Black Ribbon

Then my uncle bought the costume shop.  And, for a while, things got interesting again.  New Years Eve, 1991, he let me borrow a classic notch-lapel tuxedo and some patent leather shoes.  The whole package.  Socks.  A cotton laydown collar shirt.  Onyx links.  And a midnight solid bow tie.

“You look like James Bond,” he said.  Then he turned to my friend, Evert, and said, “You look like James Bond’s hairdresser.”

“Thanks, Uncle Tim,” Evert said.

“Why do you hang out with this guy?”

“I don’t know,” I said.  “But, yeah, thanks.”

Evert was wearing the same thing I was.  But Uncle Tim never felt right unless he was giving somebody a hard time.  He was basically a good guy, funny too.  I was sad when they found him three years later.

This was supposed to be a fun night.  The Hotel Escondido threw a big party every year.  You needed formalwear to get in.  And an invitation.  So Evert and I already had the problem half solved thanks to my uncle, who now sold costumes but also wedding gowns, tuxedos, and second hand suits.

He put three folded hundreds in my pocket and gave me a hug.  “Don’t give any to goofball over there.”

Evert was waiting by the door.  “I can hear you,” he said.

“Be careful,” Uncle Tim said and chucked me on the shoulder.

I was 18.  The year before, Evert and I snuck into the Hotel Escondido in the best clothes we could find.  I was in my old pinstripe Confirmation suit that I had to keep unbuttoned because it had started to tear inside.  Evert wore a sweater and khakis.  We ate canapés, got drunk on fancy champagne, watched the fireworks from a stone balcony, and made out with girls two years older than us, who said they were getting paid to be there.  After midnight, Evert and I escaped through the side entrance one step ahead of security.  It was great.

This year, we were going to do it right.  We’d studied the floorplan.  We knew the exits.  We knew what to say to security.  And with Uncle Tim’s assistance, I felt we were bound to meet some nice girls this time who weren’t being paid.

When we got in my ancient Rambler, Evert said, “Why is your uncle such a dick?”

“He gave us these suits, didn’t he?”

“He’s a dick.”

“He’s old school.  He went to jail a couple years ago.  He had a messed-up childhood.”

“Dick.”

It was somewhat true.  Uncle Tim could act obnoxious, always seemed a little angry, dressed in all polyester, and smoked too much.  But he could pick you up with one hand.  He loved dogs.  And his laughter could almost knock you over.  Nobody talked about why he went to jail.

I parked in the dark corner of a dirt lot seven blocks away from the hotel and set my two steering wheel locks.  Then I pulled the old Alpine out of the dash and put it in the trunk under a piece of cardboard and some crumpled newspapers. Downtown San Diego in the late 1990s wasn’t bad.  And the Rambler wasn’t good. But such were the cars that usually got jacked—the buckets.  And anything Honda.  Evert never stopped making fun of me for using two steering wheel locks on a car like mine, to which I always responded, “Get your own fucking car, then,” and to which he never had a comeback.

The street was ghost empty.  And we could see the Hotel Escondido’s lights turning the everything yellow down at the end.  It had originally been a 15-story office building, built on a hill in 1949 in a time before mirror-glass and rooftop helipads.  It had gargoyles.  The elevators were marble and brass and smelled like old metal.  And there were butt urns set every few feet down the halls.  If you were going to crash a big holiday party, that was the place.

The festivities would be in the ballroom on the ground floor, an enormous space with parallel staircases on either side sweeping up to a vast mezzanine and a stone veranda that overlooked the lights of India Street and the bay.  What most didn’t know was that there was a dirt trail up the side of the hill to a small, unlockable wrought-iron gate.  The gate opened onto a narrow service staircase that led up the side of the building to the veranda.

When I’ve told others about that night, they’ve asked me, “Did you get thrown out?” as if that were the punchline, the most important detail, some kind of moral at the end.  I never know what to say.  Of course we got thrown out.  Was it a stupid plan?  Of course it was.  Were we stupid kids?  My answer to that is all kids are stupid at 18.  The trick to having more good memories than bad is to be the right kind of stupid at the right time.

Later, I waited in the Rambler in front of Evert’s house while he changed into some sweats.  He brought his tux out in a large paper grocery bag, shoes on top.

“Tell your uncle thanks.  But I don’t think I’ll be doing this again.”

I nodded, waved, and pulled into the street.  In the rear-view, I saw Evert standing in the drive next to his mother’s gray Pinto, watching me go.  We wouldn’t be doing this again because Evert was headed to college in a few months.  And I was headed nowhere.  Uncle Tim already said I could work for him at the shop.  I was considering it.  But it wasn’t something I felt like talking about.

When we snuck down from the veranda, we expected a grand ballroom full of people.  But it was half-empty and it didn’t look like the management had paid any models to stand around and look glamorous.  The DJ was spinning solid ’70s disco and nobody there looked under 40.  A few drunk soccer moms were doing something that vaguely resembled the Twist in the middle of the floor, acting more self-conscious than the kids at my high school dances.  No waiters with canapés.  Only a long buffet table with a cashier at the end.

It took about an hour for security to notice us and show us to the door.  We didn’t run.  It was too depressing and low energy for that.  Last year, they’d worn tuxedos, too, and had little earpieces like in a spy flick.  This year it was black windbreakers with SECURITY in yellow block letters across the back.

“Let’s go.”  A windbreakered guard with curly blond hair beneath a black and yellow ball cap that read “A-1” put his hand on my shoulder and guided me toward the lobby.  Evert trailed, looking down, hands in his pockets.

“I’ve got an invitation,” I said.

“Sure.” The guard opened one of the front double doors for me.  “Have a happy new year.”

“You, too,” Evert said, “You have a hell of a year,” as the guard shut the door softly behind us.

Evert lived with his mom and sister about five minutes from Pacific Beach.  After I dropped him off, I parked in an alley near Crystal Pier and walked down to the end.  The beach bars were full.  You could hear the distant shouting and music like little pockets of chaos, little hell caverns, each competing for some sort of reward to see who could be the most crazy and perverse.  The Garden of Earthly Delights.  Every New Year’s Eve, the whole world became that painting.

The pier smelled like creosote and rotten wood.  It went far and high enough over the water that you could dive off the end and swim back.  At least, that’s what everybody said.  Or you could die.  It was a big dare, one of the many opportunities for making a bad decision you encountered as a teen in San Diego.  The bad kind of stupid.  I thought about jumping.  I could give the ruined tuxedo back to Uncle Tim with the $300 and make up some wild story.  He’d love it.  Instead, I leaned against the railing and looked back at the city glittering electric in every color of the rainbow.

To my left, one of the fishermen you saw on the beach all hours of the day and night took a swig of something in a paper bag and said, “Prom?”

“New Year’s.”

“Wow.”  He smiled, adjusting his fishing pole against the rail.  “Fuck that.”

The sky was clear.  There was a full moon.  And you can’t stay at the end of a pier forever, even though there were some nights I’d spend hours there, leaning against the rough wooden railing.  If the beach bars sounded like an infernal Hieronymus Bosch pep rally, the ocean at night was a different sort of hell: black ribbon over glittery onyx, the sound of the surf letting you know there’s a lot going on out in that faceless, trackless dark and you’re right on the edge.  One step off the pier was all it took to be part of it forever.

Time of night changes the darkness on a street, even if it’s beachfront and lit up like New Year’s Eve.  I walked down Ocean Front, avoiding the crowds in front of the bars, made a left on Hornblend, and crossed Mission.  Tourists from New Jersey, Connecticut, Vancouver, New Mexico, all drunk, packed ten to a truck, no shirts, speeding pale through the streetlights, hollering, tossing crumpled beer cans at the dark storefronts.

Growing up in San Diego, I saw them every year, every holiday, every summer night I spent at the beach.  No big thing.  Half of them would be arrested by dawn.  A fourth would go home and make up tales of the vacation they’d had.  Maybe a sixth would believe their own lies and want to move to California someday.  But they’d never be able to afford it.  Or they’d get as far as Bakersfield and learn the true meaning of heartache.

I told myself if the party at the hotel had only been better, I’d feel differently about everything.  I told myself then I wouldn’t feel so depressed.  But none of that was real enough to be true.  It was just a story I was telling.  Truth was, I didn’t feel much of anything.  No anger.  No pain.  No regret.  No sense of missing out or that I had to search for something better.  Nothing but a faint melancholy, a vague tiredness.  High school, my life, was about waiting, everything calculated in terms of how long things were going to take, when I could expect them to end, what I’d have to put up with until they did.

And I told myself Evert had it better.  But what did I know?  “I don’t think I’ll be doing this again,” he’d said.  “Why is your uncle such a dick?” he’d said.  I could have told him some obscure Tibetan Buddhism fact from world history, “Yes, the answer is to just apply yak oil to the icon of Yidam Kurukulla and do the great dance of the Knowledge-Causing Mother-Buddha,” and Evert would have given me the exact same look.  The I’m leaving for college look.  The too bad you aren’t but that’s how it goes look.

Right on Bayard and down past Grand.  Left on Thomas where the old cinderblock apartment complexes rust and crumble to eternity.  At night, they look like industrial back lots for meat packing plants or ball joint factories.  Weird and empty.  Nothing you’d want to spend time in.  Orange-white safety lights always buzzing.  Concrete stairwells that smell like piss.  Some tatted-up, naked guy in a window, holding a bottle of wine.

Where was I walking at the end of 1991 in Uncle Tim’s notch-lapel tuxedo?  I thought the Rambler might have already been towed, which made everything feel even more tiring, more futile.  Home was in North Park, 20 minutes east on the 805, with a mother and father whose idea of a good New Year’s Eve was not having to suffer fools all night and start the new year with a headache.  They were smarter than me.  I told myself next year I’d go to bed early.

One of the apartments, three flights up, was open, light streaming down into an empty courtyard parking lot, stereo thumping.  A woman with long wavy green hair leaned over the metal railing and waved at me like otherwise I wouldn’t notice.

“Come up here,” she said.  Flannel shirt and jeans.  Very drunk.

I looked at her.

“Steve.  Come up and dance.”

The stereo inside was loud.  I had to shout.  “I think you got the wrong guy!”

“Steve!  Get up here!”

“I’m not Steve!”

“Don’t worry about it!”  She waved me up in wide, exaggerated arcs.  I thought she might lose her balance and go headfirst over the railing.

Inside, ten extremely drunk people were trying to dance in the small shag-carpeted living room.  A few cardboard boxes of Bud Light had been savagely torn open and unopened cans had rolled under the plastic coffee table.  On the couch, a very large man snored with his shirt unbuttoned, wet spot on his crotch, unlit cigarette between his fingers.  I looked at his hairy belly, at the green-haired woman who said her name was Ada.

“I’m Steve,” I said.  A joke.  But she was busy telling me how the man on the couch had stolen the beer out the back of a liquor store.

“He’s a genius,” she said.  “He’s Polfrey.”

“That’s his last name?”

She frowned up at me.  “What?”

I smiled and shrugged.

Ada stepped back and took me in.  “What’re you doing in that mod getup?”

“Not a lot,” I said.  And that she understood.

We danced.  We danced slow when everyone else was dancing fast and falling into each other.  Some bleached surfer went face-down into the plastic coffee table, rolled on his back, and laughed.  A girl in a burgundy pencil skirt and cream blouse, looking like she’d just got off work at an insurance office and didn’t approve of any of this, sat on Polfrey’s legs, took the cigarette from between his fingers, and lit it.  Someone sprayed beer on the stereo, on the window, on the splotchy ceiling light.  Someone said happy fucking New Year.

I thought Ada might be in her 30s, but at that time I wasn’t good at judging anyone’s age beyond my own.  She laid her head on my chest.  “You sure are dreamy, Steve.  I could take you home to mama.”

We went out in front of the apartment, kissed for a while, and leaned against the railing.  “But I don’t live with my mama.  You want me to take you home?  My girlfriend wouldn’t like that one bit.  You get high?  Do drugs?”

I said I didn’t and Ada patted me on the shoulder.  “That’s good, sweetie.  You keep that dreamy smile.”

“I should go,” I said.  “They might tow my car.”

She gave me a fierce hug and kissed me on the cheek.  “I’m gonna get high.”

At the edge of the parking lot, I looked back.  Ada was still standing at the railing, silhouetted in the doorway light, waving in slow motion, like when you watch someone’s ship pull away from the pier, not really expecting to see them but hoping you might catch one last glimpse.

Walking back to the Rambler, I decided that when I returned the tuxedo, I’d tell Uncle Tim I met a nice girl and we danced all night.  He’d say something like, after you ditched that moron friend of yours, right?  And I’d say yeah, that’s right.  Exactly.

What’s Left?

My mother used to lecture my grandmother about wearing a seat belt when we were in the car together.  I found this fascinating.  Usually mom would be driving; though, on the occasions my father allowed himself to be browbeaten into some lacklustre family outing, he became the driver by default.  My grandmother would always be up front.  I would always be in back, listening, carrying on my side of the conversation in my head.

Mom would cite statistics, deaths that could have been easily prevented, grisly anecdotes from last week’s Union-Tribune on who’d recently catapulted through a windshield and how they died or, worse, lived on forever disfigured, unworthy of love, and incapable of joy.  It was all because of their stubborn refusal to wear a seat belt.  Over time, I came to suspect my mother was lecturing me as much as grandma, even though I was too young to have a license and always did wear my seat belt.

Grandma, one of the hardest, meanest, bitterest women I have ever met, would stare straight ahead, cut from marble, holding the seat belt across her body, the only concession she was willing to make.  If you didn’t see that the belt wasn’t clicked into the lock, you might wonder about all the tension.  But there she was, often in parity with my father, two stone-cold sufferers obligated to participate in a pantomime of family.  Pent up together in that car, I often felt like we couldn’t be further apart.

What I didn’t understand as a young teenager was that my mom was the only adult present.  She’d take issue with my father’s unsafe driving, at which point, he’d yank the car into a turn without looking—far more dangerous and impulsive than doing 80 in the slow lane.  She’d tell me that if I let my hand dangle out the window, I could lose it.  How’d I like to go through life with a hook for a hand?  She’d remind my grandmother of the latter’s horrific wreck in which her little white Datsun crumpled like tin.  And grandma would simply look out the window.  Nobody likes the voice of the superego when it’s coming out of someone else’s mouth.

After the Datsun accident, grandma spent time in the hospital and did a little physical therapy (before she got fed up and quit).  Mom and I were with her every day, helping out, cooking, cleaning, carrying things, making sure she could keep running her cleaners and laundry without losing business.  But I think grandma stopped caring about life after a certain point.  My mother constantly lobbied for her to quit smoking.  I asked grandma why she didn’t, and I remember her looking at me the way one looks a broken toilet, saying, “What’s left, then?”  At the time, I was too young to understand what she meant.  All I knew was that my mom took care of everyone, and it was usually a thankless job.

The lonely and the angry have their comforts, small respites from the unhappiness of their lives.  And many of us have an inner refuge overlaid on liminal spaces—a certain pond that freezes green in winter, an old chain swing in the park, a type of alcohol we drink when we’re alone and the house is quiet, a sandwich at a little table in the deli.  Such things matter more than we care to admit, keeping us sane, keeping us going, helping us endure.

A Shakespeare professor of mine once called it “thinking past the problem.”  He said whenever there was an immovable obstacle, an intractable personality, a wicked problem that stopped him short, he’d go for a walk and smoke his pipe.  Some people open a bottle at midnight.  Some get their surfboards out at dawn.  But take their pipes, scotch, and surfboards away and they might ask, “What’s left?”

After getting abandoned by a dissolute husband in an era when the blame for that nearly always fell on the wife; putting three daughters through college; and running a small business ten hours a day, six days a week, grandma developed a certain flinty resistance to the emerging safetyism of the 1970s.  She laughed loudest when others were suffering the consequences of their own bad decisions.  And she didn’t like men very much at all.

But visiting grandma every summer with my mom throughout the ’80s, I began to notice a growing quietness in her.  Sometime mid-decade, she got robbed by knife-wielding junkies and spent a day locked in the store’s bathroom.  That changed her.  The hard-edged entrepreneur, who’d mocked her customers’ vanities and seemed ready to fight about anything, slowly gave way to a person who no longer seemed involved in life and didn’t like to talk. 

Once a year, she took the Greyhound to Lake Tahoe for a weekend to put quarters in slot machines—her solitary vacation amid the sort people she used to refer to as idiots.  She watched more and more TV.  And, in the end, after retiring, what got her wasn’t smoking, crazed junkies, driving, or drinking.  It was household carbon monoxide poisoning.

I believe there’s a song lyric about life having a sick sense of humor, but the line only became a fixture in my head after watching grandma slowly lose her mind in a way nobody at the time (not even her doctor) could understand.  She just went crazy and her health rapidly declined.  Sometimes, I think she didn’t deserve the hand she was dealt.  Other times, I think of how I’m here because of her.  And I wonder if that changes anything.

Everywhere Under Your Feet

“[Bilbo] used often to say there was only one Road; and that it was like a great river: its springs were at every doorstep, and every path was its tributary. ‘It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door,’ he used to say. ‘You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.’” — J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

No one, not even the healthiest person, is immune to the vicissitudes of life and death.  Or, as the T-shirt says, “Eat right.  Stay fit.  Die anyway.”  There’s always the runaway bus, the surprising terminal illness, the stray bullet, the jet engine falling through the roof, the unanticipated venomous snake, the sudden vertigo on the bridge, perhaps even the rational consideration that you should go out while you can still pronounce your own name.

We laugh at the absurdity of such things—what are the chances!—until the Road sweeps us off our feet.  And we learn firsthand how all attempts to insulate ourselves against death are futile, given that death is an indispensable complement to life.  Get one, you get the other, and no amount of wheat germ and sit-ups will save you. 

How will you die?  Do you ever seriously ask yourself that question?  Or do you, with such middle-class arrogance as to tempt a corrective bolt from the heavens, ask, How do I want to die?  As if it will ever truly be in your power to decide.  We immediately think of suicide as the supposedly ultimate act of self-control over life.  But is it?  When Hunter S. Thompson blew his brains out because he could no longer write, was in great physical pain from an experimental surgery, and was depressed, what actually killed him? 

If those things had not been operative in his life, would he have pulled the trigger?  If my high school friend, Michael G., hadn’t been angry at his philandering plastic surgeon father, would Michael have dropped a ton of acid and fried himself on some power lines?  We’ll never get a chance to find out.  But we all ask questions like this about somebody we used to know.  Are their suicides really voluntary acts or did the gods just decide, in their boredom and perfection, to flip the switch this time? 

Is Putin executing families on the streets of Bucha or are there deep historical and psychological forces working through him and the war criminals under him, like primordial daemons written into human DNA, like the Balrog awakened when the dwarves delved too greedily and too deep?  Can one man understand anything, do anything, by himself, of himself, without the proper aesthetic, sonic, kinetic, temporal, and existential keys being invoked?  Do you seriously think you have a valid answer to this?

Answerless, I’ve been asking impossible questions.  I’ve been thinking about the protean nature of death, pointless literary conceits, stupid war, initiatory dread, insufferable hubris, prescient science fiction, and the Lovecraftian titans shaping our world, which we commonly name deregulation, tribalism, debt, pandemic, climate change, populism, structural violence, siloed thinking, and imperialism—all alive and well in various daemonic and mundane forms, visible and invisible, physical and metaphysical, and actively determining our lives this very minute.  As a result, I’ve been, understandably, a bit more gloomy and mordent than usual.  (Ah, c’est la vie.  It’s my blog and I can cry if I want to.)

But it’s an interesting conundrum, choosing to presume that one has or can someday have control over one’s life up against the Old Gods, Lovecraft’s very alien titans from beyond the pale.  We’re inclined to cite the aforesaid “corrective bolt” and call it fate, but it seems a bit ill-advised to anthropomorphize what we don’t understand, which evidently includes most things in life.  British art-scene tantric, Phil Hine, puts it like this in his Pseudonomicon:

The Cthulhu Mythos displays a recurrent mythic theme; that the “titanic” forces of creation and destruction—the Great Old Ones—have been cast forth from the earth and “forgotten” by civilised humanity and its narrow, materialistic vision. However, whilst they may be forgotten, they are at the same time ever-present, lurking at the frontiers of order, in places where the wild power of nature can be felt. They are chaotic, in the same way that Nature is chaotic, and they retain their primal power since they cannot be “explained” (i.e. bound) or anthropomorphized. They exist outside linear, sequential time, at the border of “Newton’s sleep.”

We can (and, to a certain extent, we must) impose a rational false consciousness on our perceived experiences to stave off insanity.  But the world, as we’ve known from our earliest years, is not rational.  And we suspect we’ve always been unfortunately (or fortunately) out of control.  It seems like a cop-out at first but, the more I think about it, the more I come to believe that the whole point of this circus is to buy the ticket and take the ride, as Dr. Thompson famously said—to bear witness to how the alien machinery of life does its work.  

The non-linear, non-sequential, non-Euclidean, inhuman angles underlying our reassuringly tidy Potemkin assumptions seem fairly determinative if we can only catch a glimpse of them in the Malthusian depredations of capitalism or in the eyes of a dying loved one.  Maybe we don’t need to get better, get clean, get saved, and get ourselves together, since we’re always-already coming apart.  Instead, as Luc Sante’s anonymous speaker pleads at the end of “The Unknown Soldier,” maybe we need to think of ourselves as verbs, not nouns:

[G]ive my eyes to the eye bank, give my blood to the blood bank. Make my hair into switches, put my teeth into rattles, sell my heart to the junkman. Give my spleen to the mayor. Hook my lungs to an engine. Stretch my guts down the avenue. Stick my head on a pike, plug my spine to the third rail, throw my liver and lights to the winner. Grind my nails up with sage and camphor and sell it under the counter. Set my hands in the window as a reminder. Take my name from me and make it a verb. Think of me when you run out of money. Remember me when you fall on the sidewalk. Mention me when they ask you what happened. I am everywhere under your feet.

War is a Failure of Imagination

I’ve been reading St. Teresa of Ávila’s The Interior Castle, not because I’m a Catholic but because I’m always looking for perspectives on how to lead a meaningful life. She was a mystic with a lot to say on the subject and she had a lively mind. She didn’t put it exactly this way, but reading her book gave rise to one of my own, perennial themes: if there is no eternal soul, physical existence is merely a brief, trivial moment in time. If there is an eternal soul, physical existence is still merely a brief, trivial moment in time.

In other words, whether part of us lives forever or all of us dies tomorrow, whether the most meaningful emphasis falls on “this life only” or on “life after death,” makes little difference to the fact that we’re here right now and have to lead our small lives, such as they are. Earthly life will be relatively short, either way. So it should mean something in itself, as itself.

Of course, St. Teresa believed in an immortal soul, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting. But we don’t have to believe in all those things to see the wisdom here. The question that arises is far older than the Catholic Church of St. Teresa: “How do you want to spend your brief time on earth?” which is another form of “What is good?”

It’s a useful thing to ask, whether you’re a postmodern reductive materialist, a 16th century Christian mystic, or somewhere between those extremes. Maybe it’s the ultimate question one could ever ask. And for most of us, the answer will be personal. The good life for me may not be (probably shouldn’t be) the good life for you. Conversely, most of us will agree that certain life experiences are definitely not good and to be avoided whenever possible.

We may agree more on what we want to avoid. That might be due to some shared Pleasure-Principal bias—avoiding pain usually seems more compelling than seeking pleasure. But it could also be that there are simply more things we’d commonly like to escape than experience as a members of the same species. War is undoubtedly one of those things. 

Adrienne Rich described war as a failure of imagination: “War is an absolute failure of imagination, scientific and political. That a war can be represented as helping a people to ‘feel good’ about themselves, or their country, is a measure of that failure.” It’s the failure to imagine and pursue better options. And there are always better options.

War seems like an extreme form of cultural and psychological dysfunction, one of the foremost things people would like to miss, along with terminal illness, poverty, public disgrace, imprisonment, and loss of career. Yet all these things exist and are experienced by large numbers of people every day. There is always someone at war, just as there is always someone dying or becoming destitute or being put behind bars. We just hope it isn’t us.

Inevitably, sometimes it is—probably through no fault of our own. There is the stereotype of the naïve youth, who enlists out of idealism, because he thinks war will be heroic and exciting, or because he wants to prove himself. Still, the vast majority of people aren’t that daft. Most of us carry a deep instinctual knowledge that armed conflict is bad for one’s health and that the promises governments make when sending you to war become rather empty when you catch a bullet.

But let’s also try to be as honest as we can be: sometimes you have to go to war. That’s when it’s particularly tragic—when someone else’s failure of imagination means you have no choice, when your country is being invaded, when it’s a fight for survival. That’s how it seems to be in the Ukraine right now. Putin has said the Ukrainian citizenry won’t be harmed, but don’t you believe it.  He is not a world leader known for honesty.

Aside from the inevitable collateral damage and death that comes standard with explosions and chunks of metal being shot through the air, there’s the rumour of political kill lists and the Russian army’s need to suppress (essentially to hold hostage) an unwilling Ukrainian population. There will be domestic insurgency. There will be terrorist acts and guerrilla warfare. There will be disappearances and injustices and crimes against humanity. Sadly, these are the unavoidable adjuncts to acts of military conquest.  They are part of its grand failure, the slow-rolling catastrophe that always characterizes war.

No one in the world is buying what Putin’s selling. He’s chosen a Hitlerian Anschluss, the annexation of a sovereign democratic state under false pretenses.  It will become a legacy of self-destruction for him and a cause of lasting suffering for his own people as well.  Putin will never be free of the infamy that comes from playing the brutal adventurer.  And the world will despise him for it forever.

Dominance and Submissions

Let’s say you’ve labored long in the fields of creative writing and the People Who Know (or maybe just the people who’ve noticed) have appreciated your talent.  Some have appreciated it loudly and publicly, some quietly to friends in ways that eventually come back to you, some through amazing feats of jealousy, and others through an unrelenting aggressive competitiveness that beggars belief.  The lower the stakes, the higher the vitriol is an axiom of creative culture.

Let’s also say that for the first decade of writing and submitting short stories to magazines with names like Lost Nose QuarterlyBarbaric Yawp, and Bitch Review, the feedback of the 25-year-old readers working on these magazines mattered.  Susie Lillywhite, the fiction editor at Uncommon Snuff, writes you a personalized rejection, praising your “humorous story of cis-het men behaving badly,” and your ever-present grinding self-doubt abates for ten full minutes; though, on minute 11, you wonder how Susie writes dialogue (“Hello, Mister Cisgendered Heteronormative Male.  How are you today?” / “Hello, Thinly Veiled Proxy For Susie Designed To Signpost Authorial Identity And Abate Criticism.  I am fine.”).

You get the inevitable raft of rejections and a few acceptances.  In time, your acceptance average goes up.  You know this because you obsessively gamify your submission process on a spreadsheet like fantasy baseball.  Maybe your box scores show progress.  Maybe all this effort means something—if not anything tangible in your day-to-day existence, then perhaps in a kind of working-fiction-writer sabermetrics that suggests your chosen life direction hasn’t been a horrible mistake.  Maybe the 500 hypothetical readers of Dogwater International are upping your short story RBI.  It’s possible.  Don’t say it isn’t.

You’ve got a novel in progress.  This goes without saying.  Everyone has a novel in progress.  Your screenwriter friend, Gaurangi, tells you she has two novels in progress, a poetry chapbook in progress, and a book of essays in progress.  Yet, she’s miserable and hates her life.  “Is that because you’re still assistant manager at KFC and can’t break through the glass ceiling?”  “No,” she says, “it’s because you’re a fucking asshole.”  You’ve been friends for 15 years.  Her name means “giver of happiness.”

There is no joy like mine, you think.  I am a cherry blossom adrift in the infinite cosmos.  The form email from GOAT Bomb sits in your inbox.  You can see that it begins, “Dear Valued Author, thank you for submitting to GOAT Bomb . . .” but you’ve been meditating.  And if zazen has taught you anything, it’s that impersonal form rejections are naught but the transcendent meanderings of The Great Vehicle.  The rejections aren’t depressing you.  It must be something else.

So let’s say you’ve also learned how to save money as an effective freelance survival tactic.  Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you’ve managed to eke out an existence as a ghost writer and a copyeditor.  Let’s say, also for the sake of argument, that your cousin, who thought college was stupid, now makes low six figures as a construction manager and thinks you’re hilarious.  You see him at Christmas dinner, a rosy-cheeked beer-drinking construction Santa with a twinkle in his eye.  And he asks you the same thing he asked you last year: “Are you a mental midget?”  He finds the question hilarious.  “No,” you say.  “I mentally fidget.”  He can’t stop laughing.  “With your digits!”  In this family, we come together through spontaneous and combustive rhyming.  You don’t take it personally.

But you don’t follow baseball.  Thus, your spreadsheet submission game perpetually teeters on the edge of something else, deep and dark, eldritch and unspeakable, an existential abyss.  Why do you do it?  How does publishing another story in The East Punjabi Fiction Annual (that took you six months of sustained before-dawn writing sessions and seven painful drafts) matter in the construction management food-on-the-table sense?  You joke, but there are no rhymes for it, at least none that would entertain your cousin.

The fact is, you are a mental midget.  You must be if you still have to worry about putting ten more dollars on the credit card for a sandwich at Safeway—which isn’t Joe Biden’s fault.  So don’t start.  The supply chain is effed-up, yes.  Covid is ineffable, yes.  The pandemic shooed you out of Bangkok one step ahead of the Thai quarantine police, yes, and now you’re living in a Hawaiian jungle, but that has nothing to do with anything.  Here you are.  The feral rooster outside goes, “KEEEEE-YAAAAW-KOOOOO!”  And the great world turns with its comings and goings.

Smoke three cigarettes with Gaurangi in her Kia in the parking lot of KFC.  It’s midnight and she is off work.  You drove into Hilo just for this because it’s a miracle that you both now live in the same place and she texted you: come smoke a cigarette with me so I can cope with the fact that I manage idiots.  She won’t smoke at home because she has a two-year-old daughter and cigarettes are poison.  “I should move back to L.A.” she says.  “The fucking Big Island’s getting me nowhere.”  “You married a Hawaiian.”  She looks at you, drags deeply, and smiles.  “Yes.  That probably has something to do with why I’m here.”

One manages a KFC in Los Angeles if one wants to be a screenwriter, a whole different fantasy ballgame.  One brings one’s Hawaiian husband to a bungalow in Glendale.  Maybe one sells the script for She’s Gotta Have It 2, earning $135,000 for the original screenplay, including treatment, and suddenly it’s all cheddar.  One writes one’s friend in the jungle: I don’t hate L.A. now.  It is what it is.  Now one can calm down and finish that poetry chapbook in peace.

You’re drinking too much coffee and you read a lot of news. Some nut writing for The Conversation says Covid and climate change are going to turn coffee into a rare luxury item like Kobe beef or Cristal.  But the enormous tin of Safeway Select on top of your refrigerator suggests otherwise. You wonder how much the writer got paid to cook up a pandemic scare piece on coffee. What if you pitched something similar about a thing everybody wants being unceremoniously taken away by forces beyond one’s control? What about cheese: “Is Cheese Systemically Racist?  Biden Might be Coming for Your Gruyere.” Or sex: “The Death of Intimacy: Gen Z Prefers Online Porn to Sex and Who Can Blame Them?” Or healthcare: “The GOP Thinks Letting Grandpa Die is Good for the Economy.”  You write these ideas down and fire up the laptop.  There’s rent to be made.

At this point, there are many possibilities.  You’ve moneyballed your way into 30, 40 magazine publications.  You have three published story collections and a multitude of columns, articles, and essays floating through the aetheric digitalia.  But you still live in the jungle.  You’ve got a neighbor up the dirt road who deals with his emotions by smoking crack and shooting cats with his Marlin 60.  You’re still getting rejections from 25-year-olds and machines that go, “While we appreciate your interest in Dark Pissoir . . . “

Occasionally, some acquaintance on social media will pay attention to you for more than 30 seconds and wonder how you exist.  How do you make a living (or How can you possibly make a living?)?  You say as best you can.  There are 25-year-olds publishing novels with Random House.  There are 25-year-olds managing construction sites and getting welding certificates and buying their kids $900 gaming consoles.  And there’s a fine line of termite dust along the base of your hovel’s north wall.  Are you discouraged?  What does that mean, exactly?

The Good Hustle

Today, I was advised to get an editing and proofreading certification from one of the many professional associations available to show potential clients that I am all business and not, as one would otherwise assume, a crank.  Three decades of professional writing, editing-for-hire, and proofreading won’t do it.  The representative who cold-emailed me on social media made it very clear that no matter how good I think I am, no one will take me seriously unless I’m professionally certified.  Luckily, she discovered me in time.

When I asked her if board certification exists for copy editors and proofers, she didn’t respond.  I’m still waiting, but I know the answer.  With a website, a PayPal account, and a fictious business name, you can establish a certification program for anything obscure and unregulated, say, antelope sign language.  You can then offer membership in a professional society based on your courses and the money flows in like sweet milk from heaven when people called to interpret for deaf antelopes feel insecure and go looking for a stamp of approval. 

You’ll pitch your service to the rubes with a great convincer: “Since there are no objective, widely accepted standards for professionalism in antelope sign language, you need our very formal, suitable-for-framing certificate to set you apart from all the dilettante competitors and desperate poseurs trying to steal your business.  You need this.”  I recognized the come-on immediately.  It’s how you sell a diet supplement, a tinfoil orgone collection helmet, a Learn Fluent Inuit in 20 Minutes-a-Day DVD set, or a religion.  You define the subject matter, identify the anxiety it produces, and offer a solution.

New religions always do this, since their subject matter is and must always be vague.  At a science fiction convention in 1948, L. Ron Hubbard is supposed to have said, “Writing for a penny a word is ridiculous. If a man really wants to make a million dollars, the best way would be to start his own religion.”  Like most of Hubbard’s material, it seems to have been cribbed from other sources—in this case from a letter written by George Orwell in his multivolume Collected Essays, Journalism, and Letters.  But the principle is sound.  Give people something in which they can believe and posit yourself as its source or sole mouthpiece.

Interestingly, the Orwell-Hubbard dates may not match up.  Multiple volumes of Orwell’s collected works were released in the 1960s and, though it’s obvious earlier collections existed, it’s unclear which Orwell resources would have been available to Hubbard in the late 1940s while he was busy doing ceremonial magic in the desert with Jack Parsons and seducing Parsons’ girlfriend.  But we do know that, by 1948, Hubbard had left Parsons and overt occultism behind, well on his way to following through on his million-dollar scheme.

No matter how many conventions Hubbard attended, boats he owned, and storefront e-meter salons he opened, the comment about starting one’s own religion would follow him for the rest of his life and hang over his grave like a feculent mist.  Orwellian cynicism has always seemed perfect for the Church of Scientology.  The organization has appeared, at least since the early ’70s, much more interested in abusive litigation with a side of organized crime than in any sort of enlightenment or spirituality. 

Still, America loves a new religion, the sillier and more coercive the better.  Americans will love it twice as much if the guru requires lavish compensation for his wisdom.  It’s one of the perennial obsessions at the heart of the culture: we’re all looking for Jesus the Businessman, whether he comes as a computer inventor, an online bookseller, or an electric-car spaceship fetishist.  The more he up-sells us and demands to be loved for it, the more we’ll celebrate him.  If he can do this and offer us certificated in-group status, we’ll make him a fixture in our lives.

We want to be saved by someone who shares our values: money, cleverness, exclusivity, salesmanship, and the sado-masochism of the workplace as spiritual praxis.  It’s the reason why, at one point, Oprah commanded the reasoning and libido of 51% of the population, why Bezos’ Blue Origin rocket looks like a giant dildo, and why graffiti near 1 Infinite Loop in Cupertino, California, used to read “Steve Died for Your Sins.”  He unquestionably did.

But there’s an even deeper reason Hubbard and comparable messiah figures are able to operate until they go out of fashion and either become despised by the crowd that once adored them or go insane: no one has any stable concept of what’s real, including the gurus themselves.  They’re making up the landmarks and mapping the terrain as they go along. 

In fact, the fluidity of unreality, virtual reality, meta-reality, fandom, curated identity, and the floating demimonde of the so-called “knowledge marketplace” underlying these things is so popular and ubiquitous that it has become more convincing than religion ever was.  We’re looking for the next lifehack, supplement, or belief system to stave off our perpetual nervous breakdown because we have no idea what’s going on.  Sign me up.  Get my Level 1 Proofreader’s Certificate and Associate Membership Card.

Black Mirror, Ready Player One, and The Matrix are horrifying mostly due to what they imply about this desperate capacity to turn anything into religion, even down to the most banal and mechanistic corporate sensibilities.  And pandemic lockdown culture has not helped.  When Covid spread across Asia, I was living in Bangkok and noticed a line of herbal supplements being marketed in the malls by a popular Indian guru as protection against the disease.  The layout was very glossy.  There were life-sized cardboard standups of the smiling guru presenting his product at pharmacy endcaps.  People were buying it because they didn’t know what was real.  The guru was defining the problem and offering a solution.  L. Ron Hubbard would have loved Covid-19.

As Mencken put it, “There is nothing in religious ideas, as a class, to lift them above other ideas. On the contrary, they are always dubious and often quite silly. Nor is there any visible intellectual dignity in theologians. Few of them know anything that is worth knowing, and not many of them are even honest.”  But what they offer is certitude and certification in an uncertain, uncertificated world.