Kerouac Mourns His Cat

I remember the oceans

the waters

the women

the moments filled with friends

every sin

I remember too much

I remember everything

mind twists the moments

Into tales

truth is no companion

no more room left here

for those left behind

loneliness rises like the tides

Trials

I just imbibed two healthy pints of Scotch Ale, a small handful of psychedelic mushrooms and a chunk of potent marijuana brownie…while printing 32 greeting cards so that I can replenish my rack at the grocery store and contribute to my gasoline fund for future trips into the present.

I’m hoping that some combination of the above will somehow blast me out of a sense of helplessness in the face of all the craziness and suffering, although I know it’s not really my responsibility and that I’ve done my part to advance this whole contraption…

I’ve been watching VICE NEWS documentaries looking into the darkest corners of the world, watching ‘Severance’ and ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’, reading a Jonathan Franzen novel about a Christian youth group and reliving so many moments in the deep past in order to write about them, and writing about them, and wondering if this voluntary isolation from all the world matters anything at all.

I can only bear witness:

“This happened…this is what I felt.”

There are moments

There are moments

Hough – 1966

I stand on the corner of Euclid and Liberty, the University at my back, the edges of the ghetto across the street and about a block away, the rotating flashes of cop cars at a blockaded intersection. It’s a little past the curfew, but I’d been pulled by some compulsion to come this way and have a look.

I participate in a summer college prep program that’s part of the president’s ‘War On Poverty’. Two nights ago, returning from a concert in the suburbs with a small group of students and counselors, we found the lights around the dormitories and in the courtyards mysteriously dark. The dorm entrances were locked, and everything was weirdly quiet. When we banged on the doors to be let in, a counselor furtively appeared and breathlessly asked us where we’d been. Someone earlier had heard gunfire at the edges of the campus and everyone had gotten quiet and had hunkered down in their rooms. Coming inside, we found the lights inside the hallways and in the stairwells also extinguished. So we hustled into the elevator and took it up to the second floor. When I started down the hallway toward the open door of my corner room, I saw that a couple of people were sitting on the desk and gazing out through the wide window. As I approached, I realized that the whole horizon of the city appeared to be on fire. The people in my room, friends of mine, had families living in those neighborhoods that were on fire.

The next few days were strange, as if we were living in a war zone. One evening we sat on a balcony, watching National Guard convoys streaming out from the college into the neighborhoods. Earlier in the day they’d descended from the armory up the heights and set up camp in the sports field next to the dorms. As darkness fell they proceeded, guns at the ready, from the wealthy halls of learning out into communities seen as epicenters of unrest. I’d begun to look at the architecture and arrangement of University buildings as a literal fortress against the poor. Troops and supplies were channelled down a wide highway into the campus. The university was like an island of higher learning, with the upper middle class heights at it’s back, surrounded on three sides by the ghetto.

Earlier today I watched a Guardsman playing Gershwin on a grand piano, in the student Union.

Tonight I have to be a witness, so I walk right up to the borders of a frontier, where the stores are closed and everything is tense, but quiet, in the aftermath of a receding wave of explosive anger. I can sense that there’ll be more waves, perhaps many more, to come. Given our history, maybe in 50 years the geography will have shifted, but we may still be under siege. At this moment, I stand in the shadows, on a quiet corner, watching a scene of roadblocks and paranoia, wondering whether its safe to cross the street.

Cleveland

Robert, campus shaman, student of medicine and law, late night DJ, always scruffy and aromatic, with lank and greasy looking hair and patchy beard, wears like a primitive vest the fuzzy unzipped liner of his trench coat. He stands behind me, holding a pair of wooden shoe trees, one in each hand, occasionally rattling them imperiously. We are thirteen stories up, on the roof of Robert’s dormitory, surveying a landscape of lit up buildings and the strange activity below. A group of our friends are wandering in a group that gathers to sit in a circle on a concrete plaza between the fountain and the lights. They’ve taken to howling like a pack of wolves.

A week ago we sat down during rush hour in the middle of the busy street that bisected the University, protesting the war. More than a hundred students joined us. Traffic stopped, the police arrived, and we spent hours being chased across the campus lawns, dodging cops on horses and clouds of tear gas. That evening Robert and I ran ahead of a mass gathering of demonstrators at the Student Union, to post ourselves on either side of a stairway leading into the ROTC building. As we sat awaiting the impending march, the president of the University and a coterie of deans and professors, having been roused from their evening cocktails, approached the stairs and asked us who we were. We dutifully replied that we were “Gargoyles”. The bewildered clique of administrators and elite instructors retreated, just ahead of the mob of students that soon arrived to occupy the building. As the excitement subsided and the party began, Robert and I walked over to his gig in the basement of the student radio station. All night we played ‘Carry On’, the first song on a new release by Crosby, Stills and Nash…”Carry On, Love Is Coming To Us All…”

This week ‘Students for a Democratic Society’ are in town for a national conference, organizing against the Vietnam war. A slew of delegates have arrived to share space in the dorms and make use of various classrooms and student facilities for councils and teach-ins. In advance of and perhaps in preparation for their arrival, the campus is awash with a plentiful supply and variety of cannabis and psychedelic product. When evening arrives, for the first time ever a general state of paranoia has vanished, towels as smoke barriers are removed from under doors, all doors are thrown open, music and parties flourish everywhere. Thus a great anti-war gala and political convention is launched.

Withdrawing from the celebrations, I retreat to my dormitory room, having ingested a quantity of LSD. I feel the need to be apart from the company of others while being launching into this chemically triggered revery. When I enter the dark room, all is quiet and empty and reassuring. Before I can take another step, the calm and familiar voice of Timothy Leary breaks the silence. It issues from the speakers on my stereo that I’d earlier left tuned to the campus ‘underground’ FM station. The voice sad, “Sit down Ralph”.

Frozen in motion and completely astounded, I obediently sit on the edge of the bed near the door, and listen.

The good ‘Doctor Tim’ takes me on an amazing guided tour of my own nervous system, the surrounding universe and the whole history of evolution that leads to the miracle of my human DNA. As he speaks my mind is gently and relentlessly forced to open, in stages. I hitch a ride, from the perspective of our amoebic ancestors, through the unwinding narrative of the evolution of my brain, on to a transcendent vision of a common destiny that’s beyond all space and time. The whole time, out of time, I hardly move a muscle, sitting on the edge of the bed as the story unfolds. Finally I’m talked gently into a safe landing, back in the room I’ve never left, and in the present dimension.

I carried the puzzled surprise and synchronicity of that evening in my imagination for many years. At times I questioned whether the experience was just an elaborately constructed hallucination. Otherwise I viewed it as some kind of unexplainable and secret initiation. Decades later I came across the account of an early psychedelic session, guided and taped by Timothy Leary with one of his grad students at Harvard. The student’s name happened to be Ralph Metzner. Mystery solved?

Colorado

Hitchhiking across the deserts and plains of the southwest, between California and Utah, I’m stranded in a small town with a growing band of fellow travelers. We’ve stood around for hours, having left Salt Lake City going east, descending on the other side of the Wasatch Mountains into a community at a crossroad for tourist and trailer park families. As our numbers keep growing it becomes increasingly unlikely that anyone in middle America will stop for a scary looking gaggle of long-haired young people.

Fortunately there’s a U-Haul agency in town. Someone has the inspiration to pass a hat, in which is collected enough cash to rent a truck, big enough to hold us all, pay for gas, and pick up a few stragglers along the way. We load up and cruise through the night, across the sage covered flats of western Colorado. We finally arrive in the early morning at Granby Reservoir, near the base of the high Rocky Mountains, where a growing campsite of wanderers gather for their walk up mountain trails to the site of the first Rainbow Gathering.

Negotiations have commenced with nervous ranchers and farmers that have set up a roadblock on the road between this camp and our destination. With the help of a sympathetic rancher the barrier is dismantled and we’re able to complete this last short stretch in our pilgrimage. We’re ferried by school bus up a dirt road, from the outskirts of the small town of Granby to the borders of national parkland. A steep winding trail leads us up to a wide meadow that borders a small alpine lake, surrounded by pine forests and overlooked by snow covered peaks. Strawberry Lake. A banner stretched across the final leg of the trail welcomes us “Home”, to this temporary collective refuge in the wilderness. Pilgrims arrive from all directions, most of them escaping the cities in this crazy nation with its crazy politics and prejudices, after years of frustrating struggle in the political trenches. We were looking for some better way forward, or maybe some kind of magic to manifest in the natural world.

I take off along a narrow trail that skirts the edge of the valley, hauling my rucksack and heavy sleeping bag, looking for the perfect spot to set down. In my pack are copies of the first Whole Earth Catalog and the Oxford Annotated Edition of the Bible. I walk beneath pine forests swaying in summer breezes, listening to the soft whisper that carries the sound of not so distant drumming, and the scent of community cooking fires. Finally I come upon an inviting patch of level earth beneath a sheltering tree. The ground is flat and covered with a carpet of pine needles, a little elevated from the path. I decide this is my place, and lay out my sleeping bag and pack. Carefully collecting small pine cones, I place them in a border around the space and outline a welcoming path to enter for anyone who might pass by. I’ve claimed the spot as my own magical circle in the wilderness. All are invited to share.

For hours I sit, listening to the constant sound of drums that come from clearings around the meadow, were people gather for food, conversation and rest. Through the treetops I can see distant snowfields just below the mountain peaks that loom above. Where I come from there aren’t any mountains, except in movies and fairytales. After absorbing the awesome landscape for a bit, I walk down a path that continues to the center of the meadow and the shore of the lake. A council, made up of whoever chooses to attend, gathers continually to tell stories of their journeys, to relate prophecies and mystical visions, and to discuss plans for the days and the ceremonies ahead.

We are dreamers who grew up in the shadow of violence, wishing for a better future. Many like me, had been to the Woodstock Festival or something like it. We’d witnessed the sheer power of our collective will, for better and worse. We hoped that here in the wild, away from the electricity and the crowds and the dependent delusions of civilization, we might encounter some revelation to guide us forward on a path toward some sort of universal peace.

On the last day we gathered in wide prayer circles on top of a high plateau that had been sacred to the displaced people who once lived here. I stood in a wide circle, surrounded by all of these mountains, and hundreds of people praying or chanting or being silent. We were all are waiting for a sign. In the middle of a moment of collective silence, the voice of a single person interrupts. The voice comes from a tall dark man with a shaved head and an incredibly open smile. He’s wearing saffron colored robes, his accent is rather thick, and his presence suggests simultaneously calm wisdom and innocence. For many, the voice is a rude interruption. For others it’s a guide.

For me, I came to realize in the years that followed, it was the sign.

Orlando

We arrive on a special flight from Denver to Orlando to attend the event, on a plot surrounded by Florida forest, a couple of miles from Disneyworld. We work in a community grocery store run by Divine Light Mission, an organization built to spread the words of our teacher and master. To keep the store running during the week long celebration, a skeleton crew is left behind during the first half of the event. We tend the shelves and counters and listen in the evening to the talks and music broadcast across a short wave connection in a downstairs office. For the final days we’re brought across the country to fully take part in the festivities.

The first morning after arrival I’m assigned the duty of porta-potty supervision and sanitation. By late afternoon I’m switched to service in the darshan tunnel, where I attach gardenia blossoms to the silky blue fabric of the walls. Through this fragrant space each one of the thousands of devotees will walk, to receive a moment of attention at the feet of the teacher. From toilets to tunnel is a journey of a few yards that feels like a journey between dimensions.

The Florida weather is clear and immaculate, an occasional bird or butterfly drifting overhead in light warm currents that carry the scent of ocean air. I sit in a grassy field next to a row of my traveling companions, at the front of an audience of several thousand people. On stage before us is a colorful throne surrounded by flowers and framed by cascades of cloth drapery. Just below the front of the platform a small band of amplified musicians sings and plays a mixture of devotional tunes, interweaving elements of American folk and rock with Indian themes. Everything harmonizes in this soundtrack for a large summer celebration.

The music weaves a rapturous spell over the crowd. A vacant field is transformed into a village, in a corner of heaven. From nothing we built a small community in a matter of days, with campsites, showers, latrines and international kitchens. A multicultured army of people that spoke every language on earth, shared a common will, to celebrate life and love together and have an opportunity to be with the one who brought us together.

In the afternoon we sit, entranced in a state of near ecstasy and expectation, until the teacher, dressed in a ceremonial costume evoking a Hindu deity, steps from behind the drapes and takes his seat upon the throne. As the band launches into an electric version of an ancient hymn, he beams down at his audience, like a rock star overseeing adoring fans. Suddenly, a young woman, dressed in a colorful sari, stands up from our row at front and center, and begins to dance. As she gracefully sways to the music, her arms in the air above her head, the colors she wears swirling around her, the teacher stands in resplendent grace, and begins himself to dance.

In that moment for me the time stops, the birds and butterflies for an instant are frozen in flight, and the sunlight and breezes pause in expectant silence. All of my attention is carried by the dance, and all of time and space stops as witness, and there is no separation between anything that exists in the world.

Idaho

The child held her hand as they cross the road in the middle of the valley. Where I stand, at the edge of a forest where the highway begins to climb on its way toward more distant heights, the wide alpine valley is in full view. In its center is a row of buildings along the strip, tiny in the distance. There are the resort cabins where we sleep, beside them a restaurant and convenience store, all perched above a meadow bordering a meandering creek. Across the asphalt what passes for a village includes a widely scattered collection of residences, a real estate office and a clinic. Behind the town and clinic is a small lake bordered by wide pastures, that eventually ascend to the edges of forests which sweep in graceful steps upward toward the distant Sawtooth Mountains, arrayed in sharp display against an endless sky.

The woman and child below are my wife and four year old son. They cross the road to climb a short path toward the clinic. Having come down with a mild but persistent cough that afternoon, and having a history of asthma, my wife decided to take him to the doctor for a cautionary checkup. Meanwhile, I take this short walk in the hour before dinner.

Before I come to the edge of the tall trees on the top of the ridge, while I watch my young family below, so exposed amid this enormous vista of primitive majesty, when my sense of time and space is suspended. Beneath these vast mountain skies, in the shadow of these mountains, I feel something within me expanding far beyond the usual boundaries of affection. For a moment my feelings embrace it all; people, mountains, valley, stream and village. More than at any previous moment in my life, everything I witness is enveloped within a boundless atmosphere of love.

Then I turn again toward the trail, and that feeling is lost to the winds.

Black

Living in the middle of a White Sea
I apologize to John Mike Thom Daryl Sonia Jamal Ken
Nicolle Tameka Jolene Diane Erika Barclay
Malcolm Shirley Joshua Sergia Nathaniel
so many more

To all those who succeeded
Who got to their goal
Because they were brilliant and creative
and got lucky
And those who didn’t
And those who died going under
While I didn’t do anything special
floating in a world of white dreams
white luck white privilege
without trying
Because I could
Because I am
Because I’m lucky
I am sorry so sorry
You were my friends
I allowed myself to be pulled away
and lost you
I forgot your names
but remember your faces
Now I live on a mostly white Island
Far away from you
Your streets your beautiful homes
Your inviting arms and spaces
I don’t know how to return

The night I drank too much ‘Orange Flip’
and threw up in your basement
on your mothers dress
You drove me back
To my house on the West Side
The white side
Where it was dangerous
for black boys to be seen
we were boys
so brave
You left me on the front lawn
Because it was after dark
Now I know that you were afraid

The women used to run their hands
through my hair
amazed at how light and fine it was
I would offer it now
toward reparations

Endless Grief

Endless Grief

Grief is an ocean. It comes to us in waves, every wave possessing a different character and momentum. This is an ocean we all live in from the moment of our birth. The grief of a child is easy to see; in growing up we learn to hide our grief beneath an endless variety of disguises. We weep, we are depressed, we stare at the walls or create art. Some of us learn to project our grief on others in the form of hatred and prejudice. Some of us seek redemption through power and influence. Some become saints and some become monsters.

We’re often told that we can ‘get through it,’ and once we manage to do so the grief will no longer dominate our lives.

I can locate two points in my life where the waves peaked. I was torn between total numbing withdrawal and the painful and cathartic release of the deepest pain. My freedom from the struggle came in the act of unrestrained weeping. Both events were in response to the loss of someone very close and dear to me, one was mostly due to my own regrettable choices and one was a suicide.

This past year I spent mostly in bed or on the couch fighting the onset of cancer (if ‘fighting’ is the proper word). My main occupation, besides taking drugs for sleep and pain, finding new ways to eat, and showing up for chemo, was reading esoteric fiction and Doctor Strange comic books going back to the early sixties. I watched old Star Trek episodes on Netflix and made cannabis tea. My strategy in dealing with the loss of function was partly nostalgic and partly a form of pure escape. It stifled the sense of passing time that was leading me toward some mysterious ending.

I was given a reprieve. Time returned me from a state of suspended possibilities, bringing me new opportunities for choices and a chance to reflect upon my interrupted journey. Release from work and the need to meet schedules set by others put me on a bridge between regret and hopefulness. I’d survived for now but had lost a degree of functionality. It left me with no certainty about where I was headed or where I wanted to land.

It left me reeling between feelings of almost absolute freedom and a deep conviction of failure and incompetence. When I finally arose from my time upon the couch, I faced an altered world. The peak of the worldwide pandemic coincided with the height of my own illness. Everything was changed. The undercurrents of grief and anger had risen to the surface. Everyone appeared to be traumatized in some way. Businesses were closed; streets were full of the homeless and hospitals full of the dying. Nearly everyone now is masked in public, while hidden emotions and collective resentments force their way toward the surface. Politics have split the nation into warring factions, to a degree that the basis of trust that makes a functioning society possible is seriously, and perhaps irrevocably, frayed.

Grief appears to be everywhere.

In spite of all of this I forced myself to climb out of the hole of indecision and aimlessness that had ruled my existence through a year of trauma. I resumed the discipline of sitting every morning in meditation, observing my mind in a mirror. I witnessed the ghosts and demons of repetitive patterns that carry me through both hope and despair. Gradually my life regained a sense of direction and purpose that informed my daily routine of waking, sitting, reading, listening to podcasts while making breakfast, then making the time to write or to practice photography. A feeling of freedom began to ascend over thoughts of self-hatred and despair.

In the ocean in which we swim only change is certain.

A couple of weeks ago I opened a series of doorways into computer hell. I automatically upgraded my computer to the latest operating system software without thinking very much about it. After the upgrade the application in which I did the organizing, processing and printing of my photographs simply ceased to function. Nothing I tried solved the problem. No help was available from either the software provider or the computer maker. The advice of these massive corporations was to wait a month or two until they managed to coordinate with one another.

My forward motion was brought fully to a halt as I spent many hours desperately seeking help online. Instructions provided by people having similar problems not only didn’t work, but their results forced me to take the whole mess to a professional technician. He first encountered the same problems I did, but eventually a workaround was found that not only cost me a lot of cash, but also led to the irrecoverable loss of a good chunk of historical data.

I found myself once again floundering in the waves. I felt incompetent and helpless, angry and depressed in turn. I couldn’t find the inspiration to write while obsessing on the problem. My feelings began to bleed into my relationship with the world of other people. Friends who could see my distress offered well-meaning advice, and the advice was angrily rejected. I felt that I was on my own, that there was no help to be had, that every choice I made led to worse problems. My anger was petty and mean and an expression of accumulated grief for the loss of relationships, the community of work, my bodily functions, and as much as anything the loss of the world I’d grown accustomed to living in.

I’m now in recovery mode, sorting through this relatively minor wreckage, and yet I feel some kinship with those who experience the aftermath of flooding, fires, earthquakes and economic collapse and have to rebuild their lives from the ground up. Although small in comparison, my problems evoke reactions based on far more than the event in itself. I carry with me the sense of everything I’ve personally lost and gained, as well as the victories and losses experienced by people all around me.

In the West we worship our individuality as if it were a Holy Grail, but it’s mostly a fiction. As much as we isolate ourselves and our feelings from others, we are inescapably social beings who share together both joy and pain, immersed in the currents that surround us.

Here I stew alone in my ‘laboratory’, surrounded by computers, camera, iPhone and streaming television, struggling to find my own voice through all of this. The place is small, two rooms with a kitchen alcove and a tiny bathroom. Every move in the past decade has seen me downsizing, sorting through every object that has a story, deciding which to let go. There’s little room in here to live in the past, so I’m forced to live somewhat ruthlessly in the present. Although I stay up on the affairs of my country and of the world, I’m growing more of a protective shell to separate my feelings from the emotional maelstroms provoked by our collective struggles. I often fail. The struggles continue and will never end, but their weight is never mine to carry alone.

Loss is a given, grief is forever, and I swim in the same ocean as all of you. We can’t stop the storms that are coming, but maybe we can learn to swim with the tides.

Stretching

I’ve in the last week picked up a copy of a book composed by Timothy Leary and associates back in 1994, two years before Leary’s death in 1996, and around the time when I was imbedded in the post-psychedelic New Age culture of art and speculation that nested in and around Santa Fe, New Mexico. I’d actually passed by Doctor Tim in person as he toured as guest speaker and celebrity for some sort of exploratory consciousness fair that took place at the city’s main Convention Center.

I am certainly no stranger to Leary’s thought and his writings. From the time when he was advocating from an eminent platform at Harvard for boundary breaking explorations of consciousness via LSD and Psylocibn, to the time when I spent days trying to process my own headlong perceptual journeys out to the boundaries of consciousness and beyond. I travelled along parallel paths while Leary made his way through prison and exile and paranoia and the trials that came along with pop stardom and self deification.

When I walked into my dormitory room at Case Western Reserve one night, getting off on some form of chemically induced revery I heard Leary’s voice come over the radio, telling me to, “Sit down Ralph.” He then took me on a guided verbal tour of my brain, the universe and the whole history of human DNA. It turns out that the ‘Ralph’ in the recording, played that night over the student station was of Leary at Harvard conducting an LSD session with one of his grad students, Ralph Metzner. I didn’t learn this until years later, and in the meanwhile carried it around with me like the inner knowledge of some secret synchronistic initiation, a mystery for which I sought no further solution.

The book I’m reading is one I wasn’t particularly familiar with, lent to me by a friend. It’s called “Chaos & Cyber Culture.” By 1994 Leary as visionary prophet had been largely discredited by both popular and serious academic culture. He had spent time in prison, in Europe and in North Africa, in flight from the American police, hobnobbing with revolutionary elites and movie stars and science fiction writers, hounded by governments and ideologues of the Left and the Right. The 60’s dream of storming the barricades of capitalist/consumer culture had long ago faded or been absorbed and replaced by the high octane quest for new meaning and new wealth accelerated by revolutions in technology and communication.

Society was itself going through the initial stages of the sort of destabilization one encounters on an acid trip. Timothy Leary, along with many former prophets and outlaws and explorers were now mere flotsam in massively circulating currents of change. He was gone before the currents would peak and then break into fading fragments after September of 2001.

The book is a collection of words and images splattered across pages designed in the mode of a psychedelic version of The Whole Earth Catalog. There are dozens of typefaces in all sizes floating in the form of giant quotes and poster graphics and images from the past and the future. There are interviews and conversations with the likes of William Gibson and William Burroughs and David Byrne and all sorts of artifacts assembled around a political documentary and summary of sorts of Leary’s broad visions of past, present and possible future.

Other than in worlds of extreme science fiction I haven’t read anything like this in years. Drawing on history, art, mysticism, biology, psychology, computer science and literature, framed with over-the-top optimism regarding the future of civilization and human consciousness, Leary’s vision has no boundaries, and in reading I grow increasingly aware of how much my vision and that of my culture has narrowed over these past four decades. As a nation and as a world we’ve become increasingly ruled by fear and apprehension, which by nature is a narrowing of consciousness to the primitive state of flight or fight that responds robotically to a wider and wider range of stimuli.

We sit in our cocoons of political power and economic anxiety and anticipate the worst. We are a shell-shocked population with eyes and ears open to more and more information but with less ability to integrate it into something that makes sense. We live in a world of chaos, awaiting signs of the next real ‘strange attractor’ that we hope can assemble all of this mess into meaning. We’ve entered a historic and geological period where the shocks come in accelerating waves of war, recession, natural disasters and forced migrations, and our response is to reach out to the person who promises to protect us and shield us and make it all right. Increasingly we realize that the future can’t be controlled by any power wielded by the few for the supposed welfare of the many. Individually we awake once again to the knowledge that the portraits we perceive of the world around us are painted mostly by ourselves.

At first this makes us all feel incredibly alone, until we make an effort to explore and find new ways to make contact with one another, not as crowds or constituents or mobs or armies, but as fully responsible human beings. Our challenge always, is to create entirely new realities for ourselves, through our storytelling and our imagining, that are fluid and adaptable enough to deal with the constant change that our world throws at us. We have the tools to do it, and our task is to awake to our possibilities and to summon the courage to face and dismiss those who would build walls out of our fear.

To the Super Bowl

So, this evening (Monday, Feb. 3rd) the REAL Super Bowl begins. Now that all of the Impeachment drama is coming to a close and the football drama is over for a year and we’ve watched the most expensive commercials ever made, perhaps we can get down to business of moving forward.

For the year’s total anticlimax there’s the State of The Union embarrassment taking place tomorrow, in which the Donald will…who knows what the Donald will do or say? The best approach in dealing with our Asshole in Chief is to ignore him as much as possible and go forward with our lives, using our thoughts and imaginations to conjure more palatable futures.

Rush Limbaugh is dying of lung cancer. That’ll take some of the wind out of the sails blowing toward oblivion. While Senators bloviated, the biggest news this week is that the Thwaite Glacier is getting ready to drop and could quickly raise the ocean levels by up to 3 feet. The impending drop of what scientists have dubbed the ‘Doomsday Glacier’ will only be the first of many. There goes one civilization, to be replaced by necessity with another.

I’ve spent the past three years stewing in the juices of my own anger and it has gotten me nowhere. The daily disaster has driven me to forget that the best way to observe the ongoing bombardment and spectacle of news and information is to step as far back from the sheer noise and confusion as possible. The news of the ‘moment’ is mostly made to sell personality and product rather than offering much in the way of useful information. What happens in the moment isn’t as important as our collective mediated response to it. The Reality we perceive in this digital world is of necessity always second hand.

We are each in the business of assembling a world that corresponds to our own predilections. For myself I’ve chosen to accept information primarily through online digital conversations, rather than merely accepting what is ‘broadcast.’ Avoiding antiquated mediums like television and radio or newspaper, I seriously engage with information only after it’s been processed through trusted networks of intelligence and discrimination, carefully evaluating the materials with which to assemble my own picture of the world. I’m a subscriber to reality, mostly through print and podcasts, and an occasional glance at headlines from selected inputs on Apple News or Flipboard or the front pages of newspapers.

When I encounter, as in the laundromat, televised news formats in real time I’m conscious that what I’m receiving is an agenda that has more to do with commerce than truth. This stuff, including all forms of mass public broadcast, from out and out propaganda to public radio, is safe to consume only to the degree that one is aware that every broadcaster has their own agenda. Whatever presents itself as absolute truth is only ideology.

Everyone I know who merely consumes ‘The News’ on television or radio appears to be driven crazy by it.

As a consuming culture many Americans are being consumed by cynicism, doubt and despair. The world we’ve constructed in our minds is one in continual emergency, to which we must react without being given a trusted set of tools to react with. Too many of us are swimming and drowning in a pool of helplessness where new alarms are shouting every day, “Danger! Danger!” After years of daily bombardment we are shell shocked and numb, unable to pierce the fog that obscures the future. Christians and New Agers await the Apocalypse, white supremacists look forward to their ‘boogaloo,’ conspiracy fetishists obsess over every revelation while screwing themselves into increasingly paranoid fantasies, and the rest of us deal with a growing sense of apprehension and dread.

Meanwhile, the world trundles on within webs of mind boggling complexity and we are swept along in rushing rivers of karma and consequence. So easy to imagine that we are either victims, or else we are fighting a constant war for particular outcomes. So easy for me to spew words into the void like weapons, effecting only to increase the chaos instead of offering clarity or hope.

Well, it’s a new year and I’ve been mostly silent lately, after what has felt to me like constant struggle against overwhelming odds. It’s true that there is struggle. The need for change is obvious. The change that’s needed however, can only come about through a change of channels. I’ve been paying too much attention to the idiots waving the flags, and too little time spent in a world where human beings are meant to live, one that’s woven through our minds and our imaginations, where we tell each other stories and look at dire situations as problems to be solved. This is the only kind of world where we have a chance to live beyond our fears. It’s the only world where we can construct the necessary bonds that will hold this ship together.

Let’s try something different for a change.

At Work

At Work

Put yourself in a box,
a tin can,
an official one.

Make lists.
Count inventory.
Walk the aisles,
dreaming art and poetry
only at night
and on weekends.

Watch the light
going out.

Take notes
with a short pencil
on a yellow pad:
“This is where I left my mind,
in this particular section
of this particular warehouse
before it was sold
and eaten.”

In Defense Of The OSCARS

One of the most prominent features of OSCAR season is the sheer volume of snarky commentaries by everyone from the film snobs of academia and the New York media to the ideological ranting of political junkies on Crooked Media podcasts. Now, I admit I’m a film junky if there ever was one. I fell in love with film in High School and watching Jean Luc Godard movies in college. I’ve been to film festivals. I even helped to get a couple off the ground. I subscribe to MUBI. I live in one of the best little towns in the USA for viewing the full range of diversity in the world of film. I’ve rubbed shoulders with filmmakers and with the snarky elite and have myself been among the snarkiest.

Every year we read and listen to dozens of movie critics complaining about the terrible choices the Academy makes in terms of the ‘art’ of film. Traditionally, reviewers focus on how the nominees are chosen more on the basis of popular taste and promotional hype rather than on true and timeless artistic value. They point out that the awards are more a self-congratulatory celebration of the mainstream industry than a tribute to true quality. More glamour than grit.

Fair enough. The awards are after all a mainstream Hollywood event, and the voting is been done by predominantly male and mostly white industry insiders. The spectacle of wealthy Hollywood royalty in gowns and tuxedos frolicking on the carpet brings up for some a bit of class resentment. Yet, for anyone who enjoys the movies on almost any level the Oscars are like the Super Bowl. (It’s a long ceremony and I confess that I just watch the highlights on YouTube the next day.)

Notably in the past couple of years, and this year in particular the selections have been deliberately widened to include a bit more diversity. In the top categories are films directed by women and minorities, films including both spectacular Hollywood extravaganzas and more modest independent productions, films by old Hollywood hands and first timers, films about both gays and straights, and even that touch the edges of politically sensitive subjects.

But in the year of Trump, to venture into politically relevant waters is to open the doors for even greater explosions of criticism and pent up resentment directed against an industry that has done much to support and maintain a status quo that we’ve all grown uncomfortable with. The movies and television after all are the mirror and lens through which a culture sees itself these days and most of us are addicted to the screen in one form or another.

This is one of the years when I actually managed to see most of the films nominated for major Academy Awards (7 out of 9) and enjoyed all of them to various degrees. Of those nominated for Best Picture my personal favorites were ‘Dunkirk’ and ‘The Shape of Water.’ My favorite performance was Sally Hawkins in ‘The Shape of Water.’ This isn’t what I want to write about.

When I opened my ‘New Yorker’ app the day after the ceremony I came across what struck me as a bitter diatribe against the Oscars by their film critic, Richard Brody. I confess that I found it mostly appalling, and now It’s my turn to snark back. Brody’s essay to my mind appears to abandon an appreciation of the art and spectacle of film to replace art criticism with ideological rant. It struck me as little more than an ideological tantrum filled with invective and spite, perhaps triggered because the author’s choice of best film didn’t get the prize, or maybe it was just part of the collective hangover we all have after a year of Trump, looking for a convenient outlet for letting off steam.

To begin Brody goes after the winners for being ‘flashy’ and ‘showy’ and “flaunting design…and drama.” This represents to him “…the Academy’s brazen self-celebration of the old-school pomp of classic moviemaking, as well as the Academy’s general obliviousness to the moment.” I wonder exactly to what ‘moment’ he is referring, and what, beside ‘design and drama’ is the missing element by which we should judge these films. Movies, after all, are artifacts of design and drama that attempt to evoke feelings of empathy and emotion and maybe a little intellectual awakening. These are the elements of a visual medium that differentiates itself from unpolished ideological bluster. As a popular art form, like opera or theater, it avails itself of whatever formal means is at it’s disposal. Even a director like Godard, who attempted more than anyone to blend film and political discourse, understood that his audience comes to be entertained as well as enlightened. No matter how modest the production value or unpolished the performance, film is an inherently spectacular medium when seen in a theater where the lights are low and the figures on the screen are 15 feet tall.

In his next paragraph Brody credits the Academy for honoring those in the industry that have been subjected to sexual harassment and violence, and then criticizes the presentation for “…keeping the tone of the proceedings cheerful, optimistic, and, above all, commercial.” Then he dumps on Kumail Nanjiani’s “…exhortation of Hollywood professionals to pursue diversity not only because it’s the right thing to do but because it’s profitable to do so.” The real crime of Hollywood is “…the intersection of doing good while getting rich.” When reading this I thought of one of Sam Rockwell’s comments about being in a lot of ‘indie’ films and being happy to have been in one that people actually come to see.

So now we get to the nitty-gritty of Brody’s objections: Hollywood is corrupt because while it may tell some valuable stories, it makes money while doing so.

After praising Francis McDormand for her acceptance speech and tribute to women in the industry, he goes on to dump invective on the film she starred in, Three Billboards in Ebbing, Missouri, which he characterizes as “…cavalierly, brazenly racist, not because it depicts racists but because it treats the very subject of race and the political effect of race on black individuals as a mere backdrop for the personal growth of white characters.” Yes, the film was a drama about angry white people in Missouri, and black characters, although treated sympathetically, were marginal to the plot revolving around three white central characters. Is this now the criteria for ‘blatant’ racism in film? Have you ever been to a small town in the Ozarks?

Then he goes on to stomp on The Shape of Water, which won the Best Film Oscar.

“It’s a movie that struggles, by means of ludicrously and garishly overwrought decorative and narrative complications, to endorse an absolutely minimal baseline of recognition of the “other.” It’s exactly the sort of wan and impotent message of bland tolerance that gets Hollywood to join hands in a chorus of self-congratulation.”

This is to me exhibits a degree of obliviousness to the actual nature of the film medium that I find astonishing. Brody attacks the director, Guillermo del Toro, essentially for his style of addressing current social issues through allegory and fairytale, claiming that this adds a level of sentimentality that avoids the seriousness of real issues. The writer is so wrapped up in his ideological cocoon that he apparently isn’t able to actually see the film he’s watching. The ‘fairytale’ elements of this movie, instead of obscuring the issues, make them more universal and timeless. The ‘sixties’ in this film are a stylized version of the film images of that time, not of the ‘real’ sixties, and by juxtaposing romantic images of our film memories with characters and situations that would not then have been portrayed so plainly del Toro subtly ‘tricks’ us into a fresh way to view the present. And aren’t all movies in some sense ‘fairytale’ reconstructions of real life?

Of course to Mr. Brody this summons a vision of that ‘classic’ Hollywood filmmaking that he apparently abhors. This is a style that approaches its themes much like Opera, incorporating elements of fantasy, stylization and pure emotion in order to construct something that conveys universal feelings and values and stands up to time. He criticizes del Toro’s film for being a ‘surrogate’ version of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, which is somewhat ironic given that the movie on the top of his own ‘year’s best film’ list, Gordon Peele’s Get Out pays deliberate homage to that very film, portraying the situation of an interracial relationship, albeit with radically different consequences.

I saw Get Out and liked it. It was an outstanding film, particularly as a first film written and directed by director Gordon Peele. I didn’t think it was one of the best movies I’d seen all year, though I particularly liked the performance by actor Daniel Kaluuya. (I first saw him in the Fifteen Million Merits episode of the series, ‘Black Mirror,” one of the best things I’ve ever seen on the small screen.) “The predatory destructiveness of white people’s self-love for their good feelings…” may indeed be the subject of the film, as Brody claims, challenging white folks inherent sense of privilege and an inability to see the humanity in the “other,” but at the same time it avoids taking itself too seriously. I would also add that by the writer/directors own admission it’s an homage to the Hollywood tradition of Grade B horror films that he grew up with.

We come back to the problem of the movies themselves. “The history of Hollywood is, in part, a history of depredation, of abuse, yet the celebration of Hollywood’s traditions and the assertion of continuity between the classic era and today’s movies was on view in the ceremony from the outset…” Well, yeah. The history of Hollywood is also the history of the evolution of an art form and a mode of storytelling that involves whole communities of artists, technicians, promoters and business people. As with every business in America, there has been and continues to be abuse and injustice, the disenfranchised having to struggle for rights and representation, and its share of the good, the bad and the ugly. There has also been progress, not only in the world of film but in the world that it attempts to mirror.

Finally, Brody refers to the real root of all this resentment, which arises out of “the…shock of life under a depraved new Administration…” and what he perceives as Hollywood’s weak and misdirected response to the depredations that we all now face. Instead of making films that are a direct assault on all of America’s failings and injustices it continues to make movies with the intention of making money. “Ultimately, the self-deception that Hollywood fears most involves the box office, which dropped six per cent in 2017.” The “most frightening foe” for Hollywood, he claims, is Netflix.

True, the structure of the industry is being radically challenged. Streaming services are threatening the Multiplex and the mainstream theaters are seeing a decline in attendance for everything but the cgi blockbusters. At the same time more movies are being made than ever before on every scale and are being seen by many more people in many formats, both inside and outside of Hollywood. The long form of extended television series has given actors and directors a whole new narrative structure to explore. The transport and projection of movies is evolving exponentially. Some aspects of the business will fail and some will thrive, but the people who love and make movies are creative and resilient and what inspires them is a uniquely human endeavor, the telling of stories, and this will always endure.

So if the people who make the movies indulge in a little ‘brazen self-celebration’ in between telling our stories, and they try and entertain us in the process, I don’t begrudge them. Tomorrow a lot of them will get up early and start setting up the lights, the cameras and the magic.

Hollywood’s Brazen Self-Celebration at the 2018 Oscars

Inauguration Day Hunter Thompson

“…my only regret is that I stomped too softly on the bastards.”  – Hunter S. Thompson

So, what did I do on Inauguration Day? Well, I  spent the day at work. My only link to what was going on was an occasional scan of Twitter on my iPhone during breaks and the sounds coming off a YouTube feed on the receiving guy’s computer.

The best moment was just as I was getting out of my car in the morning and the NPR reporter started talking about an “escalation” in the protests involving hordes of black clad demonstrators running down the street breaking windows with hammers and overwhelming the cops who they outnumbered at the time. It brought me back to my own younger days when we trashed the streets of Washington and outran the tear gas from the National Guard as they gathered to take back the city one traffic circle at a time. That was during the bombing of Cambodia. This one is about the inauguration of a human being to be president whom I find so repulsive that I can’t even bear to watch him on tv.

I understand that this sense of angst is more personal than political, harking back to the days of my youth when I had to deal with bullies in my neighborhood and at school. Still, the prospect that I’ll have to reckon with the fact that this abominable fool is pretending to be my ‘leader’ for the next four years is enough to allow me plenty of space to indulge.

Near the end of the day as I searched for more news of the demonstrators and their fates I got caught up instead in a long series of letters from Hunter S. Thompson printed in the Paris Review. This was exactly the therapy I needed in this bizarre space where more than half of America stumbles along in a mind numbing trance struggling to make sense of the insane turn the nation has taken and wondering, “What to do next?”

Ah Hunter, we could certainly use your unvarnished take on our failing dream these days. The closest we can get is Keith Olbermann, another former sports reporter like yourself, who comes from that parallel universe of hyperbole that only sports fans can comprehend, but that so keenly lends itself to political commentary. But Keith lacks your style of genius that rides the fine edge between the serious and the surreal.

But just to read your voice once again in these times we are in somehow reassures me that resistance is possible even in the worst of times. So, I think I’ll pass this on.

“Fuck the American Dream. It was always a lie and whoever still believes it deserves whatever they get – and they will. Bet on it.” 

Paris Review – Fear and Loathing in America from The Paris Review’s Tweet

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