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 I in Ohio?

Why Am I 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.

A Craving for Polar Horror

A Craving for Polar Horror

Sunny skies and the temperature is sixty degrees because winter is just a blip now, the bulk of it consigned to childhood memory. I’m dragging out the last pages of The North Water, Ian McGuire’s novel about a catastrophic Arctic whaling expedition. I’m reading slowly, not because it’s a slog but because I do not want it to end. I want winter to last a little longer.

McGuire is a hell of a writer. A lean 250 pages, this story rips along in a dignified yet ferocious present tense that details “fetid blasts of butchery” while smudging the lines between man and beast. McGuire has created an exquisite villain in the form of Henry Drax, a harpooner whose intuitive violence begins to make existential sense. “You can’t kill us all,” the captain tells him, to which he replies, “I ‘spect I can kill enough of you though.” And later: “I do as I must. Int a great deal of cogitation involved.”

But the location is the primary draw, with its snow-choked fjords, ice like cracked marble, and temperatures so cold your teeth explode. Polar horror is one of my favorite genres: the temporal dislocation of permanent night, the cosmic vertigo of being at the very top—or bottom—of the world, and claustrophobic outposts populated by characters with sketchy pasts who are running from their sins or searching for salvation. Then comes the inevitable moment when they must depend upon the heat of other bodies to survive, and once they leave the distressed ship or bunker, there’s a lot of room to go crazy.

And snow. All that snow covering god only knows.

The North Water joins Dan Simmons’s The Terror among my favorite polar horror stories. And there’s a fine television version of The North Water with Colin Farrell as evil incarnate. Viewing-wise, there’s also the bonkers Fortitude, the slow burn of Trapped, and the first seasons of The Terror and The Head. A verdict is still pending re: True Detective: Night Country.

Any recommendations for other polar horror tales would be much appreciated, especially now that a snowy winter feels more and more like a strange memory.

Ben Chatwin – Snow Crash

The Hum | Village Green, 2020 | Bandcamp
Mirrors to Deflect Danger
A portrait of me examining the head of Saint John the Baptist by Candy Chang

Mirrors to Deflect Danger

Boston. Eleven years sober and another year older. Spent ten hours wandering the galleries of the Museum of Fine Art with C., which is my favorite thing to do on this planet.

I fell in love with John Singer Sargent for the first time, I savored the tranquil light in Vilhelm Hammershøi’s Woman in an Interior, and I admired the paintings of François Boucher, who disliked nature because it was “too green and badly lit.” As for natural lighting, I’ve always appreciated the phrase ‘civil twilight,’ which describes the moment the sun sinks 6° below the horizon and perhaps the moment we’re living through today.

When I came across an artist whose placard mentioned “his untimely death at the age of 35,” I resisted a mad urge to look up the cause. Why do I crave this detail? Does it come from a decent place of human curiosity, or is it rank rubbernecking?

I love Catholic art. If I take a mental step back, it looks like Europe was absolutely out of its mind: little winged people flying around the heads of men who beat their chests and stare at the sky, zombies awakening after being nailed to posts, and so many elaborate portraits of breastfeeding. Or consider Francesco del Cairo’s portrait of Herodias with Saint John the Baptist’s decapitated head, “swooning in ecstasy as she mutilates the tongue that spoke against her.”

In the African wing, I was struck by a Kongo nkisi nkonde, a power figure that served as a healer of conflicts, its body studded with nails, each signifying a problem or a vow. “The figure’s open mouth suggests the uttering of judgment, and the abdomen and eyes contain mirrors to deflect danger.” I’m determined to work this detail into the new story I’m writing.

Sabine – Painting Portraits

Wurlitzer Jukebox, 1994 | via Southeast of Saturn Vol. 2
Why Does the Brain Torture Itself?

Why Does the Brain Torture Itself?

I’m on an airplane to Boston to look at some art. I’m still a terrible flyer. The first thirty minutes of every flight are spent in the thrall of a big-budget panic attack, my body pulling out all the stops. Pink-purple dots crowd my vision. My arms go numb and useless. My heart rate is jacked to an industrial techno bpm. This lasts from the moment the door closes and I realize I’m trapped until the plane has spent fifteen minutes at cruising altitude without falling out of the sky. When I look out the window, it’s a torment. I shouldn’t be up this high. But eventually, the screaming sense of I want to get down I want to get down subsides, and I accept my new reality. My vision clears. The tingles fade. My heart drags back to normal, and the scenery becomes a Burkean sublime: beauty twinned with reverent awe, a scale I cannot comprehend—the pink tops of clouds, the drift of tiny civilizations below.

I loathe these brutal nerves of mine. It’s like some alien organism has installed itself in my amygdala, utterly detached from truth or reason. Why does the brain torture itself? Perhaps these bouts of panic are a Jungian arrow pointing to an unsettled problem. Maybe my aura needs alignment. But my hunch is that it’s genetic and hardwired. My mother suffered terribly from agoraphobia. Lately I’ve been thinking about how she avoided the highway, even as a passenger, because this is happening to me too. It started last year in Vegas, and now I do not drive on the highway, although I still happily tear down surface streets and county roads, which makes no objective sense.

Quietly losing my mind in a window seat at 35,000 feet is fine. I can gut it out, even get to know it. But I should not explore my panic while seeing spots at 85 miles per hour between a semi-truck and some jackass flashing their high beams. To panic while driving on the interstate, of all things! I wrote a book about driving. I built a small personality around it. Looks like I’m finally going to have an adventure with therapy because this cannot stand. Now the call is coming from inside the house.

Starting a New Big Thing

Starting a New Big Thing

Columbus is the eighth cloudiest city in the country, and after spending a year in a very bright desert, I’m savoring the gloom. I’m still turning up at the library to write fiction every morning, and I’ve been pondering why I’m good at doing a particular task every day or not at all. If I aim for three or four times per week, I’ll push it around until it dissolves.

I’m starting a new book while I wait for my first novel about a loud god to cool off and collect feedback from a gracious reader. Then I’ll spend the spring and summer revising it a final time before I harass agents in the fall.

This new novel started while dredging up the half-finished short stories I’d squirreled away in various clouds and drives. The ones I expected to be worth finishing were ponderous and concerned with “themes.” Then I found a ludicrous three-page thing I wrote fifteen years ago about a cage fight at a nursing home. It was terrible. But a line from it kept nagging me: They returned to the old ways and shaved their heads, grew their fingernails long, and slicked themselves down with baby oil. I wanted to know the conditions that could bring such a world into being. Perhaps a reader would too.

So here I am, five thousand words into something I can’t distinguish from worthwhile or ridiculous, but I’m having big fun writing again. This is important because I’m certainly not doing it for money.

Starting a New Big Thing has taken the weight off the Old Big Thing and made writing feel much less precious and fraught. How many times have I encountered this advice in writing how-tos? Put your draft in a drawer for a few months, they say, then start something new. But I have a knack for taking the longest, most taxing route to common knowledge before finally climbing out of the muck and saying ah, right, there’s wisdom in that.

Loss Response

Loss Response

Woke at 8:30 and showered and filled a mug with coffee and drove straight to the library. Only when I sat at a desk did I take a sip, look at my phone, open a can of Helwit Salmiak, and satisfy the little beast inside me that craves caffeine, internet, and nicotine. This is progress.

(I’ve been importing my nicotine from Sweden and the shipping costs are killing me but I enjoy having an international vice.)

Flipped through a massive book of Gary Winogrand photos and selected characters for a new story: a gnarled old man who looks like he was muscle for a union in some midwestern town, another with a spooked expression like he’s spent too much time thinking about God.

Went for an ugly run in the rain, and it was gloriously dramatic in the mud and the grey. I’m picking up my mileage now that the weather is no longer fuck-you degrees.

Came home to the news that one of my favorite music producers was found dead in a Los Angeles hotel room, along with two other artists whose work I’ve admired. For fifteen years, Silent Servant has been a steady part of my life’s soundtrack, a name always in my playlists via landmark imprints like Sandwell District and Hospital Productions and Jealous God, and an early producer of one of my all-time favorite projects, Camella Lobo’s Tropic of Cancer. Now there will be no more. Goddamned fentanyl. It has claimed so many, and the chemicals are only getting weirder and more relentless.

Early in my sobriety, a loud old man in a church basement said this would be a life of stepping over dead bodies. I thought he was being melodramatic, but his words come to mind more often with each passing year. I loathe the moments when the suffering of others reminds me to be grateful. This should not be necessary. But tonight, I’m reminded yet again that my sobriety is like grace and cannot be taken for granted.

Silent Servant – Loss Response

Shadows of Death and Desire, 2018 | Boomkat
Hallucinations and Routines

Hallucinations and Routines

The winter has turned warm again. Rain and fog and highs inching into the fifties. I write about the weather because it is the only thing that feels true these days. This country is becoming a hallucination, everyone committed to the reality they prefer.

Time to get serious about writing again. Two hours at the library every morning except Sundays. A dead simple schedule, something I can remember even though I’m not a morning person—but I can no longer wait for the day to get out of the way. There will always be demands and obligations, but they do not need me before eleven o’clock.

Last week, I fell hard for IBM Plex, an open-source type system that is dignified yet future-facing, which is nice because the current future does not feel dignified. I want the things I design to feel the same: crisp, cool, and sane. It’s a never-ending search for the line between clarity and personality, a quest that might apply to dealing with the self as well.

Last night, I sat in a half-lit conference room with eight very different men, and we discussed God, forgiveness, and making amends to those we’ve lost. One man scoffed at the idea. “Let the dead bury the dead.” Another spoke of time as a kind of god, that we live with all that came before and yet to be born, which meant our dead were with us now. And why not believe this? Why not believe my dead are waiting for me to speak to them?

But I do not. Instead I drove around Ohio listening to Sisters of Mercy.

2023 Rotation

2023 Rotation

2023 got away from me, but I’m not surprised. Time itself has gone wobbly. We’re deep into the 21st century, yet I still find myself waiting for the future to begin. Music-wise, I’ve always enjoyed cobbling together a yearly list of my favorite new albums to mark the passage of time and cement some memories. Perhaps it’s a side effect of age, but each new release these days reminds me of something I’ve heard before. Whether this is a curse or blessing, I’m not sure, but I’d like to listen to a song that immediately gives me a splitting headache or, better yet, leaves me covering my ears while screaming that’s not music.

I tortured my parents with Plastikman and Boogie Down Productions. They assaulted their folks with Jefferson Airplane and The Byrds, and my grandparents probably did the same with The Glen Miller Orchestra and The Andrews Sisters. Youth should frighten middle age. This is the sign of a healthy culture.

My sense of losing touch is compounded by today’s condition of all-at-once, in which images and sounds hit our devices stripped of context and location and time, leading to a strange dual sensation of liberation and stasis. So this year, release dates be damned. Here’s the music I played most often or rediscovered or that delivered an unexpected thrill while motoring through the desert.

Scatterwound – 0.0 / MN / CB

Midira Records, 2017/2019/2021 | 00 | MN | CB

Ambient drone of the highest order. Each track ranges between fifteen and forty minutes, giving it plenty of room to slowly unfurl from the faint whir of an appliance into a monumental pulse that feels absolutely life-giving.

Scatterwound – 110512

Robert Görl – “Mit Dir”

Mute, 1983 | More

Everything you need from a pop song: streetlights washing across the hood, a cigarette nodding on the lip, a memory of being cooler than you ever were, and a hook that will worm its way into your dreams because even though you don’t speak the language, you get the drift.

Robert Görl – Mit Dir

Date Palms – The Dusted Sessions

Thrill Jockey, 2013 | Bandcamp

Sun-soaked desert drone like the hum of a distant powerline.

Date Palms – Honey Devash

Kevin Richard Martin – Above the Clouds

Intercranial Recordings, 2023 | Bandcamp

Music for a rain-soaked thriller in a fallen city: steam rises through the grates while trunk-rattling drums echo across windows with the shades drawn.

Kevin Richard Martin – Above the Clouds

Pieter Nooten & Michael Brook – Sleeps With the Fishes

4AD, 1987 | More

Midnight music by turns haunted and reassuring, here is the 1980s ancestor that not only birthed Bohren & Der Club of Gore’s turn of the century gloom but the emotional bombast of early M83. And “Searching” is a stone brooding classic.

Pieter Nooten & Michael Brook – Searching

Reinhard Voigt – “Robson Ponte 2”

Kompakt, 1999 | Bandcamp

Dusted off my Speicher and Kresiel records and rediscovered this unhinged ode to a footballer. Twenty-five years later, it’s still the best thing for running as fast as I can manage, and it still gets stuck in my head for weeks: Robson Ponte. Robson Ponte. Robson Ponte. Te. Te. Te.

Reinhard Voigt – Robson Ponte 2

Heart – “Crazy On You”

Dreamboat Annie (Mushroom, 1975) | More

A magnificent piece of songcraft, here is the plush sound of AM gold alchemized with some guitar shred. On average, I played this song every other day in 2023, each time stunned by the sound of a band doing everything they know how to do. It’s like mainlining the 1970s in five minutes flat.

Heart – Crazy On You

Philus – “Acidophilus”

Kolmio (Sähkö, 1998) | More

Mika Vainio’s dirtiest teeth-grinding moment, and he delivered so many full-bodied moments.

Philus – Acidophilus

Orville Peck – “Kansas (Remembers Me Now)”

Pony (Sub Pop, 2019) | Bandcamp

Woozy Americana that sounds like a half-remembered, rose-tinted fantasy, even if the song is about the murder of the Clutter family. “Come, Las Vegas sunset…”

Orville Peck – Kansas (Remembers Me Now)

Sandra Plays Electronics – Want Need / Sessions

Minimal Wave | Bandcamp

Late 1980s and early 1990s sessions from the muscle behind the indispensable Sandwell District and Downwards imprints. A concoction of new wave and no wave, punk and post-punk, industrial and pre-industrial, and every other genre that produces visions edging toward the sacred.

Sandra Plays Electronics – It Slipped Her Mind

Earth – “Coda Maestoso In F(Flat) Minor (Autechre Remix)”

Legacy of Dissolution (Southern Lord, 2005) | Boomkat

High-grade low-end head-nodding sludge. An essential tool for challenging times.

Earth – Coda Maestoso In F(Flat) Minor (Autechre Remix)

DVA Damas – Nightshade / Wet Vision / Clear Cuts

Downwards, 2014/2015/2016 | Boomkat

Voice, twang, and drums stripped down to raw spikes. Minimalism as a provocation, perhaps an act of seduction. Or aggression.

DVA Damas – Wet Vision

Plastikman – Consumed

Minus, 1998 | Bandcamp

A masterpiece and a monument, a cold hard tower of sound yet malleable like a Rorschach test depending on my mood. Twenty-five years later, this still sounds like the future.

Plastikman – Consumed

Prophets

Prophets

The Joshua tree was named by Mormons in the 1850s, who thought they saw their prophet pointing to the promised land. I wonder what it would feel like to see prophets and omens in the landscape. “God is not interested in our theology but only in our silence,” writes Cormac McCarthy in The Passenger, which restates Psalm 46:10 from a human point of view: “Be still and know that I am God.”

Stillness has been in short supply these days, and I’m trying to puzzle out the relationship between peace and growth. Does growth require pain? Or at least some degree of tension? I have yet to hear someone say their life was bursting with love and tranquility and they couldn’t count all the money in the bank and that’s when they decided to get spiritualized.

Desert Nomenclature

Desert Nomenclature

Virga is the name for precipitation that does not reach the ground. It hangs across the desert like a torn curtain. When rain does fall, the unique scent of a desert storm comes from the oil released by the creosote bush, and this odor has a scientific name, petrichor, derived from pétros, the Greek word for stone, and ichor, the mythic golden blood of the gods. In Mexico, the creosote bush is called gobernadora or “the governess” because its root system crowds out nearby plants. This is why they appear so evenly spaced apart. There’s a creosote known as “King Clone” in the Mojave Desert that is 11,700 years old. The Mojave is a rain shadow desert because it is surrounded by mountains that absorb the damp winds from the Pacific and dry the air on the leeward slopes.

Vegas Dust

Vegas Dust

A few minutes after midnight in the Mojave desert, a preacher appears on a dead radio channel: “The devil’s job is to deceive you. The devil’s job is to make you think that God can’t do nothin’ for you, that God don’t care about you.” 

This preacher is the centerpiece of Vegas Dust, a 77-minute sequence of grainy loops and phantom Americana built for a late-night drive. Neon gives way to starlight. Voices worry about their souls on the AM dial. A caller from Twentynine Palms says the universe might not even exist, that maybe the sun is hanging from a tree somewhere. But you can never see further than your headlights.

Vegas Dust is now available on Bandcamp (and for you bargain-hunters: three of the tracks are twenty minutes long. Because with Atlas Minor, your dollar goes further.) And Spotify.