A Tale of Judgment and Grace

A Tale of Judgment and Grace

I was at the library, pretending to write. The man at the table across from me was on a Zoom call, and he was loud. Pushing fifty and sunburnt. Fancy haircut in a pink polo and khakis. He brayed into his laptop about quarterlies and metrics and clickthrough rates.

Hearing half of a conversation hijacks the brain: it struggles to fill in the gaps so it can file away the voices as background noise. But it can’t. Or at least mine can’t.

So I became convinced this sunburn with teeth was the avatar of the utter lack of care or even bare-minimum awareness of other human beings that has poisoned public life. This was the antichrist, I thought. Yes, this man was what the end of civilization looked like.

I decided to say something. But first, I needed to make sure the people were with me. A woman two tables away nodded in the man’s direction and rolled her eyes. Good enough. I was ready to stand up. Tell him to knock it off. The muscle fibers in my thighs twitched, about to rise.

Then a child appeared.

I don’t know anything about children, but this one was three feet tall, and I think it was a girl, although it was difficult to say because a bandage was wrapped around her bald head and her skin was grey save for the purple rings under her eyes. She wore a gown with a chunk cut out to accommodate a machine that sent tubes into her nose, and she cradled an armful of books as she toddled up to the antichrist’s table, grinning so wide it made me smile too. “Daddy, look at all the cool books I found!”

I hung my head, and when I looked up again, the antichrist had become a saint. An exhausted father just trying to do his job while looking after his sick kid.

I thanked something I don’t quite believe in for saving me from myself and sparing that child from a scene of me haranguing her dad about civility. I made a promise to do my best to treat everyone as if they're dealing with something heavy. Because they are.

But it’s hard. Hating that man was easy. I enjoyed it. I could have turned up the volume on my music and focused on my work. Instead, I removed my headphones to be more fully annoyed. Why?

Because righteousness feels good. Righteousness is intoxicating, oftentimes addictive, because it provides a sense of purpose, even when its premise is false. And this is far more likely to lead us to societal collapse than some middle manager on a Zoom call at the library.

A Psychedelic Throb
Devotional Collage #3, starring my grandfather and Interstate 70

A Psychedelic Throb

Sometimes the light filters through the plate glass windows at Target in a way that feels like church. When the sun dips below the strip mall horizon, it washes the self-checkout lanes and the mannequins in women’s apparel in a honey-red radiance, and for a moment, we pause our carts, and there’s a hush that says be still and silent and know that I am God

But really, what is the point of me? Everyone else on the internet seems to have a schtick, a claim to some kind of expertise. Meanwhile, my head is gunked up with fragments that point in all directions. There’s half of a zen aphorism about a fingernail pointing to the moon, but I can’t remember why this is supposed to be profound, although I swear I read somewhere that your uncoiled intestines can reach the moon.

Last night, we watched tornados threaten our neighborhood on the news while sirens rang from all corners of the county. We cheered when they zoomed into our street. They told us to wake our neighbors and take shelter, but we remained glued to the TV as a psychedelic throb of purple passed over a map of where we lived. The weather people said they’d never seen anything like it. When the blob reached the Target a mile away, we went to bed.

And what of silence? Lately I’ve been concentrating on the sliver of quiet between each passing car on Route 33 outside my window. Although I’m still reckoning with panic attacks on the highway, the thrum of nighttime traffic lulls me—perhaps an echo of growing up in apartments along Interstate 75 on the edge of Detroit. Some people are afraid of silence. They cannot tolerate it. I’m learning to savor it. 

Except when I fall asleep. I need to hear someone mumbling about the past. Fall of Civilizations is my favorite thing for this, and it feels timely these days. Last night I learned that, five thousand years ago, the Sumerians gave us sixty minutes in an hour because they counted the three joints on four fingers five times and believed this was a sacred number.

They Enter Our Minds Like Bats

They Enter Our Minds Like Bats

In Greek mythology, dreams were often personified as Óneiroi, black-winged demons that enter our sleeping minds like bats to deliver messages from the gods. Last night I dreamt I drank perfume and had a minor role in a detective show in which none of us could remember the name of the president between Johnson and Ford.

This week our previous president went on trial for being sleazy, and I envy the optimists who think this might save our republic. Meanwhile, my therapist taught me how to give myself a panic attack in twenty seconds flat. He wants me to do this five times every day. I’m finally giving psychology a shot, and it was long overdue. Gutting it out wasn’t getting me very far. Each night, I drive along deserted highways with the Chromatics, trying to get my interstate mojo back. Each day, I feel a bit better, even though the world feels a little more insane.

Strange how it’s perfectly acceptable to say ‘goodbye’ in person or over the telephone, yet it transforms an email or a text message into a suicide note. In other news, I no longer understand the atheist who wants to talk people out of their gods. I often think about this line in First Reformed: “The desire to pray is itself a form of prayer.”

Someday We Will Conjure New Gods to Console Us

Someday We Will Conjure New Gods to Console Us

Last night I woke up to tornado sirens. Wind rattled the walls and lightning filled our flat like a thousand camera flashes. We stood by the window and watched the howling dark, even though this isn’t what you should do in a tornado. On the local news, the weather people nervously discussed a map of angry red streaked with purple. Tornados in February were not normal, they said. But I’m learning to give up on normal. Global heat records have been shattered for the ninth month in a row.

When the Atlantic washes over Interstate 95, will a new age of miracles be upon us? Will we conjure new gods to console us or continue to relitigate the beliefs from the past? American politics have taken the place of religion, always a scary sign, but there will be no miracles there. The candidates for president match the moment: exhausted and deranged. What comes after that?

As the world becomes more uncertain, are we easy marks for grifters, opinion merchants, and faith dealers? “Philosophy is no longer the pillar of fire going before a few intrepid seekers after truth,” wrote Bertrand Russell in 1946. “It is rather an ambulance following in the wake of the struggle for existence and picking up the weak and wounded.” Will the future deliver a new Vishnu or Buddha or Jesus Christ or Muhammad? Perhaps they’re already out there, asking you to subscribe to their newsletter.

I crave more mystery, more distance and shadow and myth. Today’s televisions come with a ‘motion smoothing’ effect that transforms movies into a nauseating hyperreal. I do not need 120 frames per second when the eye requires only 12 frames per second to imagine motion. It’s good to have a bit of chop and static, some fog on the stage.

Scene from My Notebook

Scene from My Notebook

Lately I’ve been trying to loosen up and make a mess: fast collages, illegible notes in the middle of the night, and the inky smudges of a left-hander. There is no logic yet, but the scenery tilts toward the religious.

I want to believe in God but don’t know how. Some say it’s just a matter of making a decision, even inventing your own higher power if needed. But I require proof. A burning bush. A voice that shakes the heavens. Imagine that: demanding God prove itself to me rather than the other way around.

Meanwhile, the nation is preparing for an eclipse tomorrow. They’re playing countdown clocks on the news, and astronomers and astrologers are getting equal attention. Words like gammaperigee, and orbital plane blur with talk about realigning our spiritual nodes and dramatic upheavals in our karmic journeys. Arkansas and Maine have declared states of emergency because of the traffic, and in rural Illinois, a Super 8 motel is charging $949 for the night. So many energies are colliding around this grand and rare event, possibly the last event, to pull everyone into a moment of shared reality before we go our separate ways.

Then again, if I look carefully and squint a little, maybe the bush is always burning.

A Staggering Kind of Stillness
Tuning into cosmic frequencies with C. and the in-laws

A Staggering Kind of Stillness

The television mumbled in the background, and we followed along as the eclipse passed through Mazatlan, Dallas, Little Rock, and Indianapolis. When our turn came, we stood on a ridge by the river and watched the moon chip away at the sun. A lone helicopter crossed the sky. The temperature dropped. The light turned silvery and dim with crisp strange shadows. Dogs barked. Birds stopped chirping.

Darkness fell quickly from the north, bringing a staggering kind of stillness. For ninety seconds, the eclipse was total, and I stood beneath it feeling a giddy sense of slippage, a perceptual freefall that edged toward the frightening. The television had not prepared me for this.

Although I was grateful for the brief fellowship when everyone across a troubled hemisphere was momentarily joined by the sun and moon, broadcasting their experiences in real-time, I tried to imagine what it must have felt like to encounter such a chaotic sky in ancient times, bewildered and alone. As daylight returned, I understood why the first rituals were performed to ensure the sun would rise each morning, and I wondered what the last ritual might be.

Debris
Yuji Agematsu's "Zip" series | Columbus Museum of Art

Debris

There is beauty in repetition, the steady accretion that comes with committing to one thing day after day. Yuji Agematsu collected bits of debris in his cigarette packs on his daily walks, and they became a gloriously deranged calendar. What can I commit to doing each day? A couple hundred words and a photograph or a collage? Maybe there’s some sense to be made—or good nonsense to be found—in the debris of my old notebooks.

Altar

Altar

The time changed yesterday and nefarious forces are afoot, delivering personal setbacks, professional disappointments, and hard forks in the road. Also, a favorite character on a TV show died (if you're watching Tokyo Vice, then you know) and my speakers refuse to connect to my device. In times like these, I’m grateful for my little altar, where I practice my meditations each morning and night (except Saturdays). “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone,” wrote Pascal back in 1654. It remains a struggle. I fidget and sigh and glance greedily at the clock. But they say there’s no such thing as good meditation or bad meditation; there is only meditation. The same might apply to running; I’m not sure if it can be said for writing and design.

Inventory of my altar:

1) a patch of fake IKEAN grass because synthetic nature tickles some pleasure center I can’t quite describe (although I’ve tried). I find it very reassuring.

2) a small brass Buddha that came from god only knows. I found it rattling around a cardboard box seven years ago when moving from New Orleans.

3) a Charity Island “round stone” that delighted my grandfather, who enjoyed telling long geological stories while we stood in the cold by Saginaw Bay.

4) a chess piece my father carved after one went missing in Wisconsin because chess was serious business for us while we waited for a lung.

5) a Garry Winogrand photo that captures the joyful lunatic energy I’d like to bring to the new thing I’m writing.

6) a Glade lemon + bergamot mist diffuser that smells like a fancy hotel lobby. Available for $12 at Target.

7) a handy visual timer purchased after reading Jack Cheng’s newsletter. (I spent ages dithering between Fern Green and Pale Shale before choosing the green because it matches my fake grass.)

I share this because I'm fascinated by the totems and rituals of others. At my Thursday night philosophy book club, there’s a gentle old Catholic who likes to say, “God can’t give us happiness, so he gives us habit.”

Mysterium

Mysterium

The muscle memory of New York is durable. Hopped on the G train and spent the weekend in my old neighborhood, where I expected to get misty-eyed while a montage of memories played in my head. But as I stood before my old building on India Street, I simply thought yep, I lived there fifteen years ago, and it was a nice time, and now it has passed. My neutral reaction disappointed me. Maybe I’ve seen too many movies.

Later that night, the lights went out and a bottomless drone filled the shell of a former glass factory in the industrial zone between Brooklyn and Queens. Then Godspeed You! Black Emperor took the stage. One of my all-time favorite bands, and I had no idea what they looked like. I expected elaborate beards, aggressive tattoos, and maybe cloaks. But they looked normal and sane, like your kid’s cool history teacher. Then came the Biblical guitars, joined by 16mm film loops of flowers and vacant buildings and wildfires and crowds mowed down by firehoses and choking on tear gas. Unlike any other band, their music captures modern dread with hope burning along the edges.

A few hours earlier at the Museum of Modern Art, I visited one of my favorite Francis Bacon paintings, another traveler into glorious nightmares. A few days before that, I came across the phrase mysterium tremendum et fascinans, which belongs to Rudolf Otto’s concept of the numinous, “a non-rational, non-sensory experience or feeling whose primary and immediate object is outside the self . . . whereby the human being finds himself utterly abashed.” The mysterium tremendum repels and reduces us to a sense of “humility, submission, and creatureliness,” while the mysterium fascinansattracts us and generates spiritual joy (and thus feels less interesting, at least for the stories I want to tell). But taken together, mysterium tremendum et fascinans effectively describes the appeal of artists like Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Francis Bacon.

As I left New York City, the driver played Bon Jovi’s “Living on a Prayer” several times and never said a word. I milled around the airport, again trying to make peace with my sweaty palms and wobbly legs. I consoled myself by an elaborate fountain, where I ate a burrito and started the first pages of Tony and Susan, the poorly named novel that inspired Tom Ford's Nocturnal Animals, one of the most frightening and beautiful films I've seen. This line resonated: “It was the habit of his mind to know the worst case, the ultimate. His life was a scenario of disasters that never took place.” Somewhere over Pennsylvania, my fear of heights evened out, and I listened to Godspeed while I admired the lights of civilizations below, glimmering in a sea of absolute black.

On a Shrinking Globe in an Expanding Universe

On a Shrinking Globe in an Expanding Universe

My fear of flying kicked in the moment I entered the queue for security. Tingling limbs. Kaleidoscopic vision. The gloopy sensation of walking through a nightmare. The plan was to fly to NYC to see Godspeed You! Black Emperor and catch up with some old friends. I had not flown by myself in a decade, and by the time I approached the jetway, I was sweat-soaked and sick. My brain was a fire alarm telling me not to get on the plane. Reimburse so-and-so for the ticket. Enjoy a quiet weekend at home. Not a big deal. I turned back, shouldering past confused passengers. Then I boomeranged around a trash can and hurried onto the jetway.

My brain is ridden with omens and ghosts and catastrophic visions, which I'm beginning to understand is the squealing of a misfiring organism determined to protect itself, throwing up every possible reason to flee. An inauspicious flight number. The sound of the door closing. The metal roar of the engines. Turbulence. Just the thought of these things is enough to send my nerves into Stone Age terror: shallow breath, constricted vision, a mad urge to climb the walls. But there's no reasoning with a glitch. A broken machine cannot repair itself. Thought cannot fix thought. This was my magnificent revelation at 35,000 feet, which I now realize is the point of everything from Zen to stoicism to the power of now. But I need to learn my lessons the hard way.

I felt like a hero as the plane descended over Queens. If you squint through the window, you can see the Unisphere from the 1964 World's Fair, which was dedicated to "man's achievements on a shrinking globe in an expanding universe." In 2009, grass was growing in the area representing Antarctica. A year later, the piece for Sri Lanka blew away in a tornado. Maybe there's a metaphor here. (Either way, the Wikipedia page for it is delightful.)

Instead of Disappearing Completely

Instead of Disappearing Completely

An Alberta clipper shocked the metro area last night with six inches of snow. I crept along at twelve miles per hour in whiteout conditions, scrolling past spun-out cars as I headed to the superstore because I needed some peanut butter cookies and a case of Topo Chico to get the weekend started.

Fact: the Topo Chico that comes in clear glass bottles tastes slightly better than the tinted green bottles.

As the world becomes increasingly incomprehensible, I’m learning to find pleasure in the ultramundane and routine. My preferred table at the library. The Thursday night philosophy book club I’ve joined. In the evenings, C. and I watch Tokyo Vice, my new favorite show. It’s a slow drift with neon pouring down car windows and violent men with righteous hair, punctuated by delightful moments such as Ken Watanabe watching Full House with his family. And god, it makes me miss smoking. (This piece in Vulture is a good companion if you’re one of the five or six other people who watch it.) After I perform my nightly ablutions, I like to fall asleep to old documentaries about Rome. I fantasize about Rome and Tokyo, but right now, I’m happy where I am, existing in pleasantly neutral conditions that give my mind room to roam on the page.

My friend O. sent me a WikiHow tutorial called “How to Disappear Completely.” (He stumbled across it while searching for something else; he’s doing okay.) I can’t stop thinking about this article: the clinical tone without any trace of an author, the untalented illustrations in shades of pastel, the hard turn from “running away usually isn’t necessary” to “withdraw cash gradually from any bank accounts you have.” Beneath a lightbulb icon, there’s a tip to “make sure you have enough food and water with you.” This tutorial has been read over two million times and has three-and-a-half stars. I give it five stars as a creative writing exercise that lives in the genre of horror: an aggressively benign presentation that launches the imagination into frightening terrain.

At the superstore, a little girl said, “Most of the things on my street are dead.” I think she was talking about the trees in the winter, but what an excellent sentence to start a horror story or fuel an awful dream.

Kevin Richard Martin – To Disappear

Black | Intercranial, 2023 | Bandcamp

Kevin Richard Martin’s subterranean eulogy for Amy Winehouse. Boomkat described it as “the elegiac appeal of Bohren und der Club of Gore at a midnight crossroads with Rhythm & Sound,” which might be the Platonic equation for all the music I enjoy. This is a perfect late-winter soundtrack.

Why Am in Ohio?

Why Am in Ohio?

C. and I left the desert sooner than expected because an ideal apartment opened up down the hall from her parents. At first, I did not want to leave Vegas. Not so soon. Then I thought about how I would move heaven and earth to live down the hall from my parents if they were still here. A different timeline, perhaps. I like my in-laws. They taught me to play mahjong. And it's a rare gift to live down the hall from them. When I lived with my father while we waited for a lung, I quickly discovered it wasn't the weekend dinners or games of chess that mattered—it was the day-to-day business of schlepping groceries and being nearby when he tipped over.

Truth be told, I like our spot in Ohio, even though this fact gnaws at my soul in the hour of the wolf. It's more diverse and strange than I expected, the food is fantastic, we live by a river, and there's a magnificent new library eight minutes away. We only lived in Vegas for a year, but by then, I knew my fantasy of the desert did not square with my reality. I imagined spending my days roaming the white spaces on the map, perhaps growing a long beard and summoning visions like the ancients. Instead, I spent a lot of time at Target. Despite hanging maps of the Mojave on the wall, I could not capture the hungry eye that comes with road-tripping, and there's an interesting phenomenon at work here: the psychology of the resident versus the interloper. 

Living in Ohio reminds me of Tarkovsky's Stalker, which I haven't seen in years, but I remember it as a fable about the need for a mythic place. Three men search for a room that can fulfill your deepest desire. When they reach it, they are too frightened to enter. Because what meaning would life hold if you were utterly satisfied? They fear terrible men might abuse the room, yet they cannot bring themselves to destroy it. The promise of fulfillment it offers is necessary in the world. The room's presence is enough.

Maybe I need the desert to remain a fantasy. Perhaps an annual pilgrimage will do.