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.

Praise be to Aristophanes

“And while you laugh, your surmount life’s contradictions, take flight even as the joke-proof all around you wonder what’s so funny.”

– Benjamin Taylor, writing about Philip Roth’s character, Philip Roth, in 1993’s “Operation Shylock.”

It’s one of the best moves on the board and a real ace for any writer trying to navigate these times. Leave the dead-serious sociology textbook dreck at the door and find what makes you laugh. Chances are, you’ll do a hell of a lot more good in this world.

Practice any art

I fell down a brief Kurt Vonnegut wormhole this morning (again) and landed on some indispensable advice for the day/week/month/year ahead:

“What I had to say to you, moreover, would not take long, to wit: Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience BECOMING, to find out what’s inside you, to MAKE YOUR SOUL GROW.”

The panopticon

This is an astonishing feature on the rise of AI in authoritarian power structures. And if it’s not an outright glimpse into what America might look like soon, I’d argue that the story in China reveals more about the shape of the 21st century—a textural pattern that meshes neatly with climate disaster, globalization and the rise of nationalist autocrats. Throw in a pandemic that threatens to “go permanent,” why not?

Here we get a showcase of emerging themes and possibilities, where the state turns inward and develops a type of war against the individual. The political and economic trends are clear enough already.

I don’t mean to be glib or naive or outrageous here, but: Make sure you know who you are. Understand your values. Write down your thoughts and read . Worst-case scenario? This whole thing blows over by 2030 or so, and we’re all better off for grasping our inner universe and writing our stories for posterity.

Things to come

“This is not a once-in-a-century event,” said Dr. Julie Gerberding, a former director of the CDC. “It’s a harbinger of things to come.”

I think that’s a critical baseline to consider this summer.

Predicting the future is a real racket, but it seems helpful to visualize the near-term — the next decade, say — as passage into a strange new frontier. We are unwitting pioneers, but aren’t we always?

There’s a tendency to disregard the historical in this country. We like to think in short bursts. And earlier this year, when “flattening the curve” was a ubiquitous phrase, we measured the future in weeks. By the end of June, maybe this will all be sorted out, right? But there’s ample reason to think now that we’re stuck with the coronavirus pandemic — stuck with the viral transmission and the cultural division and the lasting bruise on our economy. The fear. The idea of it, if not the actual thing itself. If it’s not SARS-Cov-2 ravaging our society, then pick a coronavirus, any coronavirus.

This is where I might make some goofball remark, like, “What we’ve learned is that our culture was the virus all along.”

When I write that America is sliding into collapse, I don’t mean it as a fire-and-brimstone trap door that might open up on us all one day. In a lot of ways, collapse can be invisible and unfelt, especially from positions of economic and racial privilege. But I do mean to tell my friends and family that public institutions are crumbling, and there’s no clear recourse. I do mean to suggest that the ingredients are present for things to get very bad in America. A global pandemic is terrific fuel for authoritarianism (politics), fascism (culture) and depression (economics), each a branch of what we might call society, each failing miserably in an hour of great need. What that means for how we’ll need to adapt or not in the years to come, well, that’s very hard to say. By the end of August, maybe this will all be sorted out, right? Whatever this is, it’s unprecedented territory, and it’s something we should talk about while there’s still time.

“A harbinger of things to come.”

Think about that phrase. It’s a fucking knockout if you’re reading closely.

Mooallem on Kaufman

Here’s another knockout feature from Jon Mooallem over at the Times magazine. He interviews Charlie Kaufman in the spring of 2020, caught between the tectonics of a global pandemic and the uprising against police violence in the U.S. And like Kaufman’s movies, Mooallem takes his ideas and bends them across the fractal geometry of our weird present moment.

Here’s one of my favorite bits from the story, just a terrific illustration of how many of us feel lately: “Time did seem to be compacting, I said. It felt like, at some point in the last few months, a truck backed up and started pumping years’ worth of reality into every single week. The lever kept cranking, increasing the rate of flow.”

More, much more

A new Hum album and a new Don DeLillo novel. What a day! It’s like walking outside to a surprise solar eclipse: two gifts from creative titans I hadn’t expected to see around the neighborhood anytime soon. It’s been a joy. I’ve got the day off, spent the morning listening to Hum, bought a new bookshelf, (assembled same successfully), and then bae and I had friends over for a fine backyard barbecue dinner and a walk through the park with dog (ours) and young boy (theirs).

Well, and that’s the real backdrop here, the deeper thing beyond the new music and the new book. We bought a house in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, and we’ll be giving the homeowner life a real shot in these strange times. This week, we’ve been immersing ourselves. It’s a thrill, a nice blend of peaceful arrival and sensory overload.

I read a chapter of Little, Big in the backyard with Forrest this morning. Picked it up again in the afternoon and finished it in the basement, surrounded by the inklings of our new life. The ending of that book was a real knockout! What was it Auberon kept saying about the universe? “The further in you go, the bigger it gets.”

And so we’re learning the terrain of our house, inside and out, stumbling on small rooms and sprawling meadows that weren’t listed on the survey, finding hallways that connect here with there and all points oddly between.

Down the road, the Cuyahoga Valley National Park splays fuzzy around the edges of our neighborhood map. Great washes of tree and pond. Mysterious trails racing inward, planes getting larger all the time. I feel a sense of rootedness already, and maybe that’s just the excitement of the deal, but I feel committed to my domain here. I feel ruddy just looking out the window of our house. Like, what stories will we spin today? What endings will we turn into beginnings again?

It’s not that I care…

White Pony is a blistering battering glitz-coke assassin dazzle down the darkest alleys of half-made-up mind in sheets of rain and smoke-ring mirror magazine flash photography and foggy bedroom dalliance with devil-selves in binge collapse backward into gaudy memories of what tomorrow blinks past on radio frequency dial me into something strange and mysterious and drag remains through street carp knife party forever.

Looking back at the haze of high school, I can see the stark cover art of Deftones’ seminal album high atop the apparent Mt. Rushmore of music I was really into back then. There are small, oddly shaped spaces all over this record that still give me bone-deep chills (Chino Moreno’s breathy “Check the claws” lyric on Korea, for example), fleeting moments that reveal how far off the map this band was racing in those years. This is gravity-defying trapeze metal for the new millennium. I’m less convinced of the more recent stuff, but for a while Deftones were without a doubt among the most innovative bands in America.

The scenery

I see a distinct possibility⁠—a likelihood, really⁠—that American democracy collapses before the end of the year, that the very concept of “America” crumbles into something either meaningless or altogether fractured. I’ve talked about this often with friends. What I *mean* by this is harder to articulate. And whether we’ve crossed the Rubicon already in history is a muddy question, but I think it’s obvious that a 21st-century fascism is something with no real historical precedent. Five months out from an uncertain U.S. election, who’s to say that it’s not too late?

A fascist president stokes his rabid fanbase and his rabid detractors in Tulsa, Oklahoma. A global pandemic ravages the country from sea to shining sea. A militarized police force cracks skulls and beats men and women in the streets. A flinty attorney general grips his power accordingly and trounces political enemies. And in every state in the country, bread lines stretch past the polluted horizon.

Now, I mean, whattaya supposed to *do* about any of that? The train has left the station! We’re several decades into collapse, and yet it’s just startling how fast the scenery is whizzing by the windows!

This is the Doppler effect of raw power. Choices are narrowing: Brace yourself or loosen your muscles for impact? How do you prepare your mind, your body, your family, your access to resources⁠—the undergirding⁠ of a life—for the spectrum of possible outcomes? I’ve watched, flabbergasted, as many of the horrors my friends and I predicted in 2016 have come true. The ratcheting. And at the front of my mind each day is the safe bet that the worst is plenty yet to come.

We can consider the opposite notion, of course, an opportunity for a more egalitarian future built on mutual respect and a resetting of the global economy and environmental norms. But I’m writing about a likelihood here. Which bet would you call at this hour?

This ain’t your neighborhood stickball game; this is a fascist power grab for the long haul. The 2020s. ICE raids and cages and military vehicles. The eerie doubt of a national election to kickstart a white-knuckled decade on Earth.

We are unwilling pioneers, drifting headlong into the theft of America with no clue what lurks on the far side. I write this only to say the ramifications are on a scale that’s unimaginable to almost anyone alive today. I write this only to have written it, to explain to myself later that the possibility was clear from the jump. It was all there in plain, unbroken sight.

“‘Alabama‘ gives this unceasing immersion in grief a form. It’s there in the song’s disconcerting stops and starts, its disarticulated notes, its willingness to abandon virtuosity in favor of a style of playing that is repetitive, diffuse, tentative, and dissonant.”