Written 12/31/14 – 06/24/15
“So all rhetorical questions are dishonest in the same way, but each question uttered aloud to oneself is dishonest in its own way, is that right,” James popped down onto his communist star-hued legal pad, thinking of the winds blowing across a Russian steppe. The construction crews were sawing and drywalling the abbey-like apartment next door – had been for long enough for the project to be the addendum to the Palace of the Soviets – when he, a college graduate, an adjunct, began interrogating himself like a psychiatrist interviewing himself as a patient in another phase of life, as a black-shirted shades-sporting man subsumed by psychosis, driven to walk down 6th Avenue endlessly on Saturdays while scrolling through Facebook, wearing heavy shoes that called out echoes from the emptying coffee shops in drip-black shadows.
“Lauren?” James said then dotted-down in the jaundiced socialist slate from his escaped daughter, a dark-haired wispy specter swirling around unpredictably as if she were following the arrows on PARK signs thinking they were directions to Bryant Park. James himself: writing, taking dictation from his shrink so that he had “it all in a hard copy,” the strokes came from his brain like slow, halting observations, or oversized pick-me-up trucks with their dah-dah-dah cooing, I “can’t see where I am going after all – so why not?” Finally, he appended “any symptoms?” – the doctor’s question, sent through the loop to lined papery Marx-land for alienation, reification – “what are these symptoms doing, really?”
“What are you going to learn in 2015” followed on the next line, this one with the question mark elided to seem even more earnest, like a university student dutifully taking notes during a lit theory class about Lenin, or a lonely old Twitter account managed from a downstairs apartment, its author mining for at-replies or ROI or engagement or the quintessence that would put it at the intersection of A/B testing and creativity, as one of his savvier students. Mottled questions, all-all-all, settled-in now at his quieter kitchen table bearing its bowl of fake fruit under 4pm December sunset, earlier and sootier than the darkest roast in his cabinet. The mild winter space was
with the sounds and rebounds of an EDM podcast as well as (“what a faggy thing to write,” a one-time Ukrainian Johnson & Wales student had told him when he inserted those words into every ghostwritten tract that he sold for $19 each – a total solution for any final recall project) the sudsy sizzle of a Goose Island Mild Winter, leaving its Chicago comfort zone for a green plastic cup rainforest-y by its life in warmer climes, south of the communist north. “Good luck to the next drinker; may he have a shorter beard and a longer exposure lens to see the Palace rise from the ground, over even that glass tube looming over the Avenue of the Americas when it isn’t cast in the humidity of faraway parade days.”
“Time paints over the truth” – so kicked-off the facing page, with lyrics inscribed with the voice-to-text penmanship of crazy Isaiah sketching-out his three godly personalities, flinging chicken-scratch script with its all of its slicing T’s mimicking the New York skyline – choosing “mimic” for its funny sharp-seeming participle, though “panic” would have been a more forceful epigraph – so that it might cut ephemeral dance floor poetry from the synth washes of Ibiza, or, more dearly for James, a Hell’s Kitchen scrapbook, and transpose it into this commie notepad, this wad of paper coiled-up for revolution. It still had a faded red-striped receipt tucked under the last page: Walmart.
“I never take notes,” Lauren told him a few years after that late summer purchase. “I know, ‘why’? Everyone is always pounding away at their keyboards or have their crimson or cobalt gel-pens out with a legal pad. It’s pretentious. Maybe it’s exercise, like rowing for the hands, and I’m some lazy elitist. All I do is circle receipt totals and double-over my too-light writing on rent checks …”
-Sea is a linguistic construct in Petrarch
-Julia is the most directly expressed character
-She becomes a token (see note above)
-Dialogues are series of jokes
-Valentine writing in Sylvia’s voice to herself
“When I was in Philosophy-35, laptops were still like briefcases with screens, but they were good for capturing all the high-sounding ephemera – ‘Aristotle and the Academy,’ ‘substance vs forms’, ‘the rebuttal to Parmenides’ – that would be all musty minutes the second after leaving the class, almost like the whole point had been, from the beginning, only to create something to trivialize years later upon finding and laboring to boot an ancient PC with VGA connectors, or the analog equivalent, heh, like sizing up a crinkled-up yellow zombie page, aged after its interment in a moist closet…”
James, burnished with his Williamsburg beard and Instagram sunglasses, is layering Aly & Fila over top of the almost-empty rental space, and reading the Book of Psalms while Burgess Meredith recited it in chunks, practically miles away across the room, from a Willow-filtered “Twilight Zone” episode, crackly and fresh with the glow of the new year.
Lauren, with her Queen of Hearts paleness and selfie-optimized neck, would shun the prefabrication of any antiques to rival Egypt, instead seeking a Future Sound of #Content in her job as a marketer for an A/V firm, peddling Shure and Kramer wares to the bored Internet Explorer-trawling integrators over in California, a gulf far enough away to simulate the feel of graduating into nothingness, going off this cliff into summertime again.
“…I mean, how would I know months later, on the eve of the final, wtf ‘Physics section on change’ means? There is the issue of me thinking the Physics important, granted. Notes – the pre-ripped jeans of the academy. The reinforcement of the workmanlike original as something for prelaw dabblers to gawk at and laughingly mention during Thanksgiving break.”
Uninfluenced by James’ handcrafted kitchen-table micro-philosophy, Lauren chewed Bazooka Joe in her apartment, which had no room for a kitchen table. The space was tight enough to force food preparation on unlit burners and in an unfilled sink. James thought back to a lecture that was so lively in his head, even if scribbled on the page only as “10/8/04 religion as labor”:
“One of the best arguments against religion is that it gives people bad reasons to do good deeds when good ones are readily available,” the since-departed speaker said. “I’d like to propose a corollary to that, namely that religion also gives us bad reasons to do bad deeds when better ones are out there.
Let me explain the original first. Say you go to Africa to provide relief for a famine – so that you can ascend into heaven after you die. Why not just do the deed because you want to help? Why the dark bribery of religion?
Now, let’s think about bad actions, and bad men–”
Lauren’’s poem, somewhere else:
The Bad Man: A black-booted Persian Gulf cowboy,
With a James-like Anglo-Saxon beard,
With a silhouette cast across 1990s local TV news;
His profile is gray – “pic upon request”?
No account activity since 1991.
Can we make it slightly easier?
We’re out in a desert, stuffing our briefcases.
Yes. Filling up on trinkets bought in Jerusalem,
Look at these stockings we have on for gathering sand
And bringing it all back home.
The lecture went on in rewind, following a silent movie interstitial card in James’ head:
“No economic or political prize can compete with religion’s promises and threats. So we find actions, motivated by religion, that have an intensity wildly out of sync with whatever perceived slight they retaliate for. And we get, for instance, sham trials and executions – merely for giving off the air that one might be a fictional creature, let’s say a wizard or a witch.
Maybe a slot machine gives a better idea of the motivations of religion. I have gone to casinos with relatives who play slots despite all the proof that they are as uncrackable as shaking up someone who is addicted to the rare thrill of indoor smoking.
There’s an episode of “The Twilight Zone,” in which an old man – ironically for our purposes with a religiously motivated moral opposition to gambling – tries a slot machine once on a whim and then ends up losing everything to it – his money, his spouse, and finally his life, after a delusion that it is invading his hotel room.
Religion is like compulsively pulling the slot on a slot machine, except its unique brand of pulling is adhering to ritual, or habit, or any of the other synonyms for subtle addiction.
Just like this man, the true believer must put up a heavy buy-in cost for a high-stakes games. The stakes are in fact so high that they have to cascade into view. For the casino-goer, the idea of winning tens of thousands (or millions, depending on the promotion/location) of dollars with no effort is so abstract, yet so overwhelming in its potential energy, that it almost demands a type of self-justifying effort, no matter how mechanical and fruitless, to justify its promise. It’s like there must be a brand of labor – no matter how tedious and useless- that must be inhabited by the laborer, at least mentally, to justify the prize.
In the workplace, this approach may be called the delusion of hard work (i.e., putting in long hours will automatically get me ahead), in the casino, it would take the form of the persistence of being a “regular” who isn’t just content to play once and get burned but to do so repeatedly in nicotine-soaked corridors for years, and in religion it would be a dangerous dogmatism that inspires physical acts such as “holy war” and corporeal punishment for imaginary crimes, all of which seem less somehow not-insane when broken up into small chunks like making specially formatted requests, almost BCC’s of a “Re: What I’m thinking today,” to a god conceived in the Iron Age Levant.
So then there’s the cause of all the confusion-”
-People’s check on gov’t
-Violence and the punishment
The millions, James thought.
The millions of words non notes-taker Lauren had blogged for others in just 3 years, solutions-selling, functions-virtualizing, infrastructure-computing, all of it like so much inarticulate noise of Aristotle’s brutes.
Aristotle, too, she had actually translated, adding tens of SEO words to the terse Greek prose – an instructor he had had in a high school English class, for which he never took any notes, had praised this style and marked up papers that had “unnecessary words” in them (taking the hint from Strunk & White’s pseudo-profound non-advice).
He remembered Lauren’s graduation, the endless commencement speech which deserved its own marked-up notes, as annotations to its painfully prepared copy:
“We live in a world that is changing more rapidly than ever before…”
(No, no, James protested back then, unemployed at the time and free to do what he wanted as his beard sprawled to cover the entire land, across Providence Park, this world has only come about because of the future because we need an end to our wishes).
“And to be prepared is to have a quartet of skills that will enable you to work with people and data.”
(A fascinating dichotomy; all humans on one side and whatever we decide is ‘information’ how would anyone even known on the other).
“So I congratulate…”
The park grounds were whitened by cups and single-column tables draped in white shaped like upside-down lemon juicers. Art school students walked past; James remembered one of them having been a co-RA with him during a different summer on the other more tony side of this same city, the still-juicy urbane half of a lemon whose other portion was emptied as acidic afternoon rain on this park with overflowing trashcans of sandwich boxes and citrus peels. They were free, unleashed on the world.
He had been, but was tamed, tangled in his own beard and the clouds parting away from his scorched scalp, lighted by a communist sun that was blazing Boston as well as Vancouver, only a Stanley Cup travel removed. What god – Helios? – would put him at the scene of his own heat-mirage escape, the drive away from the scene of his graduation and onto interstate ribbons that to James the serial fainter felt curvy and indistinct from the shifting elevations going from the Eastern Seaboard inland, feeling as if he were on top of a typewriter key being depressed by the uneven sunlight only to bounce back once shade came over.
Back at last.
“That was me,” James thought to no one: “Sitting on the couch, querying chat heads in the distance, hanging out, asking what’s up with their app. It was a step up from those days when i used to go bed late. I could at least now go to bed early and then get up and walk in imagined glory to a coasting occupation. Coastlike; toast spiked with jam and black coffee was my usual breakfast, but I don’t take it anymore since I sleep past the commuting hour. I’m not out there on the coast were the water is close enough, populated by sirens with foolish eyes and curly-wavy fingers.”
“Ten years fatigued, no longer green
That photo of me from year 2, it looks ok –
There was also more than a decade between
Gulf invasions, where we all dillydallied thru some
Underworld lord’s black waterways
Mainly to gorge our ticklish hearts –
You know how they almost move to the other
Sides of our bodies central gulfs
When some professor says “great question”
Or some idiotic prayer is answered by accident –
On the same waters we had been riding on all along.”
Mind the income gap between the hopeful 2004 me and the one today, I’m poor forever, thought James in the Prentice Hall notebook, while we eat at some going out of existence middle-class buffet in the speech-denouement where I thought well this has to happen to everyone at some point, this clawing-up against indifference, this blackhole job search, emailing and cheap black coffee-swilling.
“I came back to JFK after commencement, seeming-years having elapsed, feeling-devastated events having occurred. I could read my book in the noisy din of the Dunkin’ peopled with retirees and kids just escaped from school. ‘Keep escaping, don’t go to college, keep running home’ I thought. They had graduation ahead of them. Their own if they were lucky and not someone else’s To attend and feel lost the whole time.”
Lauren, elsewhere, looking at graduation as if a fuzzy pixelated adventure game version of what James saw as shadowy graphics gloom:
“I never took notes and of course this speech I’ll never put into writing.”
-Blood, tongue, crown, grab
-Lost, being overturned in sap and blood
-To lift shrewd steel against our golden crown
“I was walking past a dumpster on the last day of class before graduation and saw just obscene piles of trash, old TVs, copies of Toni Morrison’s ‘Jazz,’ some Engels essays, first-draft sketches, notebooks from Maoists more filled and ripped-out than mine. My first year I had salvaged someone’s cart on my way out, but now, why save anything since I was graduating anyway? Note to self: there was an etching of John Lennon I should have saved, which was on the lobby floor as we moved my couch out through the front doors of the old hotel-cum-dorm. Maybe a slot machine gives me a better idea of the motivations of people who leave their work to chance, with artistry turned into escaped tickled souls over the liberated Calvary of the college. Me I’m here atop Golgotha except now it’s something for prelaw dabblers to gawk at and laughingly mention during Thanksgiving break. I can feel it beneath my feet, I’m here
The Essays: A Short Story in Fits
Written 10/14/14 – 06/02/16
Essay #1: The island hotel
In the drifting, plane less skies, I did all my best to survive ennui – and grading.
I started preferring Josh’s earlier work once he emailed me a checklist, within an end-of-semester essay: Three boxes, three items of fretted-over half-sentences about the history of the Internet – one about “globalization” (“promoted globalization” was all it said), another about “entrepreneurs” (oddly spoken of with a level of glee that he usually reserved for mocking just about anything else of vaguely French import), and a third about “competitiveness in the global economy,” bringing it all back around the globe, to the ragged desperation of his ideas’ home.
He had once, back in his essay-writing writerly swirl of the mid 2000s, written long, footnoted papers with the ease of someone critically chopping through the paintings at a small gallery, dismissing them instantly – “too many brush marks,” “it all looks white, really” – since the idea was to make each of them into Duchamp’s urinal, ready for a torrent of uncontrolled petrichor-scented piss coming from the burnt-out critic, the spurned bride of original art, seeking to be just a touch heroic, while walking, sweating, wandering back to thoughts of Wyoming, whenever another Important Rectangle fell into his view.
A theater unfurled in any segment of Josh’s earliest work, with his whole conception of the internet – “mostly garbage,” he liked to intone to rapt crowds of TED talk listeners giggle-consuming his words made into air, mumbling amongst themselves in hushed tones about the cocktails that they had earlier – skirting across the virtualized Globe’s stages, while ever-innovative Romeo in the tale of failing fast, failing better, with his sword impales himself and waits to be made into a mural by suburban teens – our cohort, just last summer – who are painting the hallways of their high school in one of those square Western states, surviving the passerby critics.
They – Clarissa, John, Josh, Mrs. Ma, the whole class – are ensconced in their tablets billowing the smoky e-vapors of Poe and Melville – but also the spicy forbidden cloves of informational reading, penned – on vacations in Hong Kong, while caressing oddly hairy fellow business class riders – about innovation, spools upon spools of tangled expensive discussion threads made from the same stock silk that one Sunday came to consume all of Josh’s worming-around in his study, grasping for those curly black hairs.
I’m riddled by the island noises surrounding this converted hotel (now an ivory tower for tussled grade inflation – “Beyond the Phail: A Look at Data in Cyber Security”- A+), a white-gray tenement that is all spindly in its extremities and bulky around the middle – like an architectural play on love handles and male pattern baldness, painted green, like copper ravaged by metallic metabolic syndrome – where the shipped-in Japanese country vines close in from below and above and the legacy office-mausoleums have been emptied-out of their common chorus of siren-sounding middle managers of yore.
Those white-collared phantoms oversaw tailoring and alterations; pink-outfitted maids now flip the sheets, tweak the curtains, and virtue-signal about the rudeness of faraway men, making the top floor an curtained lighthouse for ships that, like those vines, lunge toward their own Troy. Grading papers, I lamely shoot arrows at Josh’s and everyone’s else wordy Achilles’ Heels.
The rainbow rooms here, the sites of struggles between the Trojan Horse of “Self-service APIs are actually quite simple” and the gold-tipped spears of “?? explain this more” in pointed reply, are arranged as ancient foursquare grids, this whole rain-rotting architecture – culminating in a vegetation-wrapped spire – making a skyward sword through a carefully stacked like a Napoleon, forever waiting to be exiled but persisting on this pseudo-Elba, resting at their Hart St address while kudzu et al. move up onto the windows’ transparent labor in sweaty post-rain panes. The colors:
White: a 1990s-style lower-level restaurant, forks and spoons but no knives
Pink: alley-facing, its walls routinely repainted to mask its thin coat
Orange: the “open source” room, windows open, hot air-filled, ready to fly up from party balloons
Red: the bar, with a warm hue and an overlook view of the same-colored fire escape
Green: a smoky private boudoir, unreachable except for legacies and absentee millionaires
Blue: an oceanic suite, the end of a spinning corridor from the imperial Green Room
Yellow: lodging for anyone, sun-faded and the color of xanthan gum
Violet: a conference room, medicinal and faded from years of unrepentant jargon-spittle
Black: the remade penthouse, a code-locked ??? mystery beneath the windy roof
Deeper inside, the building’s panther-soft insulation, recently replaced, settles every day more into its wooden ravine-veins – the chunks are pink pollution-clouds blown afield years ago from a rural Indiana factory town. Its pipes drool the bumpkin water that had once carried the Great Pyramid’s runoff, onto the newly reconstructed spaces.
The city outside is a warehouse of worn-deep pockets and Medicaid: enclaves re-stitched onto the bodies of the buildings filled up by chirping, non-tenured lecturers, upholstered as they pace around in TJ Maxx-snatched sweaters with twisty martin-feather fibers that previously escaped from the armchair-perches of their natural habitats – with those drab faraway mill-spun colors of countryside graveyards alive in the autumn, now reinvigorated as the normcore camouflage of these adjuncts’ dances across the green-matte chalkboard, all of them hoping to stay out of the hotel’s extended stay check-in desk line.
We puff-up on Wednesdays and Fridays, swinging sweatered arms like fuzzy-sweaty punctuation as distressed at October breezes as any auto-dealership inflatable, twisting away while trumpeting its marketable skills to the bypassing buyers. Then we sit down during office hours, bringing La-Z-Boy fatigues out from forgotten September studio apartments and into the open workplace, past the Chancellor’s rainbow rooms facing the street.
There is the modeled lecture-grade laundry, smelling of snippets of Euripides, to be plunged into the blueness unfurled by the classroom ceiling fan, to twirl and curl them up into invisible cheshire cattails within the twittering, the bubbling, the chirping of post-college town life. It is barely relieving to walk home on that avenue with its vanquished record stores and noisy rents that scratch toward a crackly, deteriorating vinyl past, past the looming hotel with it Hippocratic wreath of leafy gutters and low-setting clouds, like the detritus of all of its guest-students’ thoughts.
Here are album-toned but frayed (like printed-out Instagram photos, left compressed for years under heavy thrift-store shelf volumes in a tight apartment discarded from a failed hotel floor plan) American streets, dotted with square front-door stereo-boxes propping up (like cinder blocks) the cerulean ceilings above, which hover two flights up and meld into an early sky lowering itself before a gully-washer. Demi-professors escape the rain: Cars push past the suddenly colorless world through the looking-glass: The spin cycle gathers red-orange-yellow leaves, newspapers, metro cards, and shoes into a whirlwind load that takes its washers on a 45-minute commute beyond campus into an autumnal maw.
I could go back into any of these walkups and listen to The White Stripes’ “Elephant” in my reddish room, reconstructed, by myself with the CD with that candy cane bird spinning around on it, without a chirp notification crying up from the red-lined audio, in the same crimson disc man that had been de-virginized earlier in the day by a circuitous trip through Goldie’s “Saturnz Return,” those hour-long strings stretching out like a beckoning cardigan soldier in a recliner, long enough to make it feel like I had done something in ‘real-life’ when it all ended: only 500 words on hotels and ‘the sharing economy.’
They were mostly filler ‘solutions,’ grist for commencement-speech mills – ‘In today’s fast-paced world, businesses have put the customer first’ – that could only be written as the toxic tape spooling forward in my tape deck head while the other strands wound mutely backward, carrying what could have been any story about awkward feet propped on my lap in that dorm while someone recycled my breath, nothing leading to anything, imagining instead a chance to have shown my feet with shower flip-flops to the Dunbar student sitting on the residence hall steps climbing up, pulled by graduation balloons (‘congrats, class of ’03!’) to the clouds belched out in thought by the dorm – with all the windows open, full hallways, can’t lose, the building could think and the man in the commons would only be drenched in the post-class walk back with his toes squelching theirs/someone else’s handouts: water-cycled thoughts in flip-flopping steps, along with flyers for upcoming bijou shows caught on the thorn-bushes. Josh’s prose.
I would have to duck in, out of the lightning of reading my own work and seeing flashes of its incompetence glow white as Word on the monitor when reading Josh’s vastly superior earlier papers. Where’s the door, the escape ahead of the thunder of my imagined superhero phrasings, shown up by a student’s compositional kryptonite? Do apartments and residence halls dream of electric storms? The town surrounding the university-hotel was hidden between stacks of pizza boxes that could rise in a 3am-wakes like belching smoky-cool chimney, their vapors having already consumed the student papers and left the boxy after-images to mingle with roof-borne dorm-clouds, the apartment-storms that will keep coming back with recycled rains and ageless thunderbolts.
Sounds, notes for a future “creative” term paper about the “Cyropedia,” set to the structure of a Nabokov prose-poem: tones of of chewing, burning; heartburn, chafing; back, forth. Night comes, I’m here, tapping into the remote desktop of ‘The House of the Seven Gables’ somewhere on a 2008 wide mental network – leaping from cyber rooftop to cyber rooftop, to 2012, back to 2005, now to 2008 all in one ‘forward’ jumping-path across red/green/blue buildings, reaching the Chancellor’s blackened roof, darkened by the penthouse beneath, at the end of my light-footed leap – while (all the while) getting a neck rub in a secluded university park, that’s what kept the adrenaline flowing, the body as receptive to “Last Tango in Paris”-esque butter as it soaked up the architecture’s rumblings from beneath.
Sinking off now into the hammocks of Christmas vacation decline: absorbing the jejune audio from Yellow Room with the the appetite of a Red Stater labeling someone a “socialist” between sips of Orange Crush: hungering for the relief that comes from making it dark enough to hear “I’ll Kill You (Feat. Jennifer Horne)” envelop the room with an opulence that made me think it was recorded in Olympus abandoned, The Chancellor’s stairway to heaven taken down and refurbished as an Airbnb rental as Zeus and company left only War behind. Some noisy pre-album chatter from the humming teacher chorus, cut-up and pasted for a lost latter-day track that I wish I had the rights to, to help me pay off the student loans of genteel life.
“I remember Sunday church service,” I wrote to break out of the grinding concrete blocks of writing and Josh’s imagination fucking my own. “Red coated women from out here on the frontier, as well as desperate old men with bayonet teeth in their formidable grins lined up in pews to sit, stand, and kneel for an hour in an exercise that could mesmerize even the tiredest observers whose head-scaffoldings were lost in clouds and terrorizing Jeff Jarvis jargon. A keynote, a TED talk for a misty Sunday, heated by evaporated Saturday-steam grates to warm us watchers and make a keynote for the next 24 hours.”
Don’t listen to us, we’re really just stay at-home millennials
Despite our Aristophanic bluster hiccuping thru Tumblr and
Out of the mind of our gracious hotel receptionist-writer:
Adjuncts by day, losers when the sun comes up
To heat all the hot takes through the magnifying glass
Of Obama-Biden ’08 stickers plastered on poles.
The ‘O’ is the crown on whatever we want to see,
Our own in-line images and autoplay Lewis Carroll GIFs, like
A Red King dozing behind the hotel’s front door
Kicked out of his Red Room for excessive pissing and watery profanity.
His image is anonymous in the translucent clouds
After stacked-up hours of liking, sharing, clicking,
Comment-shaming, and realm-legislating.
Looking into that same vanity, we saw
The King’s poke-out, pale-under-lamps Klondike face,
The perfect card-thin physique, super, imposed,
On his own face, where everywhere fatigue is carved
With spades, inky under-eye and all-neon/all-surface makeup.
Circles and club-shaped blemishes, all “failings”
That some billionaire or university chancellor (and, then, somehow,
Us in our redirection) will dismiss as just laziness, as lack of initiative:
“Stay up all night if you have to, following your passion –
Putting your heart into the race for diamonds –
Or none of this would happen! I’m rich and I don’t even sleep!”
So maybe we should be chancellors all instead of new Red Kings
So as to get the bootstrapping grit, the buried Great Man Statue,
That we will build to the specs of our too-harsh-on-ourselves group monologue
Delivered from this lobby podium that is a reverse-throne
For the discomforted upper body and head; a prop for our muffin-tops
Somewhere where we can’t relax but can speak with the
Lust for a distant dominion, a glass-laked vanity –
With notes prepared from “What Young People Don’t Get About…”
(Fairness? Success? Crushing It? Red-Kingness? Chancellorships?)
Why de we record all of this and release it for vinyl shop listeners
Will we ever get any royalties for it, from the infinite never-trickling
Fountains of cash, running down this perfect blue building?
Essay #2: John in town, Josh at Christmas
The pulses of Plastikman pour over a translucent summer walk downtown, a scene that could have been stripped from a Kinkade-like hotel room painting: Ping ponging around the park, light and dark sparring in the patchy leaf roof. Ahead, the hotel over the bridge. Inside, stray crimson balloons scrape the ceiling of its dewy Humpty Dumpty-messy foyer, inching toward the tumble-out elevator. A bike is parked below it, holding in its exoskeleton a pointy-tipped water bottle that could pop any of them, in a row, in sync with the sharp machine funk undulations in John’s headphones.
John is 27. “An average little man of no distinction,” that might be his tag if he were debuting in an episode of “The Twilight Zone,” or just wandering the dark grainy recesses of late-night commutes, when it feels like everyone else has finished working, and to get off the train is to get off into the Cold War of a long walk-up to a lit-up apartment that is musing-out its yellowed collective brain power within the postindustrial storm outside. John the one-time adjunct about town, freed so he imagines himself a chorus member in the oldest version possible of the Chancellor tower, when it was the realm of an island king:
It’s different, now and then;
It’s day one at my new job: as a thought leader
For businesses seeking engagement or innovation
Or other best practices, I think.
Headquarters: the open Orange Room.
The stroll in: anxiously fast, much more so than my slow arched-foot walk.
My reaction: I’m never going back to college (“you don’t have to go to college,”
Thanks, Animal Collective).
Almost as smooth as his ride back home from his first year in undergrad, murmur-sobbing the whole way in a car stuffed with books, nine years ago when no job application had yet been rejected on a Friday afternoon via a form letter while at a movie theater next to a girl he would discover was named Clarissa, who carried a salmon-colored iPhone 5c. The white Dodge van back then rolled down a red-lit highway as if rolling up its own tongue between its headlight-eyes blinking each time someone went past from the dash cam view of the men riding on the other side of the road. Point of destination: Charlestown, an upstate also-ran where John had trained as a track and field athlete
Bring us in from the organic damage storm, radiation-free and not spinach green
Like the Chancellor’s emerald-colored room leaking its community vapors
Into the low-resolution of the city skyline, corralling this wayward building
And its taller neighbors with the velvet-leaved grip of Southern invaders.
Urban gardening and chill: The Springsteenian thrust of “Magic Gardens”
Radiates from the Green Room, loops from its original drop on vinyl
In 2012 during an adjuncted Intro to Humanities course to dissect EDM
The day after falling into small genital talk about Aristophanes’ “Birds”:
The feathery unkindly ones threatened, like the college administrators,
To rain down shitty destruction from above, which may leech the silver
From the clouds to spark ever-sought “growth” that is rebranded destruction.
The green plot of the Green Room is overgrown enough to be the same
As the college’s community garden, adjunct to this tangle of vines, flowers,
Seeds, soils, pots, feathers, labels, mulches, and tables. And water, that spry
Leakage from old pipes that kept that list always-checked-off and
Precipitated one run after the next for rehydrated college runners lodged
In the Yellow Room with its xanthin gum walls, painted by latter-day Xanthiases.
He had for all of his high school and college life loved the long hours lapping the track and taking the wind much like his old thirsty car, sold so that he could make an apartment down payment for a place he stayed at only occasionally, since he lost his keys and needed to shack up with his heavy, thawing, and ferried grocery bags in the hotel. Lapping and lapping and laughing, these were all the exercises that give him such a strong heart – resting rate, 41 bpm.
Now, years later, he’s in this warm, amply ballooned, clementine-hued office with a ping-pong table that spans east and west atop a floor so dark, so heavy-looking, that the balls move like planets in their happy moments following and then refuting the beetle-pushed sun. He’s resigned already, to flinging ideas off of new co-workers, the people from abandoned Mars and vacated Venus, and churning up fake-buttery enthusiasm with the movements of dried oil-painted gentlemen, laboring in ellipses like the spokes of that bike’s wheels beneath the solar-systemic balloons.
Is it possible to cheat in SEO content marketing? John is going to answer that question by peering into Josh’s writings, scribbled in the predawn drunkenness on a notepad at the Red Room bar upstairs overlooking the alley and also the fire escape, running away from the like-colored licking flames memorialized in the wallpaper tapestry.
“There was a festival in my town each Christmas,” Josh had written in an email newsletter for his blog a few years ago, one of his most famous early works, and one that endeared him to the college crowd and reading public alike; John had been a subscriber. “I would go into the pub at the corner of Hart and Chancellor Knot and there would be locals and travelers from the next counties over attacking Buds and PBRs. Meanwhile a lone server made her rounds between the bar stools and the tables like someone trying not to rush – trying not to give away the secret – after having solved a maze already and then going through it again with a friend. A wreath on the front door, a tree in the back of the main room; these were the reliable sign posts, clearer than ever in snowless crips winter Down South, around the changing paths through the joint.”
Essay #3: MSG in the evening
Josh’s more recent diary took a different tack:
“2004 seems longer ago than any other year to me. How can it seem longer ago than 1999, or 1991, or even 1989 – all years I remember with the gaspings and sighings of clear recognition as transparent at the first day of an Introduction to Shakespeare class? Because 2004 was a bridge, a catwalk between buildings:
-It was the year I graduated high school and started college!
-It was the year Facebook was invented!
-It was the year when there was still hope that Bush wouldn’t be reelected, when I could feel fake rippling change while being able to grip the real past – the ledge of the building behind me!
-It was the year that Above & Beyond launched their first podcast, Trance Around the World; the show ran for 450 episodes until 2012, when it was rebranded as Group Therapy, after their sophomore album…
In 2004, foreign A&B descended to earth with “No One On Earth” and “Satellite” that mixed drama and alien quirkiness (“down through the dark trees”) with EDM churn. 10 years later, they’re on the 100th episode of Group Therapy (and the 550th episode of the radio show overall), performing it as a live set to a sold-out group of shiny vodka drunks.
We’re there, we’re here, we’re in that butter-churn,
Is ABGT 100 a moment for any kind of critic? It is now:
In this alcove at the back of the floor, smooth
As the Blue Room back home in the Chancellor
Where there is space, there is time to think
To windmill-out all my electrified thoughts upward
Into the amplified breeze, so that they will dust
The Midtown roofs with their repatriated moon beams,
And be swept hours away to the dead-skin magnets
Of uncleaned rented lodgings and used rental cars.
Strands of Cygnus X are woven into Mat Zo’s sets
Like the decades-old markings in a newly bought book;
And Andrew Bayer unfurls Vocal Masterpiece Theater.
A&B even integrates “These Shoulders” into the body-politic
Moshing, screaming recited musical playbills to the rafters.
Despite the vast floor expanse – endless invisible rooms placed one after the other – I almost couldn’t see the source of the pyrotechnics. I got a great photo of someone with a deadmau5 head, lost in a crowd of ABGT partygoers. I asked him why the head was so big. He said because that’s how it was written about. You wouldn’t come dressed as Goliath in size 30 jeans, either. You wouldn’t even forego MSG for the trendy startup-dorm ambiance of The Chancellor, would you?
I was there for brain-emptying night scheuled one after the other, French-inhaling the odorless fog, which carried me weightless out of the building in a post-show high. I felt it go away, one last time, with the smell of MSG-tainted food from the street, remembering my waxwork self out there on the dancefloor – unable to move comfortably, like I was in a museum of wedding-goers pulled from “The Lovely Bones” who looked at me with the darkness of twilight corn fields, blonde and knobby but obscured by evening. ”
Essay #4: “The internet”
“The media has if anything underestimated the impact of the internet”
I circled this with a rapidly rising pulse – anticipating a counterargument against a judgmental phantom – and a felt-tipped green pen (blunting its impact) – deep inside the intro-wreckage of a student’s – Josh Taylor’s – rotting hotel infrastructure of a term paper, the rooms within (intro, body, conclusion, clockwork of the workshoppiest order, where is this perfect three-floored workshop?) likely as decrepit as its wordy foyer. It was his variation on the theme of the final assignment in Perceptions 301 – the elevator music piped in on the way up to the middle section Red Room where sounds would be gargled by “El Scorcho” and Marco Arment’s podcast commentary brought back to mind, again and again, till the conclusion (“in summary”) beckoned.
The class had met earlier for the last time on the second floor, in a room that overlooked a large patch of uncontrolled greenery that had begun as rat’s-nest-looking “organic” art installation and been transformed into a striped lawn worthy of the island’s dense cross-hatched Pointillist late afternoons, after early dismissals had flung more shadows out of the buildings, “home” to their cousins in the evening sky.
“…following the explosion of Twitter clients in 2008 and 2009, one of social media’s most iconic properties lost control of its experience, still just desktop SMS while…”
Had he even gone into the college library, its shelves rustled by the air choreographing the page-flinging sending pages with their words already past, sent even further back, then turned back around to be front-facing as the book resides anew, after minutes in the strange land of the hand, on the shelves where the past is back, forward, sideways, diagonal in this mazy stacks layout? Sources: all websites, file cabinets in the sky, spaces to the 1990s but media to the 2000s. Somewhere, Roger Wilco is trudging through sick bay, composing sections of Will Self’s “Shark” while mapping out clues to the puzzles he’s stuck in.
“Bob Dylan once said…”
I looked up the lyrics Josh quoted on Google, humming them out with my tongue on my teeth-piano as a tune fitting the words “I’m the one and…” and recalling the emerald fog of another song I had heard at an ancient Starbucks in New Jersey, now an anonymous refrain hidden from me in the Soundcloud haze. No one at the coffeeshop then back knew the song being played, though we tried Shazam – too much ambient green noise from the baristas, the churn of espresso machinery, and the construction next door at the hotel. Who owned it, who held court over the caffeine finding its way through all of our pre- post- during- college streams and sending our red and blue consciousness askance into the nearby hotels and vinyl record shops?
“…three big things: data, social, and cloud. Will we get them right?”
Who knew; not Josh, as he kept talk about the effects of the Internet on the ownership society and business modularization. Time for a break from grading. I put down the pen and sailed over vines and leaves to the Green Room and then the Purple Room of the Chancellor. No one greeted me when I walked in. It was a long coffin-shaped, abandoned conference room that was outgrowing its roots as a sauna for jargon-spittle. The walls were light purple, pale enough to look like they needed another coat to cover up the bald patches. I returned to this same spot I’m in now a week later, on the last day of 2019, in the afternoon after it rained. Before he noticed me, a man painting the wall with a roller was going up and down with over one of those patches, seeming to cover it but only blocking out the light from the window for a second before bringing his hand back down and unearthing the sunny spot.
The view was what I remembered best about the Violet Room and what kept me making the jungle-like trek over from college during spare times that would have otherwise been filled with Brian Eno noodling in echoey office hours. The gardens spilling out of the Green Room, the college and its squat urban quadrangle, the adjuncts going back and forth in the silent happiness of midday bustle, when busy-ness stands in for life. And there’s the Chorus below, parroting back lines of Josh’s paper a week later after I had graded it and as per college rules opened it up for discussion and creative exercises. One of them was like litchat: workshopping even the direst papers into appropriately bite-sized business-centric “takeaways,” which I spun instead into recycling of buzzwords.
Do you want to move to the big city where all the innovative kids live,
The meme curators, the horse-drawn players of partridge tricks that
Would brand typing an extra decimal point a robust learning experience
In failing again, failing better, laughing about it all after an inefficient morning?
We’re here to have a conversation, to market ourselves so that you’ll make
Us into Makers, your tiny-handed tenders of innovation machines unseen
With the part-time whispering (other times squealing) wheels that build the city
With its glass-boxed board rooms and algorithm tables, its colorful pods.
Look on the nimble side: Our bodies are contorted as if in playing a game
Out in the college stadium, vying to be leader-entrepreneurs riding atop unicorns
Out of the shadows of pastel buildings and across the Cheetos-dusted rainbow
Over all the losers giving up their opportunities to build something that matters.
“Consider the case of permissionless innovation in music acquisition, made on Twitter by a VC partner at Kirby Ventures…”
Or – do not. Back to grading. The text was all like something the eager CTO at his new gig in the Orange Room, upstairs and across the street a floor up in cloud-related drivel, would have spewed, likely not long after teeing-off with that same Internet lede-pitch. But the real implication here, I though, is for the content-creators, content in their deskless offices as they toil away for attention that won’t even fall on the shoes milling around in the hallway, big loafers unneeded for going out even in July.
“These sorts of ‘moat’ arguments about software almost turn out to be wrong. Moats around enterprise video conferencing and Manhattan-corner food-ordering apps: The idea that there need to be a huge barrier to ward off competition often overlooks the modularization power of startups, also banks…”
This writing continued, vegetation-like in its relentless growth as well as in the way that its rising intensity – impressively maintained against all odds of self-awareness – didn’t excite but led to exhaustion, a sustained post-orgasm that never would seem to recover. A moat of spilled, worn-out thoughts that no one could muster the strength to step over despite its non-threatening blandness. The gratuitously sharp-quilled words – “disruption,” “robust” – couldn’t bloody my wandering ear nor ring the silent alarm inside that was already sprung luckily by memories of Bloc Party playing an electric set in front of my college group.
“When I was 14 it felt like the future had ended,” Josh wrote on his blog some years before. “We had HD graphics, dial-up, and a sun that still rose and set even if the skyline changed between days. It felt, though, like the widest paths into ‘the future’ were ones that went straight back into the past, like the disintegrating books – a KJV bible, some “Hardy Boys” volumes – our family took from my grandfather’s mansion after he died in 2001, or the old SNES and copy of Mario Paint that allowed me and my sister to create soundtracked worlds. Even back then these were artifacts, now they’re ancient and covered in Internet dust, which I’m sweeping again and again with a broom modeled after the ones in ‘Fantasia.’”
Josh’s paper, another piece of content diverged from his original ways: To the street outside, beyond the fire-escape latticework outside the hotel’s orange-red-yellow-warm rooms, I looked out, wished, went hungry, replaying the dead gentrified words – “solution” for “thing,” “disrupt” for “violate,” “permissionless” yet again for “extra-legal” – in a recitative internal monologue and felt my pulse go up-up-up and back again in its ride over latter-day track ribbons, the tones of the softly mechanized in this arrhythmic pulse against my own body, turning its wheels of machine vision to scan the paper for keywords.
Blood, though certified organic –
Spilt on Southern soil, surrendered to the mosquitos –
Is its own inter-state highway between us,
Leaving no “me” or “you” but the past and future
Avatars of the same ever-automating spirit in the lanes,
Trawling all the litter with its yarn-spinning claws to
Carve a fevered narrative – “10 years ago, ‘he’…” –
For recitation on purple hotel doorsteps at red dawn,
Tucked away in burgs just off the road’s wide bore.
Green-haired clowns patrol the county fair
The same way when you-me and me-you drive by
At different times, both of us remarking “Inappropriate?”
To mark the same territory where the emerald light
Was absorbed by our industrial iron red-ribbons.
Overlooking nowhere, the paper is finished, graded, and now fodder for submission by the Chorus and others into the ether stirred by cars, to the Information Super Content Management System in the sky, a reddened Interstate of our circulatory systems. Now I’m back college’s way for more of The Conversation, about brainstorming Ideas That Work for more book-length writing assignments, volumes to nowhere. “All you need is 1,000 true fans!” Well thanks for the advice, 1000s have already read what I have written under other names, for free and come exhaustion or low blood volume the information superhighways (“you’re doing it wrong”) must remain open so that all that stuff from the Usenets and Hacker Newses can coexist with new engaging content so that I can just spit and lose my retinas finding sharable fun, sharable words, sharable content, till I collapse, to quote Eminem.
Essay #5: Leadership fragments
Time for a break.
“I have a bet about this week’s show,” the Rod Serlingesque narrator said over the unintentional soundtrack-din of Sun City Girls’ “Opium Den,” “that I could write a convincing male lead and that he would outlive whatever dark fate this TV show could whiteboard-up to end-of-life him.”
Continuing frontmen: The adjunct chorus watch, from over in the hotel’s alley-facing Pink Room on the fatback TV: people who, seizing upon the penetrating pen from the page below, could have thwarted my intent and instead let me embarrass myself as a stage manager, a chancellor over this tiny “Super Mario Bros. 3”-themed dominion – a narcissist, like every “leader” ever – over worlds of sand-strewn pyramids, giant research term papers, and darkened passageways back to 1990s living rooms. A fellow of innovative jest – unbearable, I couldn’t even quote one of my own bro-y passages and instead I should just recall the writer’s obituary I read in a newspaper-strewn studio apartment, seven Septembers ago. I didn’t know the deceased well, except in my blackest imagination seeing him as forerunner of my own trip offstage and into the untimed afterlife, perhaps sooted in the shadowy parts of my seaside apartment that I kept creeping back to, like the deterministic click-laborer compulsively pouring over someone’s Tumblr feed, picking the filtered ghosts there to their non-existent bones with ravenous winter wolf hunger, only to find the sweet marrow missing.
This wan, sketched-out man: the blue line for my veins; the red line for my arteries; both leeched carrying blood, the only source of coloration on the uprooted essay page sent to the winds, to the email ports, to be graded and dismissed into the file cabinets; and the whole city, between the life-lines, is as medicinally violet as the hotel’s conference room walls, all wrapped in capillary transit that moves these scenes from one to the next, repositioning the chorus’s feet so that their boffo arms can go on doing their trance-like missionary work, picking flowers to stick into foreign nurses’ hats, for when they walk through the anti-perfumed halls, under the clear light of nostalgia that we are still able to wring up out of memory like a washcloth.
These are days that some Lebanon writer would say were “as grass”
But tho given that saintly sheen of the Saved in green pastures
They are just pixel-alms from a meat-computer, model year 1986,
Expiration date unknown, its legacy technology aware
For this one moment that history is happening
Between the rained-out flowers, the joggers circling the oval
In the runnerpark (destined for injury and for travel to the
Purple-wreathed hospitals countries away, under the shadow
Of office parks with waiting-room books about the British Raj)
And my two arms swinging while my head, carried along,
Slides between feeling that I too will soon be
Another patient of history, best to take all my meds now
To soggily see through the walk-run-trance, back from
The track, rewound, in the hallway triaging between
The wounded creatures of Ambien nightmares – mastodons,
Gauguin nudes ferried around in SUVs – and my read-headed roommate’s
Descriptions of his honeymoon still years ahead, way out west.
Can you imagine if the dean of students saw me now
He’d think I was some cheerleader on parade
Drinking Cherry 7UP with all of its fizz sounding like
The rustle of my 2/3rds Neapolitan pompoms Pink + White
While I rack through grading shouting “We will innovate
Cha Cha Cha, Cha Cha Cha.” A heroine’s song;
A hymn for college offices that never go dark
Because of their pink-glow computer screens
Reflecting late at night off of candied soda cans.
Sometimes I remove the straw so I can pour
Some of the decarbonated lake water onto the plants.
“Wet violets are blooming in the window gardens looking out toward the hotel,” went a sentence from an essay about Will Self’s “Umbrella” that I never saw through all the way. “Moist cigarette smoke blows in from across town going east and then north and then west. A man exits the hotel going south, toward thunderstorm heat that he hopes will strike away memories of college.”
Essay #6: Dutch trance
John and Clarissa were out at the White Room, a fancy German restaurant and one of the best spots near the college, with its round red-lettered tables that were glazed over like whole-note-shaped cinnamon donuts from Glazed and Infused in December. Red and blue train lines race along in the neighborhood, above and below ground like treble and bass clefs respectively, but silent from up here, while the two undistinguished diners, like any of the waiting night hawks at the bar, filled up on water, imperceptibly draining the nearby lake with hundreds of glassed-in half-note faucet drops.
“We went to the Netherlands”
“You and Josh?”
“Yeah. And from Amsterdam back to New Amsterdam.”
“And you know I have no special attachment or anything to that city. It’s a place, it’s big, but then you know it’s like me looking at this menu – paradox of choice.”
“Burgers upon burgers, and then a whole 5 pages of appetizers and holiday margarita specials. It’s like we have to play chess to order, so you open the menu and here’s all your pawns, and the White and Red Kings and Queens are way back in the back, in their own counties or countries.”
“It’s true I think. One time I tried to figure out what Android phone to buy and it was like I couldn’t even move past what size.”
“So just buy an iPhone I guess then write a long blog post about what this means about the Future of Content, so you can Be Somebody on the Internet, maybe they’ll even like you with the same vigor that Arthur Chu shows when he yells at people on Twitter.”
“You hear that?”
“Well I was thinking about electronic music the other day. Like you know, there’s no ‘canon’ really. It’s not like movies or rock music.”
“Well I mean…”
“You have you know just this flood, this torrent of criticism over the years on music. Based on adjectives, which are the least essential part of speech.”
“Sort of like ‘cutting out the unnecessary words, huh.”
“Yeah and well all of this word smithing for hire hasn’t been wrapping itself up as a commercial force so much as a cultural one, like you know one that has formed divides about what artists it is and isn’t “ok” to like. But I think there is as always a commercial or what that guy Josh always argues with in class would call ‘capitalistic’ thrust.”
“So like cultural appropriation but sort of in reverse, forcing it, almost exporting it to everyone else…”
“Kind of. I mean, you end up with students subscribing to the idea that Pitchfork or Resident Advisor-approved albums constitute an objective outlook on quality naturally requires a strong filter, one that blocks out all the negative reactions and indifference toward said music. Virginia Woolf once hinted at this effect of a surplus of criticism, albeit through the lens of sales; there isn’t a general “opinion” of any work anymore; you’re just as likely to run into someone obsessed with the “classic” Aphex Twin album Classics as you are to find someone who has never even heard of it.”
“Those reviews, god. Remember the one that invoked Marx to talk about Metallica?”
“And then that same magazine is now the reason why Phoenix are in huge fonts at every festival.”
“The same festival that have non-stop thumping tents of trance.”
“The single most distinctive aspect of trance is it rhythm – 4/4 stretched out to infinity, pulsing along with the club lights that gasp through the sole circular window at the front, blue then green then brown like an eyeball rolling through different contact lens or traversing The Chancellor’s rooms, filled with squishy sounds and evaporated waters of different colors the whole way” – Mrs. Ma, ever the didactic, had begun her guide to trance with this ungainly sentence, and John and Clarissa had not read it. “The meter is like endless punctuation, a colorful period mass-produced and injected with color in measures of 4, one too much for an ellipsis so it never trailed off into the beatless night of bus-wheel squeals and snowy winds.”
John and Clarissa walked sweatily in the maroon weather as the beats dopplered away: Clarissa caught the island’s waterfront trolley: John waved like a mailman reaching for the box, then felt snowflakes: thought, they’re becoming like mists I have run through and remembered only through the damp spots on this red-and-black felty jacket: dots on my radar, moving along: that I was given as a coat of few colors during my first winter here: only those hues that I really needed, red and then black as the darkened penthouse.
We saw him lick the white chocolatey air with deserved, desserted, appetite,
Excited and in-the-moment-only tired, as if having taken
The stairs in too many clothes, to reach an AC’d room of friends
Overlooking tea-kettle brown buildings piping their winter steam.
That parlor: he stepped on salt-caked savory Belmont sidewalk
But felt the footfalls heading to funnelcake-carpeted floors
Baked from lyrical scraps in a Wilco song listened to in 2002,
While yearbook-leafing in the kitchen, sifting through faces
And thinking of rustic recipes to revive and sweeten.
Next to this Hotel room painted with Yankee pinstripes
And Foxtrot rust tones, a bedroom with an iPod Hi-Fi
From college, now soundtracked with the trance that John
Would only hear years later (now). The past is over there
You just make a right turn while the car radio plays
8 Wonders retroactively – new audio wine, channeled from
A wished-for vineyard on John Street where he had an apartment
That for its seeming distance was in Titus Andronicus’ backyard;
Or, is it from this moment, incorporeal Merlot reflected
In the color of the nearby staring club window, red-eyed, flighty
While the lights pulse and the alcohol haze reddens the scene,
As if the night had been consumed at the eye-doctor’s, sucking
Up dilation drops so that climbing up the stairwell in Wilco’s
Poor Places estate of past-present-future is now a peach-tinged
Extravaganza, lighted by distorted sun, hot now and later to be
Recycled by cool moonlight clamoring to Earth between snowflakes.
Essay #7: Airport 2004
The same light, the same colors.
Mrs. Ma is a former startup CEO turned airport bar nomad, but remembered now as a long-ago primary educator who “followed her passion” to, well, this graying alcohol tarmac, buffeted by bookshops selling her guide-tomes half-off, papery milled junk food for Fast Company readers and the $300 headphones they got at the airport’s electronics vending machine. The electric pop of her ice in a glass of too-hot bourbon eases over the third-rail denouement of the coming flight, erasing the feeling of broken luggage wheels on black and white floors, being moved like hesitant kingside pawns going toward the glassy chessboard of the concourse and the illusory Chancellor beyond, its graying roof fading in midday.
She sat at the bar, with its wooden sign depicting a mustachioed man who could only have lived in the 19th century and moved big crates of beer or boatloads of steel across impoverished human landscapes, painted by Impressionists with caring imprecision to obscure the proletariat’s plight. A Great Man, a hard-headed imperialist chancellor forever smirking and egging-on “cheers!” over the masses of white collar drunks, all of them working for Great Companies, who fretted about touching base while a Cubs game continued in a loop – 1988? 2003? 2015? – on the ambient TV monitors that would be outdated in any home, but prescient in this timeless, tirelessly old-fashioned airport marked more than anything by the vapor trails of luggage wheels immune to disruption, vaccinated against platforms, and unresponsive to innovation:
The racquets of miscellaneous sports:
The snorts of pairs of “professional” losers:
The sips of beer sourced from intoxicated, glass-brown lakes:
The horizon’s transit-thicket of Purple and Orange Lines:
The “engaging” table-side tablet ad for a Nintendo game:
The World War I RPG, with its vintage 1987 characters:
The final stroke-quill needed to push her off into:
The featherbed of fainting in a Wicker Park garden apartment
Back in 2004, in the turn of the century Moon filter nostalgia.
Ma would take this route to go to work in the past, uncover 2004 or 2005 in the parallel track that you find when you faint. So alone, she had to spew the yellow paint of her bile-y mind over a dream-road’s unmarked surface, Pollacking out her fantasies of breezing through the depressing off-interstate sprawl-towns of the outer islands, all of them bloated with abandoned apartments, populated by the neighboring city’s alley shadows while she was lucky enough to skate by on those endless white and yellow lines as if cruising through the thinnest hotel rooms in existence, one after another at 70mph – turned into a woman, still in love with women – through so many daffodils lusting for their own disintegrating bodies while Cure songs fill up the CD player (iPod? it was 2004 and not clear), punctuating the gray stupor with a looping, ever-searing, super blood moon-hot “10:15 Saturday Night” guitar solo.
The Mount Everest-level endorphins of anticipation: for Ma it was a one-a-day vitamin, or violet Viagra for the mind’s own violent mountain climb back to memories of no-sleep mornings trapped in the Violet Room’s sub-Vegas conferences, digested to fuel moments that expired as quickly as Clarissa could circle the track, but which would spin endless yarns soundtracked by Sunlounger, echoing over the tiny park with an ambience ideal for waiting for meet-ups in possible rain, shine, or neither. She thought of Friday nights a decade ago, all martinis and poorly lit hamburgers consumed in college ambience.
“Schaufler’s character is now reduced to wandering around such a space, with his thoughts in tow, wondering where everyone is while he has been through “a rough time….a tough time,” she wrote in a WordPress draft while waiting for the delayed plane to arrive. “Yet the sinister confidence of the vocals here and across the songs in the second half, as compared to the more skittish and impressionistic takes of the first half, reveals someone who has in effect seen through the weekend myths long ago and has been keeping up the edifice of a normal 9-5er/weekender only with difficulty and at no real benefit to anyone.”
Essay #8: Why I’m Leaving New York
From 2004 to 2008, blue states and red states mixed in our mental maps of the U.S. as Mrs. Ma and I graded papers near a Green line stop, sipping sweet violet wine discreetly, newly dripped from the mountains, to tickle our Catholic palates. In our grading marks, like grade school hand-sized St. Joseph Baltimore Catechism annotations, there were the architectures of the past, wireframe cathedrals – scratched and clawed with definition, their myopia-inducing lines running across students’ blueprint-essays – coming closer, then going further in the truncated buzz of daytime drinking. The ink would fade, the handwriting seem ancient as cursive would be abandoned, and we would all be just drunk church planners someday.
I never liked to listen to music while working, even by that coffeeshop in the spring, where we would sit and look out at breakfast larval commuters, chasing the pimped butterfly, strung up earlier in their bug-catching sprays and cosmetics, because an entire album or podcast might finish before I even got one paper written or graded for someone else. Would John walk by not once but perhaps twice on his commute while I struggled with “The Magician’s Trap House: An Analysis”? Purple-faced, blue-sweatered, red-inked-fingered, I am a bursting MORNING PERSON who by afternoon is only a coffee-colored shadow to be shot-through by his shyness over thoughtcrimes in world-historical disputes: students faces in their studies at their “C”s, muted people on Twitter ranting against a reply, angry callers already blocked, bus riders looking and looping all of these sentiments over again in their manbunned Chinese hair too similar to my dark-dyed clipped hair mess begging to be shorn to blondness. I’m shot, I’m tingly-headed, I’m 29. It’s the bloodless death of cool.
“Why I’m Leaving New York” is probably the archetypal Medium genre, encouraging mental drafts from those Metro Card holders and my students alike, during the moments alone with their phones or when the blood is pulled back away from the head along with the longest, blackest hairs. The why: “Because I want to banish every whore” – maybe some scrawl from a frustrated butter-lipped Giuliani in another pathway through time, one that spanned the rooftops of fewer glass boxes and more 70s colossuses left to loom over Manhattan like empty hangers in a too-tall closet with nothing stacked below. But more likely, the pressure of a thousand dollars and a thousand cellphone thoughts at the bottom of the apartment building’s staircase to the mailboxes.
“2008, again.” Here’s my stab at it. “The last cheap wine is drunk. Steam leaks from grates and mostly I think of cooks in small pink restaurants near the equator, steaming their pork ribs and rice into beige-ish dish with colors like the one bleeding out from the sky. There’s The Cure, pink and sharp as the wine before we did it before every batch of spring quarter papers, buzzing through Maria Hernandez Park with the “10:15 Saturday Night” pre-guitar drips falling into my hesitation clock, my “it’ll take too long for me to go across to get to that rundown building again on Hart Street, but, well, look at how much time went extinct while I pondered train schedules back through the safari and its dragons of the wilderness” timer. Thinking about leaving will take longer than I have to stay here.
But go. I’m going, I’m coming, I’m thinking of shooting all over some guy’s back while he’s hunched over in blue 2Exist. The room is a swarm of dark hornets – the noise of bareback videos playing on a PC, boomboxes from Hillary Clinton ’08 supporters setting on their front steps near the streets, the creak of the stairs leading up from that he front door with the broken screen, the steps each the same color as the walls, and that the room on the top floor a sunless box with black curtains guarding against the pink dusk.”
“Yeah wait, hold on”
“One time, my foreskin became detached–“
“And the entire shower filled up with blood, red against the white basin”
“And a pink sky”
Essay #9: Ensconced in the private boudoir
Clarissa is miles away, sitting in her private boudoir in the Green Room with a maroon silk upholstered chair, spinning the greens and grays of German house music into threads through her head, searching. She returns to all the empty places on her own, the 5am diners, rainy downtown monuments to wars no local remembered (unless they had been fought WMDs), and carpeted dorm room closets that smell like the piss of long dead fraternity pledgers -they house these hundreds of unseen yellow cloud-ghosts, members of Aristophanes’ “Clouds” chorus born too late but now retro-fitted into Clarissa’s silently rehearsed, unwritten, armchair lectures about Old Comedy staging. She imagined delivered them anew – kinky, ‘interesting’ – to the green, smoky avatars of community college students.
“All my effort is wasted,” she worries, “as I go from the sky to the sea, hopping aboard a boat with high passion and getting to the shore, where I am arrested by Otto von Bismarck the pixelated statesman. My game is over, my thread terminated, my fainting episode where I wet myself but then spilled my drink upon waking to cover it up, happily, wrapped up. No one said anything. There were no good reasons for me to lash out at someone else’s bad reasons. I put on my hat and jacket and left.”
Rain outside: Soaked up by the plants on the windowsill:
Clarissa opens it a crack to feel them drenched,
Touching droplets that were once clouds, that had
Singing codgers on an Athenian stage, with now-invisible music;
Perhaps 1990s trance, or Sufjan Stevens’ ‘Illinoise’ layered
Over top of freshly wetted words as memories of the future
Of a warm bath-like paradise that begs so loudly,
Like the irresistible thought of a tug on the biceps
While hooking up under a Craigslist-logo peace sign moon,
Not because it is any utopia, whence Zeus et al have fled,
In “Peace,” but like the Obama ’08 logo the same sun
Eyeing the already-tilled fields and the just-gone Chicago air.
She is shedding the past, exfoliating it with tea tree body gel, like the thrown-away dandelion-fuzzy kiss-offs (the wind bringing floral fragrances with its summer lipstick) of her pouch-weaving, its process-motions in time with the Teutonic techno now slowing into sterile office-hours ambience, becoming the shuffling spacebar thumb press sounds, rolling-chair movements, and faraway door-muffled phone rings of a workplace. “Slow Motion Replay,” by Shed; there is just piano and a beat that spins, spins, spindles. Beats can’t be copyrighted apparently so they are not trapped in Motown or Seattle or a Thursday night at The Mid. It has more than 7 minutes’ hold on her future, and endless dominion over the past that went by and which will come around again, in curly marijuana recollections as well as re-teachings of “The Clouds.”
The tune unfurls, dusty, like magnetic tape from a VHS cassette, beneath the muted white light callbacks of sped-by bypasses and tightly packed subway station lights mimicked in the dull home bulbs, going in and out of phase for Clarissa as she inserts new notes into an old score – a concerto – she had once written on her dorm study desk, a gloss red Ikea design in the complementary hue of her new coffee table. Luckily there’s a tape player in this room in Australia. She keeps pulling the tape from the past, putting herself in its empty frames to populate the future – to feed hungry eyes – but resisting the rewind pull. Plah-plah, pluh-pluh-pluh-pluh.
“I hadn’t heard these notes till 2013, god help me;
Sprinkled like the moondust from a Saturn-spun Bedrock Records LP
On my flaky space gray hair while I autosaved this memoir,
Across the room, ‘sitting in my private boudoir’;
Poe’s ‘Loss of Breath,’ which I’m re-reading for a paper
Unfurls its VHS-black words and rewinds a tale of a shift-shaper;
A “Josh,” Protean diarist writing verse for his creative nonfiction
Course taught in a converted brownstone, once the site of a hasty eviction.
The door, that door left over from the rundown Brooklyn apartment building which was the mood-template and the blue-model for this too-small hotel.
Clarissa’s room was right below the mini mud room – the hotel’s unlisted “Brown Room” – leading into the penthouse: The Black Room. The key was inside a wood-encased safe deposit box with a coin slot on top. Its front contained two dials and a number – 0813, not helpful for its twin-tumbler dials – and “Faunce” was stickers on the bottom, floating atop the wood veneer mimicking the suburban Rhode Island trees flanking duplexes, mini homes stuffed with DVDs plus old PCs rerunning recorded games of Starcraft.
She hadn’t seen the room, but she imagined it all dark yet marbled with light in the late long summer afternoons like the ones when she fell asleep in the afternoon with the flimsy sun-leaking blinds open, till “6:00,” woke up, panicked imagining it was AM instead of PM and playing out like a locked groove on an LP the same old possibility, the thought of having not done the reading or the response paper. That was a dorm room where time entered into this “Chrono Trigger” world of being able to travel through the ages, flicking nightmares and fantasies around in pixelated, but it had the same dimensions, maybe even bigger, than that Cranston duplex upstairs.
The Black Room was a black canvas, empty inside as White’s neo American-German fare, to be filled up with the echoing music in Clarissa’s boudoir and with stacks of books, all of them unread, that would be fine as furniture. Set down the root beer on “Moon Palace” by Paul Auster, the TV on top of Goethe’s “Faust.” Maybe John or Josh were already there, teaching or writing alone with too much wit for the rest of the room.
“You must be Kirby.”
“Someone was looking for the combination, and that person was Kirby.”
“I am looking for the combination.”
“So you’re Kirby.”
“I don’t know anyone named Kirby.”
“The shirt you’re wearing is the shirt she always wears.”
“This plain ‘Daring Fireball’ shirt?”
“With the star, yes.”
“And the dark gray, flirtingly black color.”
“You’ll love the color of this room then.”
Track #9: Podcast domain
The first podcast we ever listened to at all
Was “The Talk Show” by John Gruber of Daring Fireball:
A drab site, mostly about Apple, with roots in the overgrown
Pre-Facebook Internet. It was about the then-upcoming, overblown
Reinvention of iOS 7: More Photoshop than Xcode, artsy like a
Spring garden planted at a newly purchased home, in the foyer
Ghosted by day-laborers and on-call temps, he noted absently –
That the much-hyped overhaul of Apple’s platform would be slightly
More cosmetic than functional; like makeup, dusty yet underneath, plastic
In search of surgery, a facelift of screaming neon, gold and bombastic.
“Well, the flat redesign of iOS made the OS ‘normal.’ No longer did you need encouragement via textured icons and graphics based on items like bookshelves, felt-lined drawers, and reel-to-reel tape decks to let you know it was ok to touch the screen. The normcore design of iOS 7 freed up Apple to be more ambitious: Features like inter-app sharing, widgets, and superior interactivity with other devices (like Apple Watch) would have been strangers in the strange land of the bolted-down plush toy display of iOS 6 and earlier.
The evolution of iOS is a good example of to how art often drives science, rather than the other way around (the latter has been endlessly discussed in considering the effects of increasingly sophisticated drawing and photo editing tools, social medial appropriation/reblogging, etc. on “art”).”
I’m also thinking here of ‘Mario Paint’ again and how I recreated all of “Star Wars” in it back in 1993, including the music. Meanwhile I thought of the low stakes of all this podcast jib jab, the self-satisfied smirks of the interlocutors going on about fonts.
“For all the hype about the need for STEM skills and “technical” employees, demand for anything – from Instagram to superior accounting tools – is in some way a demand for a better life filled with art, whether said art is time to read Nietzsche, watch another ‘Star Wars’ sequel, or go out for an enjoyable meal.
We have liberated the past for you (and no more rhymes for us, either).
Now you are free to feel bad now that you ever felt bad during those years
When you thought nothing was useful except practical stuff,
When you downvoted yourself in your room each night for not
Grinding away at economic theory. With more sun, you can now call back
The walks through the South Side, around campus, when you was desperate
For work and wondering if anyone cared for your thoughts about
Washington Irving’s “Salmagundi” and what you learned
About “stew-like” composition from that book.”
Josh’s journal assignment was on my desk. I kept reading it, moving on from the Daring Fireball chapter to one about William Faulkner.
“I heard the “The past is not dead; it is not even past” quip in the 1990s, but didn’t give it any consideration until at least 2006 when I was writing about “Light in August” for an English course, late at night one night while listening to Explosions in the Sky. Everything I had consumed up to that point – from TV shows to conversations throwaways about “moving on” since “that’s in the past!” – made it feel like the past was a train stop just receding into the distance as the bypassing locomotive pressed ever-forward. But a train stop is never disposable or one-way; other trains will pass it by, perhaps even the same train going back on the same tracks in another direction.
Railroads became my favorite metaphor for understanding Faulkner’s concept of time. Music also helped stretch out my feel for the past. During these last few months of college, I became a huge fan of the Anjunabeats record label. That sounds like bullshit: Who can even name a record label, much less like it? Did I heart it on Twitter or pin it on Pinterest? The Anjunabeats affinity was actually an accident. In late 2006, before that stormy night with Faulkner and Explosions in the Sky, I had searched for “Delays” (some stupid British pop group that my roommate was into it) on eMusic, finding nothing by them. There was a result, though: a magic compilation of tracks by another label, Renaissance UK.
Listening to the lengthy set immersed me in electronica (or dance or trance or EDM or whatever term was then-popular to distinguish non-guitar, non-rap popular music) and led to a CD buying binge so that I could fill up some of vast unused spaces – the recesses deep within my mental-piano that i would tap on with my tongue on the back of my mouth-ivories during lit. theory class – on my iPod. By late 2007 I had branched out into other labels but the 2-disc mixed compilation was still my favorite medium: varied, yet consistent in its churn, like the day writer I will some day become, using fungible templates to write about VoIP and help desks in slightly different tones, wondering why I wrote this paper with crippling anxiety.”
Josh wrote, and I thought: “Negative feedback on your writing is like divorce or cancer; if you survive for a while, it will feel like everyone around you has been ravaged by it, so that even if you are pre- or post- you’ll feel its presence, whether in fearful anticipation – beads of sweat hot on the hair tips – or the “good for you” sarcastic rage of a blush response to injuries you consented to, felt were deserved for a moment, were jealous of because of their gall, and then let go in a wash of blue-going-toward-black wallpaper wrapped around your resignation.”
“The first Anjunabeats track I heard was by Above & Beyond and it was called “Good for Me,” or rather a remix of it,” Josh continued. “It faded in with a sudden pulse and descent into gentleness that felt just like waking up – which I was doing that spring day in 2008, while the fog went away outside and my friend who had just dropped me off from on the drive from Cranston – I had slept the whole way – sped away. It was a pink and gold haze, like being sucked up by that Nintendo character Kirby and turned into a costume around his pink-white blob, the very hue of the Pink Room with its many paintings-over of previous visions of hotel luxury, rundown Brooklyn charm, and classroom indifference rolled into the same four walls.
“Good for Me” and its parent album, “Tri-State,” had been released in 2006. When I listened to them in the months and years afterward I would call back to mind that white-hued morning in the dorm, but also my own once-ignorant (of Above & Beyond) experiences in 2006. Something like the trip I took with my brother and cousins to a Yu-Gi-Oh! tournament in Louisville in the summer of ’06 – when I never listened to a single second of the Anjunabeats catalog – were now soundtracked in the blue waves of my memory with “Good for Me” or any of the other cuts from “Tri-State.” My recollections of life before the iPhone (release in 2007) would also become not just clichédly sepia-toned, but soundtracked by A&B, or Smith & Pledger, or any of the vast Anjunabeats stable that released singles throughout the mid-2000s.
This sort of reclamation of the past – what should I call it? Eventually “retrofitting” felt right. It was as if the past were a remanufactured thing – this chair, this table, this turntable, it’s all ‘the past’ since it bears some old design into the present, and then there’s the idea of the past which often cannot be shut-out of thought – with new things being added to it. The past as railroad; the past as commodity; maybe the past as building captured what I felt most closely. The old dormitory where I smoked from my red-and-black bong (remembering the red and black “Elephant” CD spin in a similarly crammed/cramped room) or the wood-paneled bar room in which I conferenced happily with a TA in 2008 but now remember sadly because I saw some guy who dismissed my interest in a job with business-like “best of luck in your search!” using it as the backdrop for its Facebook profile – these are, all, the retrofitted places of the brain.
The lyrics of OceanLab’s “Breaking Ties” were helpful: “Though I may return/To empty places on my own.” The locations – buildings, mostly – of the past are indeed emptied of the clutter and the ambience – like the “genuine 60s dust” that Lee Mavers of The La’s lamented was missing from the band’s recording gear and studios – but they’re still receptive. They can be filled, retrofitted with other songs overplayed, other places overlain, other times over lived and painted over.”
Track #10: Midnight
30 degrees at midnight, Clarissa thought in the white-hot chillingly off-putting black room. What a difference Celsius or Fahrenheit would make here: Is it a “cool” deep house tune, like “North Pole,” or a hot late summer romp like “Made in Bahrain”? From her perch she could see down to the entrance to The Chancellor lobby, where there was checking out or really just walking out – moving out, lost in the churn of a thousand others doing the same, throwing out their TVs and prescription bottles along the way, some of them graduating and others just going away for slivers of December and January before resuming work on the adjunct-competencies-flexility-innovation hamster wheel, becoming flexible so that they could bend their B.A.s into abacuses counting the class-hours for pay.
What does winter break sound like?
That time when you come home from college, perhaps for the first time ever,
After having never left home for your previous 17 or 18 summers and early autumns?
Does it crunch with the sound of snow being pushed around
By your shoe, making vain heated friction against the ice underneath?
Is it a lonely listening experience as you walk to the cab,
Go through airport security alone with your headphones in your pocket?
Or is it filled with the momentary cheers of seeing old friends at home, all of them Imperceptibly older but changed by college? The winter break is a break in
The new persona being created in college – that first break especially,
Since the heat of high school vintage youth can still melt the new snow
And ice accumulating over your wayfaring person.
“Sung Tongs” is my soundtrack to sleeping on the top bunk of a childhood bed that now seems so low to the ground and small, Clarissa remembered. It’s the music that fills the empty room of large echoey hardwood-floored homes that can barely fend off the deep freeze across the neighborhood. It’s the sound of old assignments popping up in your memory, alongside the nonsense phrases written on first drafts of term papers to get off the ground early in the morning (or late at night, on the eve of a due date). “Who could win a rabbit/Rabbit or habit”? It’s the type of question that a sleep-craving ur-zombie thinks of, unable to put an adult stamp on things just yet despite being in the “real world” now. Clarissa’s paper:
“This album came out in 2004, the year I finished high school and began college. I discovered it through a list on Pitchfork.com, a music website that I had been reading daily since 2002 and that left an indelible mark on the way I evaluated and wrote about music. Hell, this intro; it’s what Pitchfork thrived at 10+ years ago. I purchased it at Ear-X-Tacy in Louisville, Kentucky, in early 2005. I had gone to the store for the first time roughly a year earlier. I remember reading a newspaper in the car on our way back from that first time – the top story was John Kerry winning the Iowa Caucuses. The ambience of the “Sung Tongs” purchase is hazier to me, but that’s fine for an album that is so immaterial.
Other than opener “Leaf House” and the aforementioned [ed.: one of my favorite stupid-sounding words as a teenager penning American History papers] “Who Could Win a Rabbit?” the songs on “Sung Tongs” are more like tone poems or washes of sound. They’re sort of like Brian Eno or Aphex Twin rearranged for acoustic guitars and pseudo-childish voices. Paces changes abruptly in some songs (“Winters Love”) making you think a new track has begun when the same one is just still going. There’s the endless “Visiting Friends,” which is my favorite writing music, just a bunch of strumming and humming. But there’s also the brief “College,” which says “You don’t have to go to college.”
Four-year college – something that is objectively expensive beyond the means of many U.S. families – has become the expectation of any graduating high school senior. I’m not sure that this is a good thing; some individuals are not equipped for postsecondary school, and they get along OK without it. But life without college for me is like imagining my life on Mars. Had I not gone, had I given up on a dark day in late 2005 after I terrorized my psyche about a Greek history paper that I could today probably write in an hour, had I not recovered so quickly from a devastating bout of mononucleosis – I might have gotten lost in the background faux-Greek choruses of “Sung Tongs,” my complaints and immaturity filtered, treated, and remastered to be among the a ton of contrarian voices fading away always from the protagonist – the listener – on that album.”
“And so it is time for the prizes to be dealt out, the show ended–”
No, I’ll say one more thing.
Throughout the second half of 2009 and most of 2010, Friday afternoon
Was just another day for me. Between freelancing and adjuncting
At a community college, there was neither dread at Monday arriving
(I rarely did anything on that day) nor relief at Friday descending from on high.
#TGIF? I would be writing more “Top 5 Schools for a Psy.D in the Midwest”
Mini dissertations then, just like I had been on Tuesday. Friday is
Blown up with cheer, played out, and rejected in rapid succession,
And walking away from the Chancellor Hotel, with a backpack I just bought
Despite the looming end of my direct deposit, in the stretched-out Midwestern shade-bodies
That dampen bright lawns, I dreaded more than anything a new life
In which I would have to count on a blowout weekend to reanimate my Monday-Thursday
Zombie; an existence in which I could not treat Monday like Saturday
(Because Monday has a feel, Wednesday has a feel, Thursday has a feel)
Casting off the “Mondays” weight like I would anxiety upon seeing a familiar staircase.
Gutter-winds, academic dust, and a passing commuter train pass through
The city sphere punctured by the hotel’s spire, a leftover of Sunday church architecture
That loiters, bored, on the other days of the week like I did when I was part-timing,
Distilling the spirits that would go into now-empty vessels that I can smell if I walk past
The bookcase, feeling near-nostalgia for the time when no day had any feel.
The island is sinking, a drop or two more every day as the past scrapes in with the wind and the vapors of ancient car trips, upstate, to a rundown apartment, to buildings meant to be exited only in the rain at 3am, melt the ice caps away and leave the runoff pooling up near the old hotel and other college buildings. I’m on the train, reading news of a shipwreck. Finals are over and I’m on my way to buy a backpack for the summer.
In 1988, the Soviet Union and East Germany dominated the podium at the Summer Olympics, leaving the U.S. and every other country in their wake. They won a combined 234 medals, or 32 percent of all medals awarded in Seoul that summer. A little more than 3 years later, neither country existed.
Twenty years after that, China won an astonishing 51 gold medals in Beijing, 15 more than the second-place U.S., which had easily topped that category in 1996, 2000, and 2004. The surge was a perfect complement to books in vogue at that moment, including Martin’s Jacques’ hyperbolic “When China Rules the World.” Yet this year, China managed a mere 26 – not bad, and good enough for third, but behind the 27 for Great Britain and 46 for the U.S., two countries whose combined populations is only 1/3rd of China’s – and which together are often described as being in terminal geopolitical decline.
Medals and geopolitics
Olympic medal tables have indeed often been read as geopolitical commentary. For instance, the mid 20th century tables seemed to reflect the dominance of the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., as expected during the Cold War – the latter in fact remains 2nd all-time in golds in the Summer Olympics, despite not having competed since 1988. Nazi Germany was the clear winner of the 1936 haul right as it was becoming an expansionist power, and Britain – perhaps owing to its long imperial history and diverse sporting culture – is the only country to have won a gold at every Olympics.
In Rio de Janeiro, the medal table was topped by the U.S. and Great Britain (Northern Ireland competes with the Republic of Ireland in the Olympics, which precludes usage of the “U.K.” as a team identifier), two countries that, as I noted earlier, have been pegged as in “decline” for decades. In Britain’s case, decline has been recognized since at least the end of WWII, gthen iven a fine point with the handover of Hong Kong in 1997, and finally turned into humiliation with the isolationist Brexit referendum. For the U.S., decline has been a constant concern, whether in the context of burgeoning Soviet strength in the 1950s and 1960s or the economic “malaise” of the 1970s and early 1980s.
Does the recent sporting dominance of these two English-speaking countries say anything about their geopolitcal staying power? The U.S. and GBR are the first and fifth largest economies by nominal GDP, respectively, so one might expect them to at least have ample economic resources to pour into their sporting programs. But elsewhere, neither country is particularly distinguished at soccer, the only game with an international event (the World Cup) that can rival the Olympics’ prominence. They can’t even keep up with the likes of Argentina and the Netherlands there, both much smaller countries and economies.
It’s possible that the U.S. and GBR in 2016 could be like the U.S.S.R. and East Germany in 1988, with their exploits on the medal table largely independent of their “declining” status as great powers. Alternatively, perhaps their success hints at underrated strengths.
Decline or not?
The long-term narrative of “globalization” is often cited to explain both the decline of the British Empire’s once massive reach and the short-by-comparision postwar geopolitical dominance of the U.S. But as the anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu has noted, globalization is not so much homogenization as it is proliferation of the power of a handful of already-powerful nations, especially in terms of their financial clout. In 2016, New York City and London remain as dominant as ever as financial centers, having been strengthened by decades of deregulation, policies favorable to capital mobility (but cruically not to the same for labor), and the spread of high-speed IP networking (e.g., the Internet).
Meanwhile, scholars such as Michael Beckley have made the contrarian argument that in areas such as military capabilities, the gap between the U.S. and everyone else is actually getting wider, not narrower, and that the perceived transfer of power to the developing world because of offshored manufacturing is mostly an illusion. That is, many of the goods produced in China and Southeast Asia are overseen by foreign firms, which specify the designs in question.
The issue with assessing any decline narrative, whether informed by Olympic medal table reading or not, is that it is has often been difficult to figure out just how far declined (or not) a country is. The Soviet collapse of 1991 was wholly unexpected, even by the CIA. Japan’s 60-year transformation from a WWI Ally to a WWII Axis to a “Westernized” industrial power could have been scarcely imagined in 1910.
Maybe the U.S. and GBR really are on the verge of late capitalist collapse, in a twist of the crumbling planned economies looming over the Eastern Bloc amid the glories of those Seoul Olympics. Or perhaps they’re like their same old selves from 1908, before any of the turmoil of the 20th century, when they finished 1-2 with a combined 193 medals at London.
Years ago, the Tumblr of someone named Justin Singer expressed some of the most sophisticated criticism to date of ride-sharing in general and of Uber in particular. He deconstructed the short-lived Uber talking point about UberX drivers making $90,000 per years and contextualized the service’s rise as part of the growing commodification of the taxi industry:
“The story of the for-hire vehicle industry has been one long march toward commoditization, with drivers always getting the short end of an increasingly smaller stick.”
One question to ask is why the “stick” here is getting “shorter” to begin with, despite the enormous pool of money filling up in Silicon Valley. Uber is an incredibly well-capitalized firm, having raised an astonishing $15 billion in equity and debt since 2009. That money is not trickling down to drivers, though, and Uber itself, even with all of that cash, is essentially a middle man between ride-seekers and independent contractors. Many of its drivers may be making minimum wage or, worse, running at a loss. Uber is a confidence game in which drivers collectively overlook the costs that they must shoulder to partcipate.
Anyway, that $15 billion is even more astonishing when considering the recent relative size of tech funding as a whole. From 2012 to 2015, total private funding in tech was $138 billion. Meanwhile, Apple paid out over $160 billion in dividends and buyback over that same time. Uber is both a huge chunk of all tech-related funding and, like Apple, an extremely efficient re-distributor of wealth upward (i.e., for its investors) – a model of shareholderism.
So in the midst of so much jargon about”entrepreneurs” and “innovators,” vast sums of money are going toward 1) extracting money from the existing taxi and limousine infrastructure and 2) paying shareholders (explicitly in Apple’s case, preempitvely in Uber’s).
But the banality of the ridesharing economy is perhaps best seen in the fact that it is trying to reengineer public transit to be less efficient (tons of private cars instead of buses) and more expensive (as a public goodturned into a private rent, it will inevitably become this). “Innovation” is apparently mostly about privatizing BART, or as Anil Dash has put it, “converting publicly-planned metropolitan transportation networks into privately-controlled automated dispatch systems.”
The reason I often put these buzzwords in quotes is that they now seem emptied of any clear #content. John Pat Leary’s seminal series Keywords for the Age of Austerity has examined why, for instance, “enterpreneur” has become ubiquitious to the point of meaninglessness in business jargon. Similarly, the scraping-by wages of the gig economy actually represent “flexibility” and “autonomy,” while across the board, whether Uber or Theranos, aggressive privatization and neoliberalism is instead just “technology” simply working out inevitable change that, as it happens, exacerbates inequality along predictable lines (college education vs. none, coastal cities vs. “flyover” country,” etc.).
A major beneficiary of the Silicon Valley lingo, though, is the cottage industry of satirists that have taken it to heart. Good satire requires a predictable target, because A) the pattern of behavior provides a clear target for ridicule and B) such predictability means that future events are likely to only strengthen the long-term resonance of the satire. This is why ironic internet accounts such as Carl Diggler (a fictional character who writes columns at cafe.com and has his own podcast) and @ProfJeffJarviss work so well.
Diggler, for example, set out to make fun of the “centrist” Both Sides Do It “beltway insiders” who think the fundamental goals of American politics are to cut Social Security and demonize Russia. His brand of satire has succeeded as political pundits have driven themselves crazy looking for ties between the Trump campaign and Vladimir Putin; consider this old piece he wrote about being a captive in Russia with this Josh Barro tweet about the country.
Meanwhile, @ProfJeffJarviss has spent years lampooning Silicon Valley VCs and CEOs with a variety of impressive rhetorical frameworks and tools, ranging from “Remember [name of a tech service that probably just launched yesterday],” as if to signal his ennui at even brand new services that, to him the ultimate tech snob, have already become passé; “Naive [a quoted tweet from someone making a common sense point],” to play inside baseball against even rational arguments against “innovation”; and “Very innovative of [company name] to do [trivial thing that is framed as a game-changer],” to elevate the prosaic to the plateau of “tech.”
But his real genius unfolds itself in the normal, everyday actions of his targets, most notably “journalism professor” Jeff Jarvis, who is seemingly predestined to have Twitter meltdowns about how why Hillary Clinton is “smart” to avoid press conferences or to take a quote out of context and proclaim Sarah Silverman’s DNC speech as the “best political speech ever” (instead of “the best political speech ever given by a celebrity ,” which is how it was described – quite a difference, yeah?). He makes a fool out of himself even without even needing the @ProfJeffJarviss foil, and so the parody only reads better and better over time.
In any case, ProfJeffJarviss showed how satire is serious business recently when he tweeted the following about Uber and Lyft:
There is a lot to unpack here. In the “legacy pricing” tweet, he uses that epithet to refer to Uber’s current model of pricing rides according to an algorithm is deft since it frames something so often touted as uber cutting-edge – opaque “algorithms” – as laughably outdated in the face of just giving away something for free, which is often what Lyft and Uber do anyway when they run aggressive promos and “first ride free” deals. It’s possible that the enormous price cuts that both services provide, as a result of their massive capitalizations, is more important to their success than any “algorithm” cooked up by a programmer-genius.
The “freemium” tweet is more complex. The “rudeness” of asking for money that he alludes to is something central to the modern economy, in which it is considered impolite to frame your search for a job as about getting the money that you so obviously need in order to survive in a capitalist society. Instead, “passion” and “dedication” have to be at least feigned, if not converted to as a sort of secular religion of individualism. Tips are nice under this ideology, but what really matters is “#creating” “#value,” the hashtags both markers of the empty jargon of so much social media terminology that prioritizes vague concepts – “engagement,” “thought leadership” – instead of the concrete notions of money etc. that are supposed to be so central to the economy!
Given how little most Uber and Lyft drivers earn, @ProfJeffJarviss isn’t wrong to say that what they are really doing is just performing an elaborate routine to awkwardly signal their inclusion in the nebulous “tech” world. They’re not earning $90k a year, but they are #engaging passengers and challenging “legacy” industries such as taxis, apparently. Still, there is something extremely old-fashioned and “legacy” about even these ridesharing startups, which subsist mostly on the laissez-faire brand of capitalism and sheer force of investment capital that were so instrumental to the business monopolies of the early 20th century. “Legacy pricing” – that’s what we get with each $5 Uber ride, underwritten by the old school investment power of Google, Goldman Sachs, et al.
One of the all-out unpredictable oddities of this U.S. presidential election cycle has been nostalgia for the Cold War – from the ostensible “left” of the American political spectrum, of all places. Usually, spinning fever dreams of a renewed rivalry between th U.S. and Russia is something voters associate with the “right,” e.g., Mitt Romney in 2012 when he called Russia “our number one geopolitical foe.” But this time around, it has been Democrats battering Republicans, and Donald Trump in particular, for their ties to Vladimir Putin. It’s a mix of Manchurian Candidate-style conspiracy theory and what I can only guess is the decades of anti-Russian indoctriniation drilled into the Baby Boomer and Gen X generations, who grew up when the U.S.S.R. still existed, coming back to life like some capitalistic vampire out for new blood.
Why would anyone not insane have fond memories of the Cold War? It brought civilization to the brink of destruction in 1962 (and likely at many other points that we don’t even know about). But it still seems to give 40-something bespectacled GOP pundits as well as PR firm shills hard-ons (and make no mistake, these are predominatly/almost entirely male subgroups we’re talking about here) thinking about Washington and Moscow rattling sabers in Ukraine or Venezuela. There will have to be reckoning in U.S. foreign policy at some point, which for so long has coasted on endless spending fighting imaginary foes, including the hollowed-out shell that is 21st century Russia.
So if even the Cold War, with all of its apocalyptic overtones, can be rehabilitated by our collective dark nostalgia, what can’t be given a favorable coat of paint? Anything? There are moments from my own past that I feel like I can recognize as “inferior” to the present, and whose lived experience I recall being just awful – the endless afternoons of 2010 and 2011 despairing in a studio apartment, the painful ends of relationships – but which, looking back upon, a certain fondness can be conjured up. In trying to come to terms with this, uh, non-sequitur, I often think back to this Margaret Atwood line from Cat’s Eye:
“I can no longer control these paintings, or tell them what to mean. Whatever energy they have came out of me. I’m what’s left over.”
I think the past is not just what is being remembered but also what is being re-experienced; your brain is not a computer, retrieving memories, but something that needs to be conditioned, like an athlete, to perform in certain ways under specific sets of circumstances. In this sense, the past is similar to an artwork, which regardless of its particular character can be approached from different pathways – a new area of visual focus in a drawing, or a dedication to listening more carefully to the bassline on a song that you never really listened to closely before – each time. But the visceral feeling toward it, the “meaning” it has in the mind as a series of associations with the minor and major details of the moment, is to some degree uncontrollable.
I mean, I was thinking about Daft Punk’s much-maligned third album Human After All the other day. It was released at a pivotal time in my own life, March 2005, when it felt like the stresses of adult life were first starting to register in my previously invincible teenage consciousness. I am certain that if I were to go back and replay March 14, 2005, I would probably be exhausted, confused about if I had made the right college choice, and on the verge of taking a nap at any given moment, lusting for the release of Ambien in the evening. I wouldn’t be reveling in the sounds of “Human After All” or “Technologic.”
Yet in my memory it seems sunny, a set of effervescent scenes through which my younger self strides to a soundtrack of “Robot Rock” (from that album) and my roommate’s obsession with The Killers song “Mr. Brightside,” which I remember only sort of liking then but which I adore now, if only because of its proximity to my current favorite moments from that era. Likewise, 2010 – when I started my first teaching job, for nearly no pay, and began to listen to the album in depth – was a similarly trying time that I would never want to relive. Still, in my memory it’s the formative time that I got into that album, began to rethink my previous faith in music critcism, and oh yeah finally dug myself out of my post-college pit (though subsequent things had to go right as well).
And just as these at-the-time terrible circumstnaces have been turned around years later, due to myriad details that I could not totally control, there are plenty of “perfect moments” of relaxation and sunshine that I passed through, though I would cherish forever, and now cannot even remember.
This is where I think the “I’m what’s left over” part of Atwood’s quote comes in. Ironically, maybe it’s because the problematic moments took such a pound of flesh out of me that I become inexplicably nostalgic for them. They made me, in some way, to a greater degree than the idyllic ones, and I can realize their effects by seeing my current self – with its ever-shifting and reconstructive attitude toward the past, which will remake even it in time, perhaps leading it to re-darken the same moments it had previously let the light in on, who knows – as what’s left over, a sculpture in conversation with all of its pieces that were knocked off along the way.
I can try to give what happened meaning, but the effort seems in vain: I’m as likely to think that the miserable snowy winter of 2005/6 was a golden age of youth as I am to forget almost all of the details of the then-glorious life-affirming college graduation and think it was just a gateway to adult misery. Nostalgia kinds works this way across the board, I feel: For example, even though I can get almost any song ever recorded streamed to my phone now, I sometimes pine for the days in my dorm when everyone’s iTunes libraries were shared over the LAN and I could peek to see if Bright Eyes or “Mr. Brightside,” even, were in there.
Look, I have no idea if this is the labyrinthine memory-struggle reckoning that has driven 40 and 50 something political commentators to wish that the world were every day on the cusp of nuclear war. Maybe it’s a way of retrospectively looking on the bright side – sort of “swimming through sick lullabies,” a lyric from “Mr. Brightside” that I always thought was a good description of revisiting quaint subject matter with a newly darkened outlook – to play self-defense against one’s own past…