Jan 30, 2009

Notes on women

The window looks over the street, but she never looks. She never looks over the street even though there’s a window with a balcony, off her office, so she could stand there and look. Even though she can hear the passing people, the cars going by and everything, she doesn’t look. She doesn’t. Even in the spring, and when it first snows for the year and when the sun sets purple, she stays at her desk.

The window looks over the street, but the blind woman stays at her desk and types by touch.

She is cold. She sits down on the bus and she brings it with her, wearing it like a coat. She is cold the way ghosts are cold, seeming to delete the heat out of the air, so the cold is how you even know she’s there.

She is cold, but she doesn’t shiver. She sits still as the people around her shiver, suddenly cold, and she turns away, passive and imperturbable, showing the melted side of her face.

When she remembers, she remembers the men. They were all bosses, and that’s how she remembers them, and she remembers minor moments, over and over she remembers them, insults and offenses, because that’s the real work that was done. Cigar smoke, she says, oh he used to blow cigar smoke in our faces – he just breathed the stuff – all the time.

They’ve long since died, the men. They’ve died on golf courses and in nursing homes. They’ve died from quick heart attacks, shitting themselves as they clutched at their chests, and from slow cancers, wearing ass-less gowns as their bodies wrinkled and their cancers metastasized. Powerful and privileged men, they suffered the million humiliations of helplessness and then they died. Even if they would have remembered her, they’re dead now. But she remembers, when she remembers, and she remembers these men.

That’s all she does now, remember and remember and remember, in the sick bed in the curtained room.

Look, she said, and she was a woman and I was not, what are women characters? What are they, except male characters with female names?

Jan 28, 2009

The grog in my mind

He really wants someone to pet him.
The trouble is: his teeth won’t let him.

I feel incredibly off. I don't know why, but I wish it would go away. When I start to talk, everything sounds slow, everything sounds like my tongue is thickening and I've said it before anyway. All my sentence get lost, leaving me confused, like Hansel without Gretel or Gretel without bread crumbs. I feel like I can't shake this echo. And like no one remembers how to pronounce my name and I want to explain but I'm so incredibly tired.

I feel off. I wish it would go away. And soon.
Strike photographer

“You have to sing your own song in the end”
John Updike, who wrote of the American middle class, dies. May he rest in peace.
Adventures in editing (@ Commentary)
Baseball and Todd Drew
Eyak language dies with last speaker
Map of endangered languages
Tree deaths double
My Dada (newspaper paste-ups)
Former USSR spy buys UK tabloid
Cars = exhaust = lightning strikes
NASA chief considers alien bugs
Art rehab for jihadists
Examining “idiosyncratic lust”
A Nazi origins myth
Fugitive turns self in because of Obama
Limbaugh’s tone deaf scramble
Wanted: A better class of populists
World’s most notorious prisons
Defending Guantanamo
Change: New Attorney General opposes torture
A presumption of disclosure
Progressive patriotism
Farewell to Republicans
Bush masks on clearance
More Callie Shell / Barack Obama pictures
Wresting the shape of the historic story
Photographic firsts
Philippe Jusforgues’ (reworked surrealist) photographs
Picture’s of Germany’s 1941 invasion of Russia
Still life w/ bullet
Bad language theory depicted w/ design
Revisiting pomo in architecture
Violence & the Scapegoat in American film
The sickness called "Christ haunted"
Notorious B.I.G. – the gangster next door
The spiritual journey of Ol' Dirty Bastard
The story of Flarf

Jan 26, 2009

Tübingen yawp

There is no barbaric yawp here, or at least none I can hear. But I’m having trouble hearing this new place, so it’s hard to tell.

The boy on the bus, wearing a Yankee’s ball cap, slightly drunk, too loud in the crowded dark, says, “Danke, danke what?” The old Chinese man, manning the restaurant all by himself, while wooden dragons watch from the walls, corrects every syllable of our American accents with his own of Cantonese. “I’m not surprised,” the woman says behind me in British, window shopping at the store called New York, where the mannequins are topless, touting panties and plastic breasts, “he was absolutely ruthless.”

It’s easier to notice the internationals, the ex-pats, as if, adrift like asteroids, we foreigners find each other, bunching up into fields. And there’s nothing communicating this, no nod or handshake, no secret look or wink, but we know, and we draw together. Foreigner to foreigner, we know. The Germans know because we’re strange, we stand out as obvious as if we were wearing red-striped shirts and funny hats, but we know each other just because we know. We come together like clusters of Waldos in the crowded city.

When the snow melts, the sand sifts down between cobblestones. When the river freezes, people throw things to see if it’s solid, and the things we discard collect on the ice with the frost: A balloon, a bottle cap, a duck, a Christmas tree. In a window above, a Swabian woman beats out a blanket.

All the cultural markers are moved and I can’t read them. I don’t know what it means when a man has long hair. I don’t know what it means when the big man in a big beard orders fries – pomme frites – and the cat comes into the hotel restaurant like the lord and owner. I can’t interpret the cars. When the beggar won’t touch his cup to count the coins, but instead leans over and looks in, trying to see them stacked in there, what does that mean? When an old man, clean and wrinkled, reads the newspaper in a little chair in the children’s section of the library, who is he? It’s hard to just let the fragments be. I want to interpret them, read them, say what they mean beyond what they are. I want to induct reasons, extrapolate explanations and things which can be said so as to understand. Even though I know they’d all be wrong. Even though I know the only way to hear the yawp is to leave it alone, leave it un interpreted, straining my ears for a high note coming through.

The first two notes on the sirens are the same as the two opening notes of the theme music for Jeopardy. In front of the grocery store, the panhandler sings House of the Rising Sun. The Ikea hotdog stand doesn’t offer kraut. Helmut tells me he’s transporting stem cells from Tübingen to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and that’s all he does as a medical courier. The sign says, Goethe threw up here, and the other one says, Herman Hesse worked in this bookstore. There is not, anywhere I can see, a sign for Ratzinger, for when he was here. The postal worker, wearing yellow, gets on the bus, shoves her mail cart into the corner, and blows her nose until the next stop.

When the kid spills down the hill, left foot down spinning his sled into a spiral and then a tumble and a roll, he crashes laughing and raises his arm in victory, in the triumph of a 10-year-old. I take his picture and he smiles and I take his picture and he says, “Was? Was?” I understand the question, but I don’t know the answer, so I just give a thumbs up.

Jan 23, 2009

Chimney chiseling

Chris in shadow

Jan 21, 2009

"ON THIS DAY, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.

On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics.

We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things.

The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.

In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of short-cuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted - for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things - some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.

For us, they packed up their few worldly possessions and traveled across oceans in search of a new life. For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the West; endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth.

For us, they fought and died, in places like Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sahn. Time and again these men and women struggled and sacrificed and worked till their hands were raw so that we might live a better life. They saw America as bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions; greater than all the differences of birth or wealth or faction.

          -- Barack Obama, inaugural address

Jan 19, 2009

Signs of Hope

What was it St. Paul said? “Evidence of things unseen.” In the world of crime writing, to have “seen things” is a euphemism for despair. As a crime reporter, I see things every week which I can’t even report, things too horrible and too common: The infant child of a single mother dead, though no one did anything wrong; a young woman out of her head on something, staggering around shouting, “F***”; parents without the money to bury a boy, who was shot by police while dealing meth. “The darkness surrounds us,” wrote the poet Robert Creeley, “what can we do against it.”

But the thing is, people do do things against it. People persist. They persist in hoping things could be better and in working to solve problems they know are unsolvable. Depression would be reasonable. Despair would be rational. But people still insist on pursuing the impossible: justice, peace, protection of the innocent, and a world without violence. We’re like Ray Charles when he sang “America the Beautiful,” a blind man singing about “purple mountains” and “shining seas” he’s never seen, a black man in a racist country, belting it out, “America the beautiful,” a country he believed in, despite what he knew. We persist in hope. We believe, without evidence, because hope is its own evidence.

It’s completely, beautifully insane, but I see people daily demonstrating an unshakable belief that things can be better. Cops show up to work. Crisis counselors answer the phones. Paramedics give life support. People vote, have babies, get married, and pray to God. Every day, people have this fantastic faith, which they live out by doing completely normal things. It’s madness, this persistence of hope. It’s human. And, for me, it’s the evidence of things I haven’t seen.

From the Symposium of hope @ Comment

Jan 17, 2009

Andrew Wyeth, an American painter whose work was conservative and modern, Patriotic and American gothic, traditional and totally new, died on Friday at the age of 91.

May he rest in peace.

Jan 16, 2009

Strange toys

The first time my brother David ever walked, he lunged, throwing himself at whatever shiny toy it was he wanted, and then his feet caught up and saved him.

This was in the hospital. I think it must have been a Saturday morning. We were in the playrooms they have in the hospitals with wings of sick children. There were chairs lined along the wall and in the middle there were toys, so people sat in corners, in clusters, far away from each other, and watched as their sick sons and daughters played on the floor. I remember not recognizing any of the toys. I was 5, and I guess all I played with were sticks and Superman, but I remember not recognizing the toys and they were all very strange. I remember sitting there, on the end a little ways away from everyone, and watching David, laughing even though he could barely wheeze. He was wheezing but playing, and apparently didn’t even know he was in a hospital.

David was walking along the chairs, holding himself up, when he let go and lunged and walked. Mom screamed. We all screamed and cheered, clapped and were amazed. Except the family next to us just sat there. My mom said, “It’s his first time. That’s his first time walking,” and they said “Oh” and their lips were thin and tight and their faces were quiet.

I said it, “That’s his first time,” an echo, a justification, because I didn’t understand why they couldn’t be happy. I knew it wasn’t their child, but they could have said, “Hey, that’s great.” They could have smiled and said, “Congratulations.” But instead the woman just tried to keep her face from moving. She kept her lips tight and she looked away from us, away from her bald daughter, and she looked at the wall. The man looked at me. He had a mustache, drooping down, and I thought he might be Mexican. He looked at me sad. He looked at me and he smiled, so his mustache moved, but the smile wasn’t for David or my mom, it wasn’t for walking for the first time or for kids who get to grow up and run, it was for me, and for what I said, and for how I didn’t understand.

I didn’t understand. I was 5. I didn’t know they were watching their child die. I didn’t know that David was supposed to die, that no one there was expected to survive, and that “first time,” in that room, was supposed to mean last time too. I don’t think I could comprehend that “sick,” for these kids, the babies in the oxygen tent cribs, the little boys wheeled down the halls, the girls with chemo faces and fat dolls, for these kids “sick” meant leukemia and holes in their hearts and lungs that wouldn’t let them breath. I didn’t know that those weren’t just toys on the floor but toys for dying children, and that room, that strange room, was a womb for death. I thought the toys were just strange toys. The man looked at me sad, and he smiled a sad smile under his mustache.

I thought of this yesterday on the bus. I don’t know why. I guess the daughter’s dead. She'd be 22 or 23. I imagine the man alone, mustache and sad smile.
Three kings

Germany’s upcoming elections
Germany’s New Left
Remembering Rosa Luxemborg, assassinated Communist
Waiting for Hitler’s fair hearing
Freezing out Europe
Most beautiful homeless shelter in the world
Arne Naess, Norwegian philosopher, dies. May he rest in peace.
The music underneath the city
One ocean blooping
Shakespeare’s “cultural DNA”
Constructing reality in photographs
Cater: This could have been avoided
Defending Blackwater
Guerrilla Patton
The “real” Bush tragedy
Apocalypse letter in Brit sub
Accidental maps
Not on Facebook: I have no friends; I don’t exist
Conversations with strangers
“Domesticated” animals
Steven Pinker’s genes
Our obsessive branding disorder
Book designs of the year
Designer designs own obit
Mohammed made me an atheist
No European rock 'n roll?
The Bush doctrine rolls on
The cult of Reagan continues
Beyonce's song means economic doom
Literary dreams
20 years after Satanic Verses
Why won't Burrough's die?
Interviews in poetry
Former guard on Guantanamo torture
Giving meaning to suffering
Saving the NY Times – with the Internet
If only Annie Dillard were blogging …
The very best Bushisms

Jan 14, 2009

from Clapping Carnival Rasp

She stood on the edge, up on the ledge of the bridge on the edge of the city, and she threw it away. She threw it far and it fell in an arch from the bridge. It turned and it tumbled and fell. It fell as fast as anything falls and the sky was turning morning purple and Cindy’s skin was pink in the wind. She noticed this, and then it hit and went in and was gone.

Morning came. The river gulped. The gun was gone.

Cindy went to Atlantic City the spring she was 19. She was supposed to be in school but got sick and was failing and she went to Atlantic City. She thought of it as time off. An adventure. A break. She was going to school to be a psych major. She said she wanted to know why people were like what they were like, but the whole first semester she only drew pictures and never took notes. She drew pictures of her teacher while he talked, drawing the way his glasses went into his eyebrows and his lips hung down to his chin, and pictures of her boyfriend Billy before he left at the end of the weekend. She drew pictures of the food she didn’t eat, pictures of Billy’s cat, and pictures of Rachel and Monica and Phoebe from TV. She drew the TV, but the straight lines were never right.

The first semester she failed both her classes because she was sick and the second semester she only took the one. She got sick again and so she just left. Her parents were moving again and she said she’d go to Aunt Linda’s, but she went to Atlantic City. Aunt Linda lived in Ohio and was deaf and never answered her phone and Cindy drove all night to New Jersey. It wasn’t technically running away from home, because she was 19 and she didn’t have a home. The whole length of the turnpike, she thought of what she’d call herself. Not Cindy. Maybe Audrey or Katherine. Maybe Gwyn. Or Tiffany.

Anyway, she never really liked the name Cindy. And now she could be whoever she wanted to be.

She met Tim at the grocery store on Rosa Parks Parkway where she was shoplifting. He was a cop and he caught her, but he just told her to stop and he took her home. Tim had a broken nose and a classical face and she loved that. She stayed in bed and learned to smoke cigarettes. It was good until she wouldn’t do what he wanted her to. He broke a chair and pulled a gun, said he gave her everything and told her to get out.

For a minute, when the chair went through the air, she thought she was going to die. She wanted to be like a femme fatale, but she didn’t want to die. She wanted to be in black and white, the mysterious woman with her hair up and her cigarettes lit by suit-wearing men. She wanted to be Hepburn and she wanted to be friends with gay men who would say she was fabulous and be nice to her. She wanted to drink classic cocktails on a balcony, before coming down with a sweep down the stairs.

She got a job as a waitress working for an old Egyptian man. His name was Muhammed and his three sons’ were too and he always swore at them in Arabic and chased them around with a knife. She asked the middle Muhammed what his father said when he swore. When he was really mad and he grabbed the biggest knife he had this really long curse and she asked what it was, but the middle Muhammed wouldn’t say. The older one said it meant May Allah go back in time, you dog, to cut off your grandfather’s balls, so as to be better with you never born. He looked at her to see if she was shocked.

She made enough money, most nights, to buy a pack of cigarettes with tips. She always ate at the diner – the youngest Muhammed making her pancakes with strawberry syrup – and it was mostly OK. That was the first part of the summer she was 20. Maybe even most of it. A couple of months. She was there ‘til the oldest son sort of pulled her into the back closet when she was wearing a skirt, and then the father screamed and screamed something like “meat,” the son screamed “meg noona,” which means “she’s crazy.” Then she didn’t work there anymore.

She wanted to dance in a burlesque show and she wanted to be a tour guide at the Lourve. She wanted to learn Italian and cello. She wanted to learn to drink tea and like opera and she wanted to be an airline stewardess with an older boyfriend in every city and she would wear one of those uniforms, like for Pan Am in the ’70s.

Cindy almost didn’t finish filling out the application at the casino when she saw their uniforms. They weren’t classy. They were kind of funny looking. Like two triangles of sick red. But she was most of the way through the form so she bit the end of the pencil, where the metal met the wood, and she finished it. And then when they called she was thinking about shoplifting some bacon, the thick kind, and so she took the job. It was OK. The tips were good. When the old men won they’d give her something. Sometimes like a $20. But they were all kind of lecherous too, grabbing her ass and calling her sweet cakes and baby girl and honey pie. But their tips were good. The mean old women who played the slot machines never tipped anything. They gobbled up classic cocktails and left olives and onions wadded in napkins stained with spit and lipstick. They smoked 100s and their laughs were withered with wrinkles and remarks about men’s dongs. They always thought she was trying to cheat.

Cindy was working there four months, or five, when she realized she didn’t have any friends. All the wait staff ever talked about was sex and they smoked cheap marijuana by the broken down boxes and said how they fucked or would if they could or they lied. She was friends with one of the busboys, a little kid named Romo Rafell Ramirez. He made her laugh, the way he rolled his Rs and the way he always got excited and stuttered and hopped on one foot. But then he went back to Mexico. So she was lonely. That’s why she went out with Frank.

His name wasn’t even Frank, it was Conrad, but he was the Sinatra impersonator and he wanted her to call him Frank. She didn’t know enough about Sinatra to know if Frank was any good. Everything he did was impersonation, though. He wore suits and he sang songs and he was always confident about everything. He took her home and they watched old videos and he talked the whole time, telling her everything about the Rat Pack and Las Vegas and the mob and the old days neither of them were old enough to remember. He thought life was better then. She liked the way his mouth moved, and so she kissed him. He didn’t call Sinatra “Sinatra” but used all the other names, Ol’ Blue Eyes and The Chairman and The Voice. Every night he sang and she served cocktails and he started calling her his girl, dedicating one song to his girl every night, near the end, when the lights went blue.

She didn’t know his real name until the water bill came like a month after she moved in. At first she thought she loved him and later she would say maybe she did, but he was obsessed with his thing. He never asked her anything, and he never talked about anything except Sinatra. It’s like, she would say, he was all mask and there really wasn’t anything underneath.

She thought she loved him though and it was fun and glamorous maybe, serving cocktails at the casino and Frank Sinatra singing to you, and that’s what it was like all that fall and then Frank had the scheme. He wanted to go to Las Vegas and he gave her the gun he got from a friend of a friend. He wanted to go to Las Vegas and he said Elvis was just low class. She wasn’t going to do it and she said she wasn’t going to do it but then she did.

She was serving drinks to a booth of old ladies who were stealing the glasses, stashing them in their purses. The one old lady with a frown and pearls said she wanted mimosa on ice. She wanted the cubes and complained when they were broken and Cindy had to get her another one, even though they were free. So she was setting down the second drink and Frank was singing Come Fly With Me and somebody won at roulette and the woman said excuse me, excuse me, but I asked for whole ice cubes. And Cindy decided she’d do it.

She got the gun from Frank and she followed the man from the roulette wheel and when he stopped at the board walk to smell the smell of the salt in the air, she did it. She stuck the gun in his back. She said she was robbing him. But the man laughed. It was a really nice laugh and he smiled and he asked her her name. She started to cry, though she never cried, and he said it’d be OK. He would have given her the money, he didn’t want the money, but he had just finally thrown it away. He didn’t want the money because it was settlement money from when his wife got sick, and he put his hand on her shoulder and said hey, hey. She never cried and she hadn’t cried since Billy’s cat died when they were 12 and that’s what Billy said too. Hey. It’ll be OK.

She took Frank’s gun and his car and she threw all the Sinatra CDs in the parking space she left behind. She drove fast with the windows rolled down and listened to the sound of the roar of the wind. She let the radio play and she sang she’d go her own way, Rocket Man, she don’t have to wear that dress tonight. She stopped at the bridge at the edge of the town and she got out into the winter cold. She didn’t have a coat and the wind made her eyes water but she got up on the ledge and threw the gun away.

She thought she would be different now, and it was a new day, and she thought to herself, this is a happy birthday. And she was 22.
Llama and man

Jan 12, 2009

Morning Mohawk

Notes on questions in Christianity

a) In the standard (and now haigiographic) telling of Richard John Neuhaus’ life, the turning point, the decision that made him who he was, was his conversion from Liberal Lutheranism to Conservative Catholicism. His move is interpreted, on the right, as a realization that liberalism made him a fellow traveler with Communism, perversion and Evil, and on the left it’s interpreted as reactionary, as probably coming out of some extreme revulsion at the sexual revolution.

This debate is probably the right one, and this agreed upon axis is probably the real, definitive axis in the narrative of Neuhaus’ life, but I have to put the axis, the crucial decision, at a much later point. To me, Neuhaus' life-altering decision was the one he made to support America’s invasion of Iraq. Doing that, he chose to go against his Church and his Pope. He chose, it seems to me, between realms. He chose, from my off-kilter view, politics and nationalism, war and blood, lies and power. In the standard account of the decision of his life, he converted to Conservative Catholicism, but when put in a place where he had to decide between Conservatives and Catholics, he rendered everything unto Ceaser.

To steal a line from a friend of mine, Neuhaus provided religious cover a deeply unchristian set of foreign policies, while betraying what would have otherwise been his life’s work.

b) Mark Driscoll is selling Indie Rock Jesus. With his style and his theology, he’s taking the stripped down “authentic” aesthetic, with a little of that Ol’ Timey religion and a startling sense of white privilege, mixing it with a dislike for the poppier tastes, and then he’s offering it online, on facebook and myspace and iTunes and youtube, and you can listen to it and you can buy it – take it home and it’ll be your life. More than anything in this New York Times piece, this is what bothers me. More than questions of style or theology, more than sides of debates about cultural relevance, and what does that mean, I am bothered by the way Mars Hill, at least in this article, sells Christianity as a lifestyle choice.

How is Indie Rock Jesus different than Indie Rock (even as the fashion is fading into a VH1 special)? How is Christianity different than Starbucks, Apple, Disney, or Ford? How, exactly, is belonging to a church different than belonging to a gym, or being a “regular” somewhere?

Everyone agrees that Christianity, if it’s worth a crap, is going to change the way you live. And everyone agrees that Jesus, if he’s real, ought to be relevant to how we live today. But whenever I see this worked out, demonstrated, I end up feeling like I’m seeing another version of people making meaning in a consumer-driven society: Christianity as a brand, complete with logo, loyalty, sense of identity, and market-based meaning.

Driscoll’s not the only one, obviously. Rick Warren’s church got big because it acknowledged that Christianity is a brand, another identity and sense of meaning for sale on the market. Warren sold Jesus exactly the same way we successfully sell SUVs and breakfast sausage. Call it “Saddleback Jesus.” Everybody since Chuck Smith has been doing this consciously, and everyone before him was doing it unconsciously. Driscoll has Indie Rock Jesus, but that’s not any different than business manager Jesus, salesman Jesus, hippie Jesus, GOP Jesus, or workout Jesus. The messiah who once made a whip when the temple was turned into a marketplace, has now himself become a market.

Ultimately, I don’t really care what Driscoll does, but I can’t tell you how I’m any different. The message of American capitalism is that you are what you consume and you are what consumes you. I worry that as I try to consume Christ, I’m being swallowed by an economic ideology. I worry that my faith is not really, practically, any different than a choice of shoe, but just another way to make up meaning and sense of self in a world where everyone’s consuming and being consumed.

c) Driscoll’s “New Calvinism” reminds me that it was the old five-pointers who taught me some important things about Christianity. They were the first ones I heard say that my response to Jesus shouldn’t be based on the effect of that response. They thought eternity ought to be irrelevant, and they emphasized that God wasn’t dependant on me. It’s a Kantian point, I guess, but one I heard from them and one that was important when I tried to be an atheist, and later when I’d come to questions about the eternity and efficiency of grace.

I still, though, end up rejecting Calvinism. For one thing, its God, as described in the answer to the problem of evil, is monstrous.

I guess some people think we should have gotten over the problem of evil, dealt with it already or whatever, but it still insists itself to me. How you answer or don’t answer the question seems to determine everything else: Your ethics, your description of God, your relationship to the world, your interpretation of the cross and understanding of atonement.

I think it has to be answered. My answer, the one I’m working with, is the agnostic ethical answer. I don’t know about God, but I’m trying to always take the part of the victims, the widows, the orphans, the strangers and the damned. It’s the answer you heard from Tom Joad:

"Then I'll be all around in the dark - I'll be ever'where—wherever you look. Wherever they's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever they's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there... I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad an' -- I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry and they know supper's ready. An' when our folk eat the stuff they raise an' live in the houses they build -- why, I'll be there."

I feel like I need to add, though, that the reason I was there in the first place, “wherever they's cop beatin' up a guy,” was to get some kicks in. I am not naturally on the side of the oppressed, but have to choose to give up lynching, and I always have to worry about “scapegoating to the second degree.”

d) At St. John’s, I always sat next to the stain glass window depicting the temptation of Christ. It made me laugh, because while Jesus looked sufficiently Semitic, Satan was translucent white, and very European.

I was thinking, the other day, about the way I was taught that Jesus’ answer to the temptations was his crucifixion. The passion of Jesus, with Pilate’s question asking him to declare himself king and the thief and centurion demanding a show of miraculous power, was explained to me as a sort of concluding temptation. I was taught, too, that the reason Jesus rejected the temptation options was because of, basically, a methodological difference. He was the king, he was the ruler or all the kingdoms and principalities and powers, he was the almighty, but he could only take was rightfully his through this subversive plan of death. I was taught that Satan was right about the ends, glory and power, but just wrong about how Jesus should get what was his.

I’m uncomfortable with that interpretation, now. I think it makes the death a ploy, a political maneuver. I think it means that Satan and Jesus, in the temptation story, are playing the same game, share the same goals, want the same thing.

I wonder if Christ wasn't just rejecting the means to power, but also power and the pursuit of power? What if the crucifixion wasn't a trick, but was in fact the most profound loss, the greatest failure possible, where the king of all refuses to make a claim, refuses to win or even play, and so rejects the whole structure of the game? What if, when Jesus refuses to say he is the king of the Jews, he's not doing this as a way to gain kingship, but is, just like it looked to the despairing disciples, abdicating? Could it be that he is choosing powerlessness, choosing not just to reverse the structure of oppressor and oppressed, winner and loser, master and slave, but is actually saying that he, who is God and equal with God, like Paul says, wants to subvert the whole damn thing?

Isn't that why the cross is foolishness? I think this is the extension of the logic of incarnation. God gave up divinity. God gave up omnipotence, and became man. Then, as man, he refuses power, refuses to be made king, refuses to pit himself against Ceaser, refuses most of his followers, and then doesn't object when he's wrongly accused, doesn't try to save himself, and dies. Supposedly he died and descended into hell, but we treat the death as if it weren’t death, but an interlude, a comma, a campaign stop on the way to power.

I think we do a disservice when we see this as political. We should see this, I think, as dramatically stupid, profoundly counter-productive, and a shocking failure. Otherwise, Christ’s death was just economics, simple bartering.

e) For some time now, people have told me about New Monasticism and about Crunchy Conservatism. I have enough common sympathies with both groups to make it seem like I might joyfully join the one cause or the other. I hold those common sympathies, too, so I find myself wanting to defend both, and the intentions and real causes of both, and even to protect them (or their core kernels of cause) from my own criticism. Thinking about New Monasticism and Crunchy Conservatism, I have to untangle what’s so right about these groups with what it is that I always find lacking.

Seeing the one criticize the other connected them, in my thinking, and may have clarified what bothers me.

Both are trying to be more holistic, in their lives, and trying to be more conscienscious and responsible. Both are attempts to extricate from consumer capitalism and attempts to give up the white western privilege whereby we exempt ourselves from the problems we create.

At that point, I agree, and this does sound like me, and people ask have I heard of … But I end up with problems at precisely the point where New Monasticism and Crunchy Conservatism think they’re successful. It’s right there where they think they have done it, have extricated themselves, that it seems to me they have created another privileged self-exemption.

Courtesy of Slovoj Zizek, I think of this as the problem of "The Village," likethe M. Night Shyamalan movie. The group, in the movie, recreates the problem it sought to escape. The monsters are the organizing principal of the village, both in its founding and in its continuation, and the attempt to escape is the cause creating the thing to be escaped. To go with another Shamaylan movie, “The Happening,” the confused and misunderstood story of white flight, the more we escape, the more we extricate, retreating to the city park and then to the suburbs, the new suburbs, the country, the mountains and then finally into survivalist bomb shelters, the more pronounced the problem becomes. The Happening is interpreted, both by critics and by the characters in the film, , though neither are exactly reliable sources, as a tale of environmentalism. But the environment at the center of the story is human society (family and friends, neighborhood and community) which is falling apart in the very first scene with a Kitty Genovese moment where a woman’s scream offers everyone the choice: Engage this unknown violence, take on this impossible responsibility, or escape it, which is exactly the move that created it.

To quote Zizek, "What if the true Evil of our societies is not the capitalist dynamics as such, but the attempts to extricate ourselves from it (while profiting from it), to carve out self-enclosed communal spaces, from "gated communities" to exclusive racial or religious groups? That is to say, is the point of The Village not precisely to demonstrate that, today, a return to an authentic community in which speech still directly expresses true emotions, etc. - the village of the socialist utopia - is a fake which can only be staged as a spectacle for the very rich? The exemplary figure of Evil are today not ordinary consumers who pollute environment and live in a violent world of disintegrating social links, but those (top managers, etc.) who, while fully engaged in creating conditions for such universal devastation and pollution, exempt themselves from the results of their own activity, living in gated communities, eating organic food, taking holidays in wild preserves, etc."

New Monasticism and Crunchy Conservatism are both typically critiqued as fanciful and impractical. My objection is precisely the opposite: They are not impossible enough. The programs are very workable, in the context of consumer choices, white privilege and personal exemption. I know that’s not what they’re trying to do, but I don’t see how they can be anything else.

f) If Protestantism is understood as involving, in its essential makeup, the individualization of religion, so that the primary religious act is conversion – making a choice and starting something, vs., say, continuing ritually in the faith you were given – then we are all Protestants now.

Observe the Pope Pius X Catholics, or the many many Conservative Episcopal sects in America, who are opposing their respective church authorities for not being authority enough. That is, even those who would oppose Protestantization have to be Protestant, making that individual choice.

This probably doesn’t matter, but it’s sort of the same point as the inevitability of Capitalism, ala Che’s face as a brand and the way critics are always sucked into the system, compromised by the structure they oppose. And this probably doesn’t matter either, except that I’m always worried about the way Christianity acts as ideology and mingles with markets, and I’m always worrying about inescapable problems and impossible things.

Jan 9, 2009

Edge of rot
Thirteen and down
from Clapping Carnival Rasp

Jim watched as the wheel went, and the wheel went wheel as he watched.

Jim watched as the wheel went around and the wheel went around and around. It went around and around in a blur, blur in red / blur in black, and the croupier said, “Jump back, it’s luck paddy-whack tonight.” The wheel went around and the ball bounced down, bounce bounce, slow around, and the ball bounced down and around danced down and the ball – bump, bump – dance a lucky dance tonight.

The ball went bump and the ball went bump and the ball went bump in a blur. Jim bet it all. He bet it all. Jim bet it all and the money was down.

Jim’s eyes shut so he couldn’t see, he crossed his fingers and he could not see: Click clack luck, “luck tonight,” he couldn’t see, Sinatra sang right, and the change went jingle and the croupier cried (lady in lingerie almost died). Lucky number lucky number lucky number two. This is it. This is all: Lucky number lucky number lucky number two. This is it. Here they fall. God guide this, nothing to all: Went around win a round, you gotta love the lady, blurry number blurry number blurry number too.

The wheel spun red-black-red, with the clock, hope tick tock. The wheel spun black, black-red-black, and then it slowed -- then the croupier, “oh, ohhh, ohhhhh-ed.” It went around past, it went a round passed and slowed, slowed slowed down. Seventeen, sixteen, fifteen, fourteen, thirteen and down. Thirteen and down.

It slowed.

It slowed.

It slowed.

It slowed, slowed down.

Everything slowed. Even light. And sound. Blood beat sludge, and shouts were muddied down. Eyes batted, paused, paused, and batted. A single ice cube in a single scotch cracked as a waitress set it down. There was a single look, an enlogated oblong word, fake Sinatra held his note, and Cindy decided she would say yes, like what he wanted, but she wouldn’t call him Frank.

Everything slowed down, down dramatically, so the slot machine coins clinked separately, and the clocks lost their places momentarily, and everyone forgot everything, summarily. There was a pause, a pause and Jim thought of Mary Lee, and he thought, “This is it, this time, tonight.”

And then the wheel stopped. And the coupier said, “Black two!” and Jim knew, and he screamed and everyone got excited and they screamed and jumped and screamed and then they laid their money down again and the wheel was spun again and it was starting again, but Jim walked away.

He walked away from the roulette, past the poker and the black jack and all the cards and craps. He walked past the women with cups of coins and past the old black preacher in a bow tie. He walked away, past the lipstick ladies, past the conference of firefighting athletes, the immunologists and the Midwestern businessmen and the past the Persian cat collectors. He walked out without collecting any money and he stood there, where he could smell the Atlantic in the air as it came into the city, and he smelled the air and the rotting sea smell, and he felt OK for the first time in a long time. A long time. And he stood there smelling, smiling and smelling and smiling, until Cindy stuck a gun into his back.

She had a little name tag, tacked on her blouse, and it said “Cindy” in black-on-gold, and she had a little silver .22 and she said, “Don’t make me go through, go through, go through with this, mister. I just want what you won.”

Jim looked down at the gun and he laughed. He laughed loud, like he meant it, and he said, “I’m sorry, I’ve been trying to loose that money for two years and I just finally got rid of it. I’m sorry, but that was it. I didn't mean to mislead you. Money was miserable, and it’s finally gone.”

Jan 7, 2009

Vito the king

They called him Vito, like Vito Corleone, like the Godfather, and maybe that was even one of his names. He was 10 years old.

I saw him in the courthouse halls, a big kid with confidence and a stride and his hair cut into a mohawk. His mom was still outside, parking the car and calming her nerves with quick inhales, but Vito knew the way to the courtroom and he went through the metal detector without saying anything and he rode the elevator up to the third floor and hall to the courtroom. He didn’t have to ask directions.

The district attorney was sweating up at the prosecutor’s table, drinking diet coke from the bottle, screw top tossed to the trash, waiting and sweating, not because he was worried but because he was a big guy in suspenders and a spotty beard who sweated his way through the day. I was in the back. I was slumped down so I could see the whole room -- the bailiff reading a catalog of home décor and the lady attorney with the day-old sticker saying she voted for Obama, the mother of the murdered boy not looking at anything and not crying, not now. One of the lawyers, the one with the hip hair, he was up, standing up, standing there telling some story he thought was hilarious. It might have been, but I didn’t hear the beginning. I had a novel stuck in my pocket but didn’t pull it out. I doodled on my pad. I doodled a doomsday trumpet for an angel to blow. The homicide detective came to talk to me, to tell me something and see what I knew, see what I was thinking and what I might write. I said, “who’s up next,” meaning next to testify, and he said “Vito.” I didn’t know who Vito was and he said, “You don’t know Vito? He’s a 10-year-old drug dealer -- You believe that? He lives in that neighborhood. He’s the youngest of the whole family and all of them are in the system. Ten years old and he deals.”

I wanted to know how long he’d been dealing, since you don’t just start, there’s a system and you start doing deliveries or keep look out and then you graduate. The detective didn’t know. He said that whole area, that whole neighborhood was bad and said, “can you believe it?” as if it were a challenge of faith, and he said when he went there, on a homicide, he had to say he wasn’t there for drugs and didn’t care about drugs only death, before anyone would say anything.

I told him I believed him, but it didn’t seem to matter.

When Vito came in everyone turned and he smiled. They looked at him and he liked it. He sauntered a little, up the middle of the courtroom, and pushed through the little gates that swing like they came from a saloon and he sat up in the witness chair. Like he was supposed to be there. He was supposed to have seen something, to be a witness to the murder, but on the stand nothing seemed to be clear except that he liked to be there. In the center. Where people were paying attention. On cross examination he admitted, yeah, maybe he wasn’t there, which everyone seemed to already know, and then the judge in his bow tie asked about perjury and Vito said no, he didn’t know what that meant, what that means, but he said it like he wanted to. The judge liked to talk and he leaned down to explain and Vito smiled, the biggest smile, a beam, a smiled that seemed to take in everything and say “yeah.”

“Ten years old,” the detective said, and I could see him saying it again his head, like even he didn’t even believe it.

I followed Vito out of the courthouse, just to see him walk. I knew he wouldn’t talk, his mom wouldn’t let him and he had a lawyer too, but I wanted to watch him. This kid. This 10-year-old who looked like he loved everything. I’d seen kids who looked like kids who’d got in trouble and kids who looked all doped, kids who’d been got up like gangbangers and kids who were writing raps about merking. But I’d never seen Vito. He walked like a mayor. He walked like he wanted to be Obama. He tried to touch everyone. He said hello to the punked-out kid in the glasses in the hallway and he knew the names of all the ladies at their desks and phones. He waved to the bailiffs with their handcuffs hanging from their belts and made jokes for the lawyers lugging leather satchels. He knew the names of the car-jacking kids and the dope runners and the fighters and the runaways too. In the parking lot he nodded hello to the smokers and to the poll workers and the tax assessor who was leaving for lunch. I saw him when he left. Walking with that stride. Mohawk turning as he looked at everything. Confident he was the king.
Year's first snowball

When architecture photos are taken
Abandoned London
Rendered for a boast, now 7 years later
Proposed CIA chief against torture
Robot butterfly
Bees freebasing cocaine
Trying to clear Crippen
Michigan’s Stonehenge?
How to fight pirates
Gaiman’s singular creation
As Billy goes higher …
A financial history of the world
Giving a shit
Zizek on everyday ideology
Zizek: Thank you for running over all my books
Theology after Lacan?
“Bush shoe” sells like crazy
Stooges guitarist Ron Asheton dies, may he rest in peace
Ergo propter hoax
Uncle Ron on Israel & Gaza & us
House of the rising punk
Derrida on Islam & the West
America, a fortress on a hill
Paperback dreams
Dostoevsky in 5 minutes
Poems are little machines made out of words
Bad form and content extensions
Kafkaesque Amerika
Remembering Westlake (May he rest in peace)
Elmore & Westlake
Revisiting Hearst
The American president is only secondarily a person
Progressives of 2008
Rise of Maddow
Invitation to a stoning
Political campaign frames Gaza war
Calling for unconditional cease-fire
Lee Friedlander’s photography

Jan 5, 2009

Gibberish tongues
from Clapping Carnival Rasp

The tongue in her mouth fought and flopped, like a fresh fish abandoned to air. It flipped and flapped, slapped her jaw and the roof of her mouth, a spasm and a spasm and a spasm. Flip flap, roof-jaw roof-jaw, slap slap slap.

She couldn’t make it stop. Mary’s mouth moved without her meaning it too, shuttering in stammers, stammering in sputters, spitting utterances out she didn’t understand. She was standing in the kitchen, looking out the window at the hill and the breaking of the sky and her guy, Jim, working on his boat. She was standing at the kitchen with the water washing into the sink where six carrots were sitting, half submerged like orange alligators, when she began to speak.

She said, “Shama halja halya abba onai onai nanai.” She said, “Hama lattae slinging shinga oma my paparatati alla gonar.”

She thought, I am losing my words.

And then she spoke and words came out green and rough, ruff ruff. She spoke without even meaning to and she heard how her teeth clacked, when her mouth smacked closed, and she sat down so her body’d be still, if not silent.

When Jim came in and tried to talk to her, his words were all yellow flowers falling. They were swirling out of his mouth. Mary stared at them and tried to follow the words as they spilled and spun, hung and then fell, but she couldn’t catch them with her eyes. She couldn’t hear what they meant.

He said, “Mary what is it? What’s wrong? What is it?” But all she heard were nonsense words and gibberish tongues.
Coming to me

Jan 2, 2009

Just reading

I read every day on the way down the mountain. The hulking old truck went running down the road every day of the season. The steering wheel sloppy, Dad kept the old Ford pointed forward to follow, more or less, the yellow line as it doubled down around turns, weaving as we wound down to the valley where we mowed lawns.

We left every morning when the sun came up, with the day catching in the leaves of the trees at the top and then the light working it’s way to the orchards at the bottom. We left every morning in that green, galumphing Ford and got to the gas station and the start of the day at a little after 8. Dad bought the newspaper, the one for Fresno and one for San Francisco. He got gas if we needed it. Ice for the water for the day. A soda or something to drink. And I sat up from the back seat and put my book down.

The Ford had a big, flat back seat, with enough room to lay down but no place to put your legs if you sat up. So I’d crawl in over the folding front seat and lie there and read while we rumbled and bumped towards the work of the day.

I read Bonhoeffer that way, Orwell and the histories of the American right, the histories of the militia movement and a biography of Johnny Cash. I read the Hunchback of Notre Dame, Robert Louis Stevenson, and old Baptist tracts on Christian primitivism. I read Steinbeck that way and conspiracy theory books and I read about Christian Reconstructionism and American history, about the rise of guerrilla war and the things out about Y2K. Once I read a history of the USMC, even though I had no particular interest in the Marines, and my mom asked me what I was preparing for.

It wasn’t a program of personal improvement. I just wanted to know about everything.

There wasn’t really anybody to say what I should read and I didn’t have any sort of list, any set of proscriptions or any descriptions of great books, so I just read what there was to read. I read what seemed interesting and always followed the surprise of subjects, the sudden sight of titles and just read. I just read. I liked reading, and I wanted to read everything.

Guys used to get defensive when I’d read at lunch, working labor jobs. Wiry little tree climbers would say, “Jee-zuss. I know I’m not a professional conversationalist or anything, but no one’s ever said I’m this boring.” Beefy guys with big burl shoulders would say, “So what, are you going to be the President someday?”

But I always read anyway. I read John Locke’s first and second treatise while working at Taco Bell. I read Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses while working Wal-Mart’s night shift. I read Derrida and Elliot Perlman at the gas station. I read before dinner, before bed and in the minutes between things. I read while water boiled, while the shower water got hot, and while waiting for people.

I didn’t read because I was supposed to read. I didn’t read what I was supposed to read. I didn’t read because the library posters showed books exploding into rocket ships and castles. I just read because books surprised me. Because the world is big and weird, because it’s always complicated and crammed with things I didn’t know, I read every random thing I could.

The other day I read physicists have proposed a solution to a problem I didn’t know existed, and that thrilled me. I read that during World War I, one of England’s richest men abandoned the House of Lords for an apocalyptic cult. I wanted to know more. I read how Dick Cheney used back channels to build an imperial presidency, and I wanted to know more about the history of that idea.

I guess, some people read to escape the world. Some people read to be better. Some people read for meditation and some for tests and some for education. Every time I open a book, though, I’m reading because the world is weird, big and wild and weird, and always interesting.

Books I read in 2008:
1. Mother Night, by Kurt Vonnegut
2. Killing Johnny Fry, by Walter Mosley
3. The Narrows, by Michael Connelly
4. The New Kings of Nonfiction, ed. by Ira Glass
5. Maytrees, by Annie Dillard
6. The Last Good Kiss, by James Crumley
7. Pagan Babies, by Elmore Leonard
8. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, by Mark Haddon
9. Once Upon a Distant War, by William Prochnau
10. Chuck Klosterman IV, by Chuck Klosterman
11. Armageddon in Retrospect, by Kurt Vonnegut
12. Motherless Brooklyn, by Jonathan Letham
13. Rope Burns, by F.X. Toole
14. The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, by Tom Wolfe
15. How the Good Guys Finally Won, by Jimmy Breslin
16. The Ticket Out, by Helen Knode
17. The Toughest Indian in the World, by Sherman Alexie
18. Children of Men, by P.D. James
19. Swag, by Elmore Lenoard
20. The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K. Dick
21. Suttree, by Cormac McCarthy
22. White Jazz, by James Ellroy
23. Charlie Wilson's War, by George Crile
24. Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman, ed. by Malcolm Cowley
25. Dearly Devoted Dexter, by Jeff Lindsay
26. Play It As It Lays, by Joan Didion
27. Mystic River, by Denis Lehane
28. A Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson
29. The Wrecking Crew, by Thomas Frank
30. The Hot Kid, by Elmore Leonard
31. Consider the Lobster, by David Foster Wallace
32. Their Eyes were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston
33. A Red Death, by Walter Mosley
34. Violence, by Slovoj Zizek
35. Obscene in the Extreme, by Rick Wartzman
36. The Reluctant Mr. Darwin, by David Quammen
37. Bless your Dirty Heart, by Holy Hubert Lindsey
38. Stranger than Fiction, by Chuck Palahniuk
39. The Vonnegut Statement, ed. by Jerome Klikowitz & John Somer
40. The Moving Target, by Ross Macdonald
41. Mr. Paradise, by Elmore Leonard
42. Angler, by Barton Gellman
43. Freaky Deaky, by Elmore Leonard

Unconnected things

Picture windows

Vergangenheitsbewältigung and Der Baader-Meinhof Komplex
Orwell’s essays
Being 96 years old means people expect you to count things
Book design battle
Google nuke
The minister’s morgue
Waiting for Fidel to die
Understanding Tintin, a very Euro hero
Death to modernism
Obama as liberal neocon
What Europe wants from Obama
A review of Obama on Flickr
Discontinuing the imperial presidency
Tear down that mall
North American Alligator discovered in Australia
The Big Bounce theory
Mug shots of the year
A pre-history of the Beats
Deep Throat “reconsidered” by intelligence community
Greenspan, patron saint of pool skatin’?
Top political upsets of 2008
Presidential quitters
Fight over NASA future
Architecture following J.G. Ballard
Ballard and reason and nightmare
J.D. Salinger turns 90
Another memoir faked: Trust suffers
An environmentalism for all of us
Heeding a Call, Pastor Moves Family To Crime-Shaken D.C. Neighborhood.
Five basic holocaust plots
10 weird animals of 2008
Knitting brains
Facebook’s war on nipples

What happened to the muni wifi movement?

Extensive interview w/ Rowan Williams
Rage and outrage in Mumbai