Incident – Sometimes a River
Oddisee – Meant It When I Said It
Wilco – Unlikely Japan
The Sheepdogs – Downtown
Soul Position – No Gimmicks
Talking Heads – This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)
Courtney Barnett – An Illustration of Loneliness
Marco Benevento – Witches of Ulster
Yonder Mountain String Band – Half Moon Rising
Perpetual Groove – Three Weeks
7 Walkers – (For The Love Of) Mr. Okra
Dinosaur Jr. – Almost Fare
Turkuaz – X.Y.Z. (Feelin’ Tough)
Aqueous – Don’t Do It
Phish – More
Wilco – Kingpin
Umphrey’s McGee – 1348
Cabinet – Spaceman
A Tribe Called Quest – Excursions
Medeski Scofield Martin & Wood – The Times They Are A-Changin’
Eyedea & Abilities – Spin Cycle
Blueprint – Radio-Inactive
Rob Sonic – Gorf
A Tribe Called Quest – Whateva Will Be
Billy Bragg and Wilco – My Flying Saucer
Tea Leaf Green – Sex in the ’70s
The Wood Brothers – Shoofly Pie
Jawbreaker – Save Your Generation
I think it was
somewhere near the Sister Lakes
past roadside berry stands
and Blind Melon
on the radio
And I think it was
reminding me where
past tangled pines, clapboard churches
and, in a way, what I’ve
come to know
“You know what else they say about my people?” he shouted in Sioux City, Iowa, on a cold morning in January 2016. “The polls, they say I have the most loyal people. Did you ever see that? Where I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters, OK? It’s like incredible.”
Man alive, can he read a room.
I was working on a piece about this quote before the impeachment circus began (part of my essay hinged on Pelosi’s Reluctance), but my main point was going to be this: He’s right. He may be the most prescient dipshit in the country, and your friends and mine shoved him headlong into unrelenting power. Now, to borrow his lyrical verbiage, “we’ll see what happens” with this House inquiry, but nothing that comes out of the investigation(s) can tamp down the hatred and the ignorance foaming at the seams of reality in America.
You can see it everywhere. The anxiety. The teeth-gnashing isolation. It’s obvious that we’re less connected than ever before—digital technology ain’t helping—and now this! This regime!
And it’s not always there on the surface, no, but it’s always there, somewhere, behind their eyes or underneath their mislaid dreams. I don’t think this moment in history is that much worse than many others, ontologically, but the way we relate to one another—well, ding, ding, ding! That’s where the experiment’s gone off the rails.
Right now, though? If I were to sit with my thoughts and think about what’s to come? I’m less concerned with the international mafioso bullshit in the White House than I am with the clear-cut development of concentration camps, tear gas at the border, malicious attacks on the press and the First Amendment, the sell-off of public lands, the idiotic us-vs.-them rhetoric that punctuates every tweet and every news segment and every conversation about politics in 2019—but, hey, call me a purist. I know lots of people who voted for this, and I don’t mean *him* explicitly. I’ll spell it out: I know lots of people who may not be overtly willing to trap a Honduran child in a cage themselves—but they’ll pay someone time-and-a-half to do it for them. They may not say the words that you’re not supposed to say in public, but they sure do get all rosy-cheeked and hard in their khakis when a rich man on television says them. They wouldn’t shoot someone on Fifth Avenue in New York—no, sir!—but they’ve got their guns at home, their little fantasy objects, their projections of who they want to be, all nestled in desk drawers and bedroom closets. Might makes right! A big strong American man! Blood on the walls. Annihilation of something-that’s-not-me. No, they wouldn’t shoot someone! But if he did it for them… If it just sort of happened, say, in the natural course of events…
I finished a 6.7-mile leg of the Akron Marathon yesterday, the longest stretch of pavement and neighborhoods I’ve ever run. It felt great.
Around the 5.5-mile mark, I switched from a podcast to some music. My pace quickly picked up. In that time, as I rounded the bend onto the towpath and hustled toward the finish line (where fiancee and dog awaited), I got all hung up on two songs in particular. They seemed triumphant. One was “Never Too Late” by Michael Franti & Spearhead, and the other was “G Major” by Guster. The Guster song lies off the beaten path of the band’s repertoire, squatting unsuspectingly on a 2007 EP. It’s such a terrific song for running, apparently, and I kept it on a loop at the end of the relay—cycling through the uplifting moments a few times as I ran around Summit Lake on a gorgeous fall morning. The sense of accomplishment was pretty visceral at that point.
There’s something almost peculiar about a dog’s belongings and how they fit into our world, our world being something different than a hound’s couch-level gaze, we tend to think. We organize things in a specific way—pillows and sheets in the linen closet, spoons in the silverware drawer—but that doesn’t matter much, does it? An object’s proper place is right where it is at any given moment, right where it’s meant to be. Our dog, Forrest, likes to cart his stuffed cheeseburger around the living room and leave it in unexpected spaces, chewing it mindlessly and squeaking monotone melody. He wouldn’t say to his friends, oh, yes, we picked that up on our last trip to Boston, and isn’t it just the funniest thing? A cheeseburger, lodged between the bookshelf and the wall! It’s as natural as anything else.
On Newbury Street, replete with postcard brownstones and niche bourgeois retailers, my fiancée and I walked hand in hand through another gentle rain. It seems like it’s always raining on Newbury Street, but I’ve only been there twice. Bridget and I were in Boston again this summer, caught in the scorching heat wave of July 2019, and we decided to retrace our steps from the last trip together in 2018. She’d lived in this city for three years, almost until the moment we’d met in Cleveland in the summer of 2017; she had memories to plumb here, places we could revisit and turn around in our newly coupled eye. She used to take a barre class over there, she said, and she met her friend at Stephanie’s for drinks. It was all still new to me. We stopped into Stephanie’s for drinks.
She and I arrived on Newbury Street again by directing the driver to The Fish & Bone, a sort of upscale neighborhood pet store. The squeaking cheeseburger that rests on Forrest’s bed or on the living stairs or sometimes beneath our writing desk was originally, in its first form, found in the folds of other toys in the shop: stuffed slices of pizza and plush bottles of beer and great tug-of-war rope threaded in Patriots colors. We passed on the Boston sports stuff and decided to go with something Forrest could appreciate: the neat roundness of what looked like cooked meat. An all-beef patty, lettuce, cheese, tomato in cartoonish brown, green, yellow, red. (Squeak.) For us, it was a story.
The same thing happened on our first trip to Boston together, and this was where we’d drawn the idea to return to the good old Fish & Bone for a souvenir. Before we came here together in 2018, hand in hand, neither of us had visited the small pet store on Newbury Street. Without the dog, without an “us,” we’d just as easily have walked on to the next store or a little coffee shop with chairs in the windows.
I can imagine Bridget walking around her Boston and thinking about the past and the future as she passed The Fish & Bone. Maybe the cheeseburger was already in stock, waiting, expecting. (Was the store even there? Had we willed it into existence?)
By the time we’d fallen in love and adopted the dog and booked a flight to Boston, Newbury Street was a place fixed neatly in her past—the barre classes, drinks at Stephanie’s, the lovely brownstones—and so we took a morning and packed its neighborly charm into our sight-seeing plans. She wanted to share this with me. The pet store was not part of the plan.
We walked into The Fish & Bone and found our dog a colorful collar. We’d only adopted him two months earlier. He needed a new collar, something befitting the good boy and conveying a message of style, panache. The choices at the well-kept pet boutique seemed endless, and we settled on a blue collar ringed with alternating anchors and life preservers and seagulls. A seaworthy collar for a dog who’d sailed into our world, our world being one that occasionally included bracing jaunts along Lake Erie and, certainly, dog toys behind the bookshelves. Uncanny objects, these dog toys, telling us about who we are and where things belong. They seem free of context, but they’re riddled with the stuff.
We’ll be back to Boston—oh, sure. We’ve got other plans on the calendar at the moment—things like other people’s weddings and our own wedding, one we’ve planned with meticulous dog-referencing details—but we’ll make a third trek to Boston before too long. Why not, with all that’s got us this far?
We collect so many things—the sheets, the spoons—but only a precious few have the power to stitch together an explanation of how we got here. And yet if we look closer, each object animates a lifetime.
We wouldn’t have bought this squeaking cheeseburger and crammed it into my carry-on luggage if we hadn’t wandered curiously into The Fish & Bone on a rainy morning in Boston; we wouldn’t have ended up in the pet store if we hadn’t adopted a dog in the first place and spent our waking hours talking about how much fun it is to live with him; we wouldn’t have come to Boston with such intent if Bridget hadn’t written a chapter of her life there and met friends who make the city another home; we wouldn’t have fallen endlessly in love with the brindle-coated beast if we hadn’t pretty much impulsively adopted him in the early days of a bright, romantic relationship in Cleveland, Ohio. And we wouldn’t have done all that if Bridget and I hadn’t met each other. Concentric circles spin madly, all the way down. And it’s not just any old cheeseburger that could tell you as much.
“But the rise of social photography means that we are now seeing images all the time, millions of them, billions, many of which are manipulated with the same easy algorithms, the same tiresome vignetting, the same dank green wash. I remember the thrill I felt the first few times I saw Hipstamatic images, and I shot a few myself, buoyed by that thrill. The problem is not that images are being altered—it’s that they’re all being altered in the same way: high contrasts, dewy focus, oversaturation, a skewing of the RGB curve in fairly predictable ways. Correspondingly, the range of subjects is also peculiarly narrow: pets, pretty girlfriends, sunsets, lunch. In other words, the photographic function, which should properly be the domain of the eye and the mind, is being outsourced to the camera and to an algorithm.”
Teju Cole, “Geuorgui Pinkhassov”
The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report (August 2019, “Climate Change and Land”) doesn’t come right out and say it, but the authors make a great show of dancing around the ethical mandate of the vegan lifestyle. Like the documentaries that pushed a wave of Americans into a new diet and new way of thinking about, e.g., carbon footprints and water conservation, this new IPCC report serves the purposes of laying bare what most of know is the underlying truth: It’s meat and dairy—and the attendant industry—that’s blocking the road to a harmonious future on this planet. I mean that on an individual level and in the sense that our self-aware species needs to consider the long game. I point to Americans in the specific here only because that’s where I’m coming from and—who are we kidding?—the U.S. marketplace is the scaffolding around our scourge. America’s diet is a calamity.
There’s more to it than that, but what a simple target! What a clear shot at a clarion call!
“We don’t want to tell people what to eat,” says Hans-Otto Pörtner, an ecologist who co-chairs the IPCC’s working group on impacts, adaptation and vulnerability. “But it would indeed be beneficial, for both climate and human health, if people in many rich countries consumed less meat, and if politics would create appropriate incentives to that effect.”
It’s impossible now to debate the social and environmental merits of a vegan diet. You take away the demand for meat, and you dismantle the livestock industry. You take away the demand for cheese, and you dismantle the dairy industry. (Being a bit reductive here.) Then, suddenly, you free up an immense amount of land, worldwide, that was once used for soybean and corn cultivation to feed those animals that we’d been ravenously eating. At that point, moving along now, in the perceivable future, you can set about a new mode of agriculture. Diminish the overall necessity for farmland, and let the natural Earth get back to growing itself. Let food chains revitalize themselves. We’ll have more than we’ll need for our ongoing crisis of world hunger among us humans; let the plants and the plains grow back to feed our animal neighbors.
Only then, as this line of thinking goes, will we have done anything meaningful to restore the health of the environment on a global scale. It all starts with letting go of the tired idea of “animals as food,” of “animals as lesser than humans.” Real novel shit.
Why is this so hard? That is one of the great and mindless questions of the 21st century, now that we’re forced through our own ignorance to reckon with it.
…The other reason that the animals-as-food debate is impossible is because it isn’t happening anywhere in mainstream civilized society. Nowhere! You ever notice that? So, with this opportunity, why does the IPCC report not just put its foot down with all the weight of scientific authority and say: Stop eating animals! Stop eating animals!
Burger King added the Impossible Burger to its menus across the U.S. last week. I follow a lot of vegan and vegetarian blogs/Facebook groups, unfortunately, and I was simply astonished at the rapacious obsession that this news engendered among the very crowd that would seem like the most receptive audience for the IPCC report. It’s a move toward the very direction I’m getting at here, but the ejaculatory praise seemed misplaced, right? People were falling over themselves to get in line at the nearest Burger King drive-thru (after calling ahead, of course, and making a great production of it online, or asking inane questions on Facebook to make sure that certain locations hadn’t yet sold out of this precious nectar). People who’d seemingly committed themselves already—done the hard mental gymnastics!—were going apeshit over soy-protein concentrate fashioned into the old, familiar friend to all: the Whopper. The Impossible Whopper.
“Getting mine now!!” gushed one Northeast Ohio resident in the “Vegans and Vegetarians of Cleveland, Ohio” Facebook group. “Had mine with a nice 2007 Bordeaux,” wrote another, improbably.
At a Midtown Burger King, an “Impossible Whopper-themed photo booth” beckoned satisfied defenders of the planet.
The real event, then, seems not part of a grander narrative about food security and environmental health. No, the plant-based meat story, which stretches far beyond Burger King, has more to do with the stories we tell ourselves about who we are in relation to others. Much like the act of photography has become the more visceral goal than the photography itself, the idea of the vegan identity has become more visceral than the ethos behind it. It’s important to be seen ordering and eating plant-based meat products. It’s vital to tell others that you’ve had that experience.
For the fast food and grocery conglomerates? It is something to be co-opted, something outside of the present moment. A story. It can be taken up for specific purposes by a fast food business or a thirty-something looking for some way to explain what it’s like to live in a society with other human beings who also like hamburgers. It’s a device, in other words.
“Save some for all of us!!!”
“So jealous mine aren’t starting until tomorrow :(”
On face value, yes, it is an important mass media step toward the solution that many have suggested when confronting irredeemable climate change. But doesn’t the viral success of the Impossible Whopper and the regular-ass Impossible Burger (sold at select grocers) presuppose profits for multi-billion-dollar companies that otherwise dish out unhealthy fries and carb-rich Caesar salads at best? Burger King and its contemporaries are the villains in the climate change narrative—or, at least, a glaring and obvious portion of the horrific enemy of the planetary environment. Burger King is not to be celebrated for this savvy marketing move. Hasn’t the company’s stance been clear for the past few decades?
Well, I got myself an Impossible Whopper one night. Had to. For journalistic purposes. Of course, it was a clumsier moment that it would seem. Asking for an item called “The Impossible Whopper” through a funky speaker system is not an enjoyable process. Syllables get mangled. You’ve got to ask for a branded product, rather than a particular kind of food, and you’ve got to yell it at a disembodied voice. That said, I’d just seen Chuck Klosterman talk about the downfall of rock ‘n’ roll at a suburban library. There might not have been a more perfect moment to experiment with the 21st century’s cuisine.
Taste-wise, it was… fine. I’d picked up a few of these plant-based burgers from Whole Foods back in 2017 when they started really getting batshit popular with the social media crowd. Whether it was the Impossible Burger itself, I’ve got no clue. But I’d eaten the stuff before, and I just can’t say I was impressed then or now. It’s an odd behavioral tic to want the taste and texture of a burger so bad that you’ve got to resort to pea protein isolate. If you’re in the headspace of environmental sanctity or animal rights protection or whatever, what’s there to like in a burger simulacrum? Whether it tastes like a burger or not (and, sure, the Impossible Whopper mimics the regular-ass Whopper pretty well) doesn’t seem like an argument that’s relevant in the first place. It’s a cop-out. A distraction from the conversation that first got us talking about plant-based “meat,” the sort of global public discourse the IPCC is tickling in 2019. But being seeing having that conversation isn’t as important as partaking in the sensation of the day, the impossible ecstasy of corporate braggadocio.
There are as many as 22 (and as few as six) vaquitas left in the world, according to the Porpoise Conservation Society back in May. By the end of the year—who knows?
Pacific Standard, which published this 2018 feature on vaquita extinction and which until yesterday was one of the most vibrant spaces for longform narrative, well, Pacific Standard is apparently being forced to shut down.
I didn’t know anything about vaquitas before I read this story, and, suddenly, they’re out the door, piling into the family car and cruising off to the mournful, ethereal past.
We had a lot to do with it. The great, collapsing entirety of it.
Last fall, I was fortunate to see Eve Ewing recite this poem onstage in Chicago. A few months earlier, Carolyn Bryan Donham had recanted parts of her story about Emmett Till—a conventional fiction that stirred two murderers to act on their deep cultural rage.
Emmett Till would have been 78 years old today. The stories we tell ourselves are the stories we’re left with.