One thinks: this shit’s never gonna end. Puerto Rico. Idiot with a bump stock on the the 32nd floor. Nuclear Viagra giving Trump an intercontinental hard-on. Hurricane Maria, Irma, Harvey, take your pick. My friend’s house underwater in Houston, his dog on an inflatable raft. Girls stabbed in Marseilles. Girls with acid in their faces. Girls shot in a club. Catalonia blowing up. Spanish police hurling voters down the stairs, zip ties, broken jaws. It will never, ever end.
One thinks: on a long enough timeline, the probability of any given thing in the United States becoming a horrific instrument of death rises to about 99%. Maybe puppies, water lilies, and soft serve ice cream are exempt, but you’d be surprised. America is a lethal place. More lethal this year than last year and you know why. There is no fate. No grace. No help from above. Just you and me and the justice we make. But maybe I don’t know what’s just anymore.
One thinks: if we could figure out what justice is, we might make a little more of it in the time we have left before the Empire falls and the barbarians come wailing in to roast mom for dinner. But, you see, mom has it coming. The Empire is always collapsing. That’s part of what makes it the Empire. And mothers are the ones raising a new generation of infantry to help it all along. Mothers are secretly to blame. If you really want to be the change, just don’t breed. But you can’t help yourself, can you.
I once dated a girl whose mother had retired to Coronado Island after 30 years of running a large farm in the Midwest. The woman now lived in a pristine four-story mansion with stained glass windows and aged admirals as neighbors. The story of how she got transported from a farm to a high-end resort off the coast of San Diego unpacks like a cliché movie of the week: illegal pesticides, cancer deaths, enormous lawsuit, and an out-of-court settlement that made everyone but the families of the farm laborers obscenely rich.
Mom was, as they used to say in Northern California, hella happy with the outcome, even though (or maybe because) her second husband also kicked it in the process. She was the Laughing Farmer Buddha of corporate hush money. Though after she met me, she was perhaps less amused by life or by her daughter’s choices in men.
When we shook, she twisted my hand open in a death grip, looked down at my palm, and said, “Hmm. Soft hands.” Then she stepped back, crossed her arms, and frowned at me the way you would at a corpse just dragged from a polluted river, the corpse of the man I could have been but obviously wasn’t and never would be. Watching the exchange, her daughter—who I’d been out with no more than two or three times before that night—seemed ready for good bit of fun. It was then that I began to feel that none of us were destined to be best friends.
One thinks: there must be a reason I had this experience, some sort of magnetic resonance floating out around my navel, pulling in all manner of bigots, racists, fools, prevaricators, sea lawyers, farmer savants, red-mesh-cap-wearing bumpkins with absolute opinions on everything they don’t understand and fear. Why does Donald Trump exist, you ask? Why does wedding cake taste like shit? Why can’t we have nice things before those things try to kill us? Scott Pruitt works for the EPA, for one. But maybe you don’t like that answer. Pay no attention to the pesticide behind the curtain.
Toward the end of dinner, her mother told the story of how she’d come into her millions. It was a yarn she seemed to have told at many dinners over the years. She’d refined it with certain references to the overall stupidity of her late husband, racial slurs aimed at the farmhands, clever allusions to the worthlessness of a college education, hints at an ongoing Zionist conspiracy, and various artful insinuations that such evils were all rooted in the basic homosexuality of our times. She was, in short, one of the most repulsive people I’d ever encountered.
She was so offensive that I began to wonder whether it was all a practical joke. But by the end of the night, I saw the truth. This was a suitability test being run by her daughter. If I could deal with the repellent overbearing mother, I was worthy. If not, well, there are winners and losers in this wide world and the daughter was only interested in the former.
For desert, we had mother’s old-time funnel cake topped with sweet cream. We took our plates to the den, where mom started up the fireplace and handed out glasses of cheap bourbon to go with the cake. I saw my date wink and pour hers into the philodendron by the couch. But the plant was not within range of where I was sitting. I thought about pouring it between the cushions.
“You gonna drink it or look at it?”
I smiled and ate some funnel cake. Mom was already into her second glass.
Then her daughter said I was trying to be a writer, which made her mother guffaw and suggest we play a game of Scrabble. Because writers are supposed to like Scrabble. And so did mom, who saw it as a kind of IQ test. She even owned a Scrabble dictionary, no doubt for those late-night bourbon-fueled disputes about whether “gherkin” was a 170- or 180-point word.
Needless to say, mom won the game. I don’t remember the specifics, but I do recall her mix of satisfaction and disappointment, as if she’d once again proven to herself the uselessness of liberal intellectual book learning and what a waste it all was.
One thinks: why didn’t I run out the door screaming when I had the chance? Maybe because I stayed (and because others before me had probably excused themselves long before the funnel cake), the daughter decided I was good boyfriend material. She kept calling long after I gave her the Let’s Not Even Be Friends talk and blocked her number. Her mother had done her part for Big Farm Poison and the Hitler Youth while Jesus Camp and Rush Limbaugh were riding high. Now her daughter was running free on the earth.
This was long before we ever thought Trump would be anything more than bad TV, before he started referring to our present non-nuclear-holocaust moment as “the calm before the storm.” This was before the end of America, the grand finale, the New American Century with Slim Pickens riding the bomb down to bring on the Rapture. I know you believe it. So stop shaking your damn head. You were there in Charlottesville. I know it was you.
“He wishes he had never entered the funhouse. But he has. Then he wishes he were dead. But he’s not. Therefore he will construct funhouses for others and be their secret operator—though he would rather be among the lovers for whom funhouses are designed.” – John Barth, Lost in the Funhouse
She’s married now, lives in a suburb of Boise with husband and kids, supports Donald Trump, the white identitarian movement, and a particular identitarian organization of which I gather her husband is a card-carrying member. She must be a genius. The public posts on her FB timeline are mostly family photos, lifestyle articles from Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop site, comments about the coming race war, and Breitbart. I know she’s not an evil person. But I can’t make fun anymore. It’s hard to even smile.
And so one thinks: that’s all over now, the thought, the hope, that the system would right itself. The system is what got us where we are. The system is wrong if it has produced this. I’m almost to the point where I’m ashamed I voted at all, even if it was for Hillary. Let’s not ever be friends, okay?
You go make America great again until your gene pool becomes so homogeneous that you start sacrificing people on step pyramids in the forest. Only the steps of those pyramids will be made out of bullet casings and the skulls of immigrant children. Go ahead. If your sister doesn’t mind, I won’t say no. I’ll be in hiding. I already am. Don’t come looking for me. And don’t keep calling. I’ve got soft hands. I like books and classical music and non-violence. I don’t own a bump stock. I don’t even own a gun to put a bump stock on. I won’t be manufacturing any justice in my basement today. I just want you to stop fucking with me. I’ve got my ear to the tracks.
Thoughts after spending 5 hours in the National Portrait Gallery, looking into the faces of Americans from the 18th century to the present day.
If I’ve acquired any broadening of perspective from all the hours I’ve spent in the Washington D.C. Smithsonian galleries, it’s this: every life is valid. Everyone has a story. Everyone is “okay.” Although human experience is varied, everything we do, everything we are, has been done, has been experienced before by someone. This is cause for joy. It means that we can’t get it wrong.
There is no way to err or truly screw up. All error comes from cultural viewpoints; it’s all a point of view; it’s all relative. And looking back across history in these incredible museums imparts the realization that there are no true successes or failures, no right or wrong in any kind of ultimate, transcendent sense. Everything that could be done has been done (and even so-called new things like space walks on Mars and other technologically aided novelties have existential roots in early voyages of discovery from history).
Because everything has already been done and there have been so many personality types recurring again and again and so many in each
generation striving in the same ways, the “general” of history validates the “particular” of the individual. We lead lives that are different in their particularity (being unique to time, place, culture), but that have been lived before in a general sense. The faint smile of Alexander Hamilton can been seen on people passing on the street outside the National Portrait Gallery. George Washington’s armchair is something we might find in a living room (certainly in any number of attics). FDR’s gaze in a national photo has the same depth and resonance as that of Arthur Rubenstein in his famous portrait. The potential comparisons are endless.
There have been artists and explorers and statesmen who were considered successes or failures in their time, but all of them have passed into history. And they were all valid. Death really is the great equalizer and this is a deep relief for someone like me, who has been told he needs to prove his worthiness his whole life. We deify our national heroes, but they were (and are) just talented people. And there is talent everywhere; though, it is not uniformly recognized or rewarded.
Essentially, these realizations amount to one basic truth: we are completely free to do whatever we wish because we have the power to define those particularities and the grace of knowing that we are also part of history. How widely we are known and if we are remembered is hardly up to us. Our only responsibility is to remember that we are okay, that we can’t get it wrong, that we are worthy by default.
There are no standards of quality that are universal and transcendent. The brilliant short story of yesterday will be disregarded and dismissed today in favor of something else. And those works that “survive the test of time” are great because we can still see their greatness. Our attitudes are what make them great. Otherwise, they are works of art like any others–each with their unique expressions and depths.
Say to yourself, “I only need to do my own thing. I don’t need to make any decisions out of desperation because desperation comes from the need to appease some external force or reach some external standard. Beyond satisfying basic needs, I am completely free.” The trouble is that the attitude of having to prove oneself to family and society is pervasive. As soon as we shake it off, we find ourselves unconsciously interpolated back into that dynamic. So our self-work must now be all about living for ourselves, as our authentic selves.
Authorship of one’s life is an inwardly focused prospect. It begins first and foremost as a choice of perspective and culminates as an outward way of living. We are all inwardly, which means perfectly, free.
“In a very few hours I arrived in a city that always makes me think of a whited sepulchre. Prejudice no doubt. I had no difficulty in finding the Company’s offices. It was the biggest thing in the town, and everybody I met was full of it. They were going to run an over-sea empire, and make no end of coin by trade.” – Conrad, Heart of Darkness
Standing outside the White House, one feels a strange energy, a sense of outward composure over ruthless analysis and scheming. It’s not the dead weight on the air when you enter an old cathedral in Prague or the sinking medieval depth of a back street in Oxford. Neither does the White House radiate the architectural pretensions of our older universities trying to be more significant and stately than they actually are. Instead, it gives the impression of a violent river that, through some trick of light and gravity, has acquired a façade of perfect serenity. The White House is more of a movement than a structure; it’s dynamic; it’s a verb. It’s the soul of the United States evolving in some obscure, perhaps fated, direction. There is a powerful mystery here.
Simply walking around downtown D.C. is a history lesson—but maybe not the sort of history we’d like to believe, rather an emotional experience, a certain dissonance, a national identity crisis in full bloom. It’s easy to feel a brutal undercurrent to the capitol, echoes of neoclassical idealism tempered by an absolute faith in institutional power. In every edifice, one feels the constant tension between accepted history and the hard reality of a 300-year-old political experiment still trying not to fail. 300 years seems like a long time to an American, but it’s nothing to Europe. Yet Washington D. C. seems to have distilled the same civic narcissism of any European capitol city.
The irony of standing in front of the Department of the Treasury with a Swiss tour group was not lost on me. “Look, Albert Gallatin.” the 12-year-old boy in electric blue Nike sweats tugged on his father’s camera bag, but dad was frowning, texting with both thumbs. It was indeed Albert Gallatin, fourth Secretary of the Treasury, US financial bodhisattva immured forever in bronze by the north entrance, a detached expression on his face. A few minutes later, the worn-out mother took a picture of the boy holding up a $10 bill with Albert in the background.
Walking from the Executive Office Building to the Washington Monument, the message is clear: people built all this—but such people no longer exist and possibly never will again. Still, you are very small and they, even dead, are enormous. One thinks of the Valley of the Kings when standing at the foot of the Capitol Building. One thinks of the Tower of Babel and the Twin Towers and how the same gravity that rules the field mouse in a farm outside Hays, Kansas rules all this stone. And then one thinks of Ozymandias and goes home.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’