Black Ribbon Award

AGAINST NOTHINGNESS: ON CHRISTIANITY AND PUNK

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“It’s your fault, fucking up the kids.”Botch

“DC made me and the rest of this mess.”Orchid

“I hope for nothing from the world; I fear nothing from it, I desire nothing of it; by God’s grace, I need no one’s wealth or authority.”Pascal

For as long as I’ve been culturally aware, I’ve heard about this or that anomalous cultural event as being the “new punk.” It is a testament to punk’s own endurance that this usage is almost never derogatory. But that it is not derogatory probably makes the ensuing and usually one-sided debate over whether or not this new punk qualifies as such, let alone what punk is, all the more acrimonious. It’s a shame because the answer is both unchanging and uncomplicated: it doesn’t. Though it is not so much a matter of the declaration being wrong as it is of its being imprecise.

First because “punk” as a concept has reached a dizzying vastness since the early-1970s when Suicide began putting the term on their show flyers. So when someone seeks to point out a movement or trend that reaches a significant amount of young people free of any assent of a corporate hegemon, punk is not very suitable, particularly since in some cases it did have corporate or at least mercenary motive behind it. Grunge, on the other hand, is. Not that that’s very attractive, given that grunge’s disruptive entrance was followed by an exit that was tragic and more prolonged than its early-1990s peak. And second, while punk cannot be replaced, it does have some close relatives, which are worthier of examination and even exaltation. Indeed, punk is simply another name for something more timeless—always shifting yet always constant.

In that light, Tara Isabella Burton’s New York Times feature “Christianity Gets Weird” (changed from the more explicit print title “The Future of Christianity is Punk”) is not objectionable. It was only a matter of time before it would reach that level of interest. I know because I wrote much the same thing in 2017. In fact, our pieces have a lot of conceptual overlap. Both are centered on youth who do not fit in hyper-liberal modernity, who reject the political binary, who go out in search of more amenable outlets, and who find one in religion (not “spirituality,” but religion: dogma, liturgical practice, of sin and its forgiveness, and the pursuit of moral clarity over pragmatism and individualism). Both of us even mention Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option. We both admit that this has a countercultural sheen to it; but where Burton focuses on the “Weird Christians” themselves, I examined its implications in culture and history, comparing the similarities between Ian MacKaye, straight edge, and Krishnacore with that of Girolamo Savonarola. More significantly, I did it from the point of view of a punk rather than that of a Christian. And it is there where my disappointment in Burton’s piece rests.

On matters of piety I have no qualms. I know that the young Christians Burton covers are earnest in their faith and struggling to maintain it in the middle of a plague (which, truth be told, is as trad as it gets). I’ve interacted with and met in person more than a few in that circle, even that MechaBonald fellow, who I met on his 21st birthday at the apartment of a First Things staffer. When I began hanging out with that crowd around 2014, those who knew me previously thought it was strange, and maybe not a little unnerving. I hadn’t given much thought to religion in any substantial way in a long time. I was many years distant from the Catholic faith into which I was baptized in infancy.

Still, I do not believe that it was matter of chance that I fell into that crowd. We had significant common ground. I never felt very much at ease in the wider mainstream society. I had a comfortable life in it, to be sure, but also felt somewhat separate from it. It moved at a pace I couldn’t keep up with and seemed shallow in what it wanted from the world and in what it asked of those who lived in it. My religious upbringing was fairly light to begin with, making its evaporation all but assured, and my intellectual and moral environment was similarly contingent. If I was going to foster any of it, I had to do it on my own, and in a place that was largely untouched by mainstream concerns. For them it was traditional/high church ritual, for me it was post-Fugazi hardcore punk. Maybe to our more experienced and/or jaded interlockers in these crowds we came off as too intense for their liking. I have distinct memories of exasperating older scenesters with my enthusiasm that could probably be detected in Vatican II-friendly boomer Catholics for them. Like the converts, I know what it’s like to feel at home with an idea of what the world should be like, and to explore it and want to embody it to unheard-of levels of purity.

My complaint, then, is not that punk gets mentioned at all, but rather that punk is mentioned so little. “Punk” appears only three times in the text, and in the most pedestrian of premises. “Weird Christianity is equal parts traditionalism and, well, punk,” Burton writes, “Christianity as transgressive alternative to contemporary secular capitalist culture. Like punk, Weird Christianity has its own, clearly defined aesthetic.” Indeed, the article is full of fondness for veils, Latin Mass, Gothic architecture, incense, old hymns and chants, and obscure prayers. It’s more than that of course, as Burton eloquently concludes:

The Weird Christian movement, loose and fledgling though it is, isn’t just about its punk-traditionalist aesthetic, a valorization of a half-imagined past. It is at its most potent when it challenges the present, and reimagines the future. Its adherents are, like so many young Americans of all religious persuasions, characterized by their hunger for something more than contemporary American culture can offer, something transcendent, politically meaningful, personally challenging. Like the hipster obsession with “authenticity” that marked the mid-2010s, the rise of Weird Christianity reflects America’s unfulfilled desire for, well, something real.

Deeply felt though this may be, I’m unconvinced. Weird Christianity is vying for the minds and souls of the young against other newfangled “movements” pledging to reject easy political categorizations and the dual corroding effects of secular liberalism and capitalism—your national conservatives, your dirtbag leftists, your Bronze Age Perverts. Yet the chief distinguishing marker is “smells and bells,” but with a punk garnish. I know there’s more to Weird Christianity than that, just as there is more to punk. This was always my point.

The difference between me and Burton is one of emphasis. For Burton, at least in this instance, the aesthetic embodies the ethic. For me, the ethic dictates the aesthetic. Because of this, I focus not on punk in general but on its 1980s offshoot hardcore. Hardcore lacks the vibrancy of its immediate predecessor, and pointedly so, but it is more copacetic with Weird Christianity. Both emerged in reaction to a culture pervasive in decadence and nihilism. Both shun the mainstream and thrive in smaller communities and develop cultural signatures unique to those communities. Both are propelled by a moral imperative that upholds affirmation over negation, integrity over compromise, and presence over absence.

Without hardcore, it’s hard for me to imagine punk lasting for as long as it has. Hardcore is an entirely bottom-up enterprise, implemented by virtue of its being needed. The wider culture cannot provide for everyone, try as it might. Some people want a certain sound, a certain social experience, a certain way of thinking that the wider culture cannot or refuses to comprehend. In that event, those who want it need to make it themselves. Hardcore, and by extension punk, is an ongoing process of creation and correction. Black Flag and Bad Brains built the world and forged the language; Fugazi, Sub Pop Records, and others made every punk a citizen. Punk thrives less because it is weird than because it is right. It is less about a lifestyle than it is about living, to the best of one’s ability, what one believes to be absolute.

I don’t think that this is misunderstood by the people who qualify as Weird Christians, and I do not mean to presume that they misunderstand. But I hope this thinking becomes still more prevalent, for their sakes. The feeling one gets from contributing, in whatever modest way, to the reduction of nothingness in this world is like no other I can think of. Indeed, this essay and all the other essays I’ve written on this subject likely cover just a fraction of the debt I owe to the people with whom I coexisted in the scene: the people who put on shows, promoted bands, made zines, helped and included others, who fretted over their own principles but not anyone else’s, who tolerated me personally. Anyone, in a word, who did much more as I shuffled at the periphery of the pit. Talk of “supporting the scene” is so profuse in rhetoric that it feels less sincere the more it is repeated. But at least in this instance, I am grateful to be reminded that supporting the scene is worthier and much more demanding than hyping a clique.

PASS-FAIL

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Photo: Glynnis McDaris for Vice magazine.

We all have that one film we can never endure. It’s not a matter of not liking it or of it not being to our taste, but a matter of deep-seated revulsion and antagonism. A film whose awfulness you feel distinctly in your nerves and take personal, violent offense. No amount of gestalt therapy or men’s fellowship retreat trust falls ever seem to articulate its untamable, enflamed nature. Too ashamed are we to even tell our most intimate familiars, even as they too are all but certainly grappling with the same dilemma. So we repress it as best we can, which only makes it worse. It festers, engorging on our shame and loathing. It might even manifest on the body, like a psychically induced herpes. The cure is easy enough on paper. The film is bound to be available somewhere nowadays. Just watch it; get it over with. But even if we try, we are only reminded of the folly of it all. Will this hellish cycle ever be derailed?

As a matter of fact it can be. I have done just that. This is my story.

For as long as I’ve known about it, I could never abide The Big Chill. And I’ve encountered more than a handful of people who feel the same way. They find it boring, plotless, self-indulgent, and, in certain particulars, not very relatable. But these never approach the wave of loathing that rushes through me when I even think about it. I have always found the film impossible to sit through for more than 10 minutes. Just establishing each character in this ensemble is nauseating. I could neither comprehend the logic nor appreciate the historical anomalies that formed the basis of the possibility of this film’s very existence. It was easier to just make an ugly object out of it, and it wasn’t hard, so infused is it with things that, as an emotionally hypothermic intellectual, try my patience: the touchy-feely earnestness, the navel-gazing sentimentality, the literal and figurative insularity, “The Weight.” It is a monument to cultural rot, an abomination, a corrosion like no other in our time.

Rewatching the film in full seemed, at first, out of the question. There are so many better things I could be doing with what little precious time I have on this horrid globe. But there it was, calling me like an angular siren. I gave in. It was slow-going at first, but then 10 minutes became 15, 15 became 45, 45 became an hour and 20. Roll credits. Painless! So painless. I was besotted with despair over this fucking hangout movie? I felt powerful. I felt like I was in the middle of an arena of gladiatorial combat with the severed head of a much weaker man stuck at the tip of my awesome trident. Such was my restored inner confidence that I wanted to go out and challenge the first person I saw in the street. But that would not be appropriate social distancing.

At the same time, however, the experience was humiliating. While there is still enough not to like about the film, it was soon plain to me that my repulsion was overstated. I even teased out some merits.

It probably helps to explain the film’s plot; not a hard thing to do as there isn’t much of one. It centers on seven friends who went to college together in the late-1960s, who at the time of the film—1983—are past the threshold of middle age. Some are married with kids, some are divorced, some are single, all are materially successful, and all, it is gradually revealed, are ambivalent about that fact to one degree or another. When one of their friends commits suicide, they gather in a massive southern mansion (a summer house of two of the characters) to mourn, to commiserate on how much each has changed individually, and to confront what little has changed collectively.

The Big Chill is plagued by two problems. The first is a common one: it marries a formidable cast with a tepid script. Kevin Kline, a business man, and Glenn Close, a doctor, are the owners of the huge house. Tom Berenger, the star of a Magnum PI-style show, still pines for JoBeth Williams’s dissatisfied housewife. Jeff Goldblum is a very Jeff Goldblum-y writer for People. William Hurt is a drug addict/trafficker who sustained an injury in Vietnam that, we are constantly reminded, left him impotent. Mary Kay Place is a real estate lawyer whose biological clock has exploded. Meg Tilly is just kind of there doing suggestive stretches and laughing inappropriately. Kevin Costner is a corpse. Now drop them into a bubble amid a Breece D’J Pancake wasteland, where they engage in an obstacle course of insular smugness and self-pity, and you have a weekend in the life of the most insufferable in-group conceivable.

The Big Chill is probably one of those films that is more fun to make than it is to watch. People will undertake whatever expense to hang out with their friends, getting paid to pretend to hang out with pretend friends is probably just as good. But few friend groups tiptoe so delicately, self-indulgently, and faux introspectively over what’s eating them than this one. The film captures the dreaded Laschian phenomenon of social bonding becoming indistinct from group therapy. Each person feeds off the angst of the others in orgiastic fervor. These characters are guilty. They are guilty over not being there for their dead friend. They are guilty over selling out their “revolutionary” ideals for material comfort. They are guilty for abnegating their feelings for each other and their own passions. They are guilty, in other words, of doing nothing.

It would be nice if those ideals they go on and on about were addressed with any precision. There’s evidence that earlier drafts did just that. Having them attend the University of Michigan is the tell. Ann Arbor was a hotbed of radical leftism. It’s where Bill Ayers and Diana Oughton met and helped found the Jesse James Gang, the extremist SDS faction that preceded the Weather Underground. Yet there’s not much to go on besides a few platitudes about, say, the “crime” of property or teaching “ghetto kids” in Harlem to suggest that they were anything more than orbiters. This extends as much to the personal. When JoBeth Williams laments her lapsed ambitions of being a writer by denigrating her writing, I considered very seriously enacting the suburban ritual of smashing the television to shards with a nine iron in the middle of the driveway and in the presence of children. In addition to being insulting generally, this admission is never mentioned again, the passion for literature is not mentioned at all. She just resumes her role as an incurably thirsty housewife married to a cartoonishly square “advertising executive.” At every corner this film bares traces of production-decreed “smoothing over” of any specific idea into a muddled Mondale-voter vernacular for the sake of retaining the interest of its target demographic. Which brings us to the film’s second, and more singular, problem.

As a document of the heart of the baby boomers, The Big Chill is unrivaled. I say heart advisedly because it hardly competes with the generation’s hard historical and cultural artifacts. The film makes liberal use of them to create kind of visual mood board to tell people of a certain age, in a certain place in time the Way We Live Now. From its toxic runoff, memes are created, including the recent, sometimes confusing “ok boomer” meme of the last year. It’s powerful because its ancestor was powerful. The Big Chill had an $8 million budget and a $56 million haul at theaters. Its efforts to appeal to the yuppies, in echoing conclusions many have already come to by that point, paid off in the short term at the expense of a very long backlash. To the extent that it is deserved is a matter of debate. Or at least it should be.

In 2005, Vice magazine published its “Kill Your Parents” issue, dedicated entirely to the defaming of the boomer generation. “Like a spoiled toddler who wants you to look at his poo, boomers can’t wait to rub your face in their shit,” goes its editorial. “Baby boomers have been smothering themselves in themselves for so long it never occurred to them that A) they are wrong and B) we don’t like them. They are the kings of the universe and what they say goes.” Included in the issue is a fashion spread called “The Big Douche Chill,” which reproduces scenes from The Big Chill using models in clothes from Brooklyn-area vintage shops. (As seen above.) The copy is more droll than the previous, but still typical Gavin McInnis-era Vice:

At the funeral Karen is hurting so bad she decides to play the Stones on the church organ. She chooses a song her generation associates with sadness, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”

Black dress by Shelly Steffee; 14K gold wishbone necklace by Kim Williamson for Dottyspeck.

I read this issue after picking it out of a pile of Vice magazines at a friend’s Greenpoint apartment, and it delighted me. It was 2006 and the country was on its second of four consecutive boomer presidents (so far). When Bill Clinton ushered in the executive-level trend, it was hailed as the culmination of a two-decade changing of the guard. As Joe Klein put it in the Hillary documentary: “Bill Clinton was the first president I covered who wasn’t dad.”

If that was all that mattered, I think I would have been fine with that. Historically, I bet Clinton would have been fine with it, too. There’s nothing ignoble about overseeing a promising but ultimately mixed single term as the first president at the End of History, only to return the reins to Bob Dole in 1997, followed maybe by Anne Richards, Ross Perot, or Jack Kemp or whatever. Eight years of boomer management is exhausting; we’re now nearing year 28, with each officeholder taking our historical capital into negative territory.

Even if the boomer legacy wasn’t as integral to Bush II, Obama, or Trump, let alone the boomers who always get nominated to challenge them, they fit with the domination pattern set in motion after Watergate: the errors of The Man must be corrected, we do that by being a better, cooler version of The Man. From where I sit, boomers in power are ambitious, idealistic, and not malicious in intent, though they can be shrewd to majestic or petty ends. On the other hand, they seemed somehow misguided. They were the leaders of a new era that could not see what was coming just ahead. Clinton misread the cynicism of the middle class that elected him, Bush inherited a quickly deteriorating world order that he put into overdrive, Obama overestimated his country’s commitment to progress, and Trump thought he could culture war his way into posterity. That they fucked up is not at the center of the backlash. Politicians as a rule are terrible at their jobs. In real time, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt were in over their heads more often than not. Seeing their triumph with hindsight we often forget what it took to earn it. Boomer-haters are most put off by the historical imperative with which the generation carries itself. All roads lead to their long-foreseen vindication no matter what. They either don’t notice that the empire is burning, don’t care that it burns, or are fanning the flames for their own purposes, which they seem to forget the more they perpetuate their power.

Overstaying one’s welcome is the greatest horror of etiquette, and the legacy of the boomers. But a quick survey of history shows that it was also the legacy of the silent generation, and perhaps the post-Lincolnian pseudo-imperialist generation of John Hay, Henry Adams, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. before that. We exhaust ourselves searching for a crime unique to the boomers. Much is made, for instance, of their sexual attitudes in The Big Chill. Indeed, Mary Kay Place spends much of the film deciding on which (functional) male friend will impregnate her. When Berenger demurs and Goldblum is out of the question, Glenn Close lends her husband to her for the night without hang ups, perhaps the closest the film comes to feminist discourse. Yet not even the sexual revolution was their invention; it was born from horny GIs and came into maturity through William O. Douglas’s emanating penumbras. What they offered was a marketing angle for an idea whose time had come. If that made them arrogant it also showed how little say that had in their destiny.

The most startling message of The Big Chill (aside from never predecease your friends lest they make it all about themselves) is its fatalism. The film goes through great lengths to portray its characters as basking in triumph one minute and haunted by some vague sense of defeat the next. These are not so much traits as they are indulgences of people who have willfully entered into a bubble. The Big Chill isn’t a swan song for mellowed-out Days-of-Ragers, but a kind of cautionary tale of what happens when you let yourself be defined by the hand you’ve been dealt. These people are more content than they let on. All the struggles are behind them; they’ve been tested, and came away with a pass-fail. Anything with higher stakes, or anything that’s simply more interesting is inconceivable. I don’t hate these characters so much as pity them—and fear them. This could just as easily be you.

It could, sure; but it doesn’t have to be. We can obsess all we wish about some platonic generational demon, and in turn we can overlook those born within a few uncomfortably close years of The Big Chill characters who opted not to settle. People like Greg Ginn (1954), Greg Sage (1952), Kim Gordon (1953), Glenn Danzig (1955), and Joey Ramone (1951), all of whom had through their own imperative transcended the limitations of raw history to forge a more lasting context.

But isn’t that how it always is? The truth does not pick and choose the chronology in which it appears; it hides from no one. Some people see the truth for what it is and allow themselves to be changed by it, to be sewn as a thread into an intricate and enduring human tapestry. Some don’t. We of the tapestry do not begrudge or condemn those who for whatever reason turn away. Neither are we under the obligation to help those whose alternative is to dance to the Temptations into a Hell of their own making.

A PETITION

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To the Board of [Medical Association/Research Center TBD]:

My name is [REDACTED]. I am writing to present a petition on my own behalf, which I am circulating to the most forward-thinking assemblages of medical professionals in this and neighboring countries to be considered and made a top priority as a subject in the next obvious frontier of medical research.

This probably seems unusual. Petitions of this kind are quite possibly very rare. But I don’t think this will last for much longer. In humbly but by no means timidly submitting this petition, I believe that I am already a pioneer for what will be a significant movement, the vastness of which may not be totally conceivable at this time. Nevertheless, I send this with just as strong an intuition that more than a handful of members of this profession have sensed its coming on the horizon, and they have maybe even sensed my coming in particular. If this is the case then let me begin by alerting those prescient few and their lagging colleagues that I, indeed, am here and ready. Those who are vindicated by this may now rejoice and make the appropriate arrangements.

It is my understanding that the procedure by which the top half of a man is separated from his lower half so that it may be fused with the lower half of a stallion is nearing though not quite reached its crude stages. This much I have been able to glean from scouring the medical journals where not even a speculative inkling could be found. More baffling was its absolute obscurity in the less formal or peer-reviewed channels: the message boards, Reddit threads, the various -chans. Not one detailed schema, not one mock-up, not even a scant, skittish suggestion of the possibility. In writing this I wished to say that centaurian surgery is more dream than reality, but it seems few if anyone is dreaming about it at all. At least not openly.

For this to be so stigmatized is a roadblock to medical progress that must be overcome. And a great deal that lies beyond medical progress is in jeopardy if nothing is done. I should like to change that. I feel that by submitting myself to this procedure at so early a stage will serve as a necessary catalyst for incredible strides to be made.

I understand there may be some skepticism as to why I should be granted this privilege. Below are a few reasons that I’m confident will help clear away that skepticism.

First, I am very attractive. In every depiction of the centaur you will find the same thing: a perfect physique on top and on the bottom. It should go without saying that this is both an ideal and a necessity. If we are to ascend to the next stage of human excellence, the most excellent humans must be given due consideration, to set the right example whether as something to emulate or to obey. I have long made my health and my appearance a matter of utmost importance. Since my teen years I’ve never not been a regular and committed member of the most reputed and exclusive fitness clubs. My knowledge of exercise equipment and routines rivals that of any paid personal trainer, despite that being the furthest from my actual profession. I have also played many team sports in school and in my free time including lacrosse, soccer, basketball, wresting, etc. Though I’ve often preferred the solitary athletics of fencing, archery, and rock climbing. These efforts have wrought numerous romantic relationships, some verging on the engagement stage. Attached are some headshots and the contact information of former lovers to confirm my virility and breeding potential.

Second, I am very intelligent. In high school I made the AP-level of History and English and honors Biology. I earned my BA in Sociology at William Paterson University graduating with the class of 2009 cum laude. Thereafter, I matriculated at the University of Delaware for my Masters in Political Science and conducted important work as a research assistant. I have a healthy skepticism of information that permeates the internet. For reference matters I prefer to consult my edition of Encyclopedia Britannica, which I keep up to date every year. My favorite books are Walden and The Corrections. I am working steadily at seeing performances of every Shakespeare play, but I also like contemporary drama like The Crucible. I have read some poetry but not enough. My personal heroes are Vaclav Klaus and Dean Acheson. Attached are my college transcripts and screencaps of my online trivia scores.

Third, I have a strong moral compass, ethical principles, and leadership capabilities. While some may deem this an antiquated notion, unfit for modernity, I have a strict sense of what is right and what is wrong, what is fair and what is not fair. I was raised in the Methodist church, was a participant in the youth group and encouraged to be a youth pastor. I appreciate the grounding given me by the church, though I am no longer a Christian. I do not believe that centaurs, by and large, will find Christianity suitable to their outlook. I don’t know what they would embrace in its place, but I find the works of the Stoics—the letters of Seneca and the meditations of Marcus Aurelius in particular—and the work of Nathaniel Branden to be most congenial to my own principles and I imagine that will continue after my procedure. Overall, I envision centaurs being noble creatures, a cut above the messier human lot. They have liberated themselves from the dual burdens of relativism and nuance, seeing things with clarity and earnest sense of  purpose. They are less inclined to fine-tune, split hairs, or agree to disagree. Attached is a short essay I wrote on the subject of justice and the contact information of members of an intramural rugby team I co-captained and members of the community watch I organized for my apartment complex.

Fourth is my prowess as a networker. As of this writing I have 2,292 friends on Facebook with 428 additional followers. I have 3,729 followers on Instagram, 657 followers on Snapchat, and 342 connections on LinkedIn. I am also a fixture on exclusive group DMs as well as WhatsApp, Slack, and Discord chats. Even put together that might not seem like much next to an “influencer,” but I consider it merely a starting point for something much greater. Already I have cultivated an online presence that is inclusive and inviting. I promote a positive lifestyle and an aspirational attitude. After my procedure, I expect my following to grow and my engagement to be more impactful. I will represent the centaur lifestyle and values to my followers and they will gain both knowledge and enthusiasm. Only the very abject will find it detestable or fearsome. In preparation, I have also claimed the handle CentaurLyf on OnlyFans and CentaurLyf2025 on YouTube. Attached are my most “liked” and commented-on posts on Instagram and LinkedIn.

Fifth is my tenacity. Obviously you are not the only medical group to which I have submitted this petition. And there is a possibility that all of the groups I contacted will opt not to accept the petition. In that hopefully unlikely event, I will not be dissuaded. In fact I have many backups for consideration, though they are not in locations that are as, in a matter of speaking, on the level as ours is or Canada’s. I will not go into specifics here, but let me use this part of the petition to lament our unfortunate plight of falling behind those parts of the world that are unencumbered against obstacles of clerical procedure, and just generally unafraid to explore the utmost limitations of what’s possible, and even to push beyond those limitations. I can assure you that people in these nations look at us in disgust at what we’ve become. Be assured, I do not relish that state, and have no desire to betray you. So fervently do I not desire to betray you that I might actually skip even those proper channels and spin the Tor browser roulette wheel.

It’s nothing personal against anyone’s skills or integrity; it’s just that, finally, I deserve it. I feel like this point needs no more support than my actual qualifications have already provided. It is a fact of life that we all deserve something. Some people deserve to be made into centaurs, while others deserve to be in servitude to centaurs. I knew on which side I was when I looked down at my two legs with an intense feeling of obsoleteness. All my life I’d been walking upright, but never to anywhere better than total redundancy. The man-beast I want to become will never lack in a sense of purpose as man has for decades. Every day will be an adventure because a new world and a saner order awaits. I will not be the only one with this feeling, but much fewer of the total number will qualify. With my qualities and character setting the standard, you doctors will play an eminent role as judges and creators of the forthcoming elite.

In a time when there is plenty of reason to despair, I come to you with a glimmer of hope. Now we can dream without fear. Then pretty soon we can look back in astonishment that it was ever just a dream!

I look forward to your response.

Kindest regards,

[REDACTED]

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THE INVITATION

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Sifting through the bills and unsolicited ephemera of his mail one Saturday afternoon, Pete made an unusual discovery. It was a light blue envelope with no return address and his own written on dark blue ballpoint in idiosyncratic cursive.

Pete tossed the less intriguing mail onto his kitchen table while handling the light blue envelope with the utmost delicacy. It was of a shape and smoothness not unlike holiday greeting cards that may or may not contain checks from relatives, though no such relatives existed for him anymore, and no such holidays were within earshot on this place in the calendar. He carefully opened the envelope revealing a pink card of thick mohawk paper; as he removed the card, he felt the elegant print work on his fingertips.

You are invited …” Pete read aloud, “to a celebration taking place on Saturday June 14th, beginning at 7:00 PM and ending by ?.

Pete took out his phone to confirm that that was today’s date. Normally he did not like events being sprung on him on such short notice, but it was a lazy, sunny Saturday that seemed wasted lying around the house. He looked back at the card for the remaining details.

Please join us at 2748 Foster Avenue. You are encouraged to bring refreshments. The party is luau-themed.

The address was nearby, which wasn’t a problem, though the fact that he did not know anyone who lived there was more puzzling. Maybe, he thought to himself, it is someone who just moved in and wants to meet the neighbors. The prospect of meeting new people in this otherwise dead-end town delighted him. What harm could it be? he thought. And so he resolved to drop what little he had planned and attend the party.

Pete immediately made preparations, shedding his sweatpants and Jets t-shirt like snakeskin and sifting through his ramshackle clothes drawers. Luau-theme was a tough one. He had nothing Hawaiian or vaguely tropical. He knew if he dug deep enough under the geological crusts of his wardrobe he’d find a few PacSun shirts from college that still more or less fit him.

Showered and freshly Axed, he stood before the bathroom mirror in a faded yellow shirt with his cargo shorts and flip-flops safely obscured. He practiced the smile he was hoping to display upon his arrival. It was not a little forced, theme parties were never his cup of tea. He could understand their appeal in the abstract but he never felt like himself and that that seemed like the point made him uneasy and more introverted than he otherwise would have been. He certainly did not feel more youthful in the now snugly fitting shirt that accentuated the outcomes of his lapsing metabolism.

Not that these dreary inklings affected his resolve. He flipped on a pair of gas station aviator shades from spring break 2013 and put on a plaid-patterned short-sleeve button down. Just as he left, he remembered he had a shell necklace from about the same time. It seemed excessive so he stored it in one of his cargo pockets in the event that he might ease up and headed to the liquor store.

Walking through the dense forestry of unrefrigerated 24- and 30-packs, Pete was in search of something that would stand out from the rest. A luau-themed party conjured an image of more Coronas and Land Sharks than any house could abide, to say nothing of the lime-flavored abominations perpetuating themselves daily in his culture. Pete considered getting wine coolers or even Zima, if possible. He imagined how amusing this would be to the party’s hosts and using the in-joke as a foundation for a lasting connection. Pete was on the verge of consulting an employee before something in a far-off corner caught his eye and distracted him.

Sitting crookedly atop a random assortment of beers was a 24-pack that he’d never seen before in this or any store. The packaging was white with an attractive redhead in a vintage polka dot swimsuit holding a frosty mug next to the word “BEER” in bold red letters. That was it. The combined kitsch and obscurity made him think it was some limited edition of a forgotten iconic beer of a midsized city put out by one of the big breweries. It intrigued him such that he put all other possibilities aside. The cashier up front stared at the case, arching his eyebrow as he scanned the barcode but made no further comment.

“$11.53.”

“Really? For a 24-pack?”

“Must be your lucky day.”

Pete secured the beer in his backseat. After closing the door, he paused and looked back into the car at the case. He could have sworn the woman on the package had winked at him. He chuckled to himself and headed off to the house.

It was almost five after seven when Pete turned onto Foster Avenue, one of those streets with closely set homes largely unchanged from the postwar era or earlier. He did not see a line of cars along the curb; indeed, the neighborhood seemed rather quiet. Pete, by his standards and evidently everyone else’s, was still early. But looking at 2748 from his parking space across the street, it too did not seem very festive. Walking to the house he could hear no noise, smell no barbecue, and could not detect any tiki torches glowing from the pretty visible backyard. It might be awkward at first, he thought, but he could use the time to get to know the hosts.

With the beer under his left arm, Pete consulted the address on the invitation in his right hand to confirm he had the information correct. He rang the doorbell twice at what he thought were respectful intervals. The slow thuds of footsteps from behind the door were revealed to be of a lanky man between middle- and retirement age in a suit and tie and a deadpan facial expression.

“Can I help you?” the man asked in a low, smoky drone.

“Yes, I’m here for the party,” Pete said, affecting his smile that felt more and more like a grimace the longer he held it.

“Party?” the man looked at him quizzically, “there must be some mistake, there’s no party here. It’s just me and my wife.”

“Oh …”

“We were just watching Blue Bloods. We record it every week and watch it after dinner the day after.”

“I see,” Pete looked around nervously. “Is this not 2748 Foster?”

“It is.”

“Oh, well the invitation said this exact address.”

“Let me see it.”

Pete handed over the invitation and the man inspected it like a compromising photograph of an enemy.

“Is this a joke? I don’t take kindly to jokes. Not ever, no less on Blue Bloods night.”

“I don’t understand.”

The man handed back the invitation. “It says 16 Sycamore Place, a town over. What’s the big idea?”

Pete re-re-inspected the invitation only to confirm what the man had said: the address was not the one from when he first opened it. His grimace collapsed.

“Are you okay, son?”

Pete looked at the generic ideal of adult authority blankly.

“Yeah … sorry to bother. I’ll go now.”

Pete began to turn away from the house until the man touched his forearm lightly.

“Hold on friend,” the man said in a more soothing cadence, “I think you’re forgetting something.”

“What’s that?”

The man said nothing, but went to the case of beer, carefully opened it halfway and removed a can.

“For my troubles.”

As Pete walked back to his car, he heard the man crack open the can and take a long sip. As he was driving away, he could have sworn he heard a wolf howl rising from that same location.

Pete thought little of the amorphous print job and more of his fashionable lateness growing more unfashionable by the minute. There was a threshold of delayed arrival where attendance seemed less worth it the further past it you got. You are behind on several layers of conversation. Bonds of the night had already been forged, there is no time to insinuate yourself into any of them let alone to start a new one, you are trying fruitlessly to play catch-up with the best jokes and stories of the night. Only Pete’s dogged commitment kept him going.

Aside from being a one-story ranch home, 16 Sycamore seemed just as subdued as 2748 Foster. It took only one ring of the doorbell before a woman in her 40s wearing curlers in her hair, a pink lace nightgown, and streaked mascara burst from behind the door.

She spoke only in sobs and seemed barely able to recognize Pete as anything more than some vague combination of material matter. She nevertheless lunged at him with such force as to push him down onto the front lawn. A can of the beer flew out from the case, the woman stumbled to the ground and picked it up before running back into the house. Pete sat there stunned for a few more seconds. Walking back to the car he re-re-re-inspected the invitation to see yet another address on the other side of town. Getting into his car, he heard a panther’s roar coming from the house.

As the night went on, the pattern made itself more apparent. The invitation took Pete to new destinations all over the county. In each case the occupants of these destinations were not especially pleased to see him, though they were more interested in his contraband, which became lighter with each stop. Sometimes the occupants were glum, silent, and remote, if a bit off in their ways.

One man in a condo complex greeted Pete with flame-like white mutton chops, a smoking jacket, silk pajama pants, and a monocle. He rifled a little too long into the case, as if looking for a special can just for him. Pete caught the most complete glimpse of any destination. He saw no furniture, just a folding chair and a poker table with some noodles on a paper plate, but no utensils. Then, a robotic poodle backflipped into the center of the corridor, its yaps echoing down to the entrance.

“Wanda,” the man said inspecting his selection with a cool avarice, “shut up.” He slammed the door in Pete’s face. Pete waited for what was, he thought, a hyena’s cackle.

Some were more expressive. At a duplex, two women of identical old age, identical diminutive height, and wearing identical green Adidas tracksuits and shell-toes came out of both doors and spent several minutes doing cartwheels and summersaults in front of Pete before each taking a can and slinking back through the doors out of which they came. Bears growled.

The 24-pack dwindled to the last few cans and Pete lost all track of time and space in his sudden quest to give his supply away. The night took on an arbitrary elasticity, the hours simply had no meaning to him. And the road unraveled itself before him like a black Fruit Roll-Up—though to which end of the Fruit Roll-Up he was driving was not easy to determine.

Pete did manage to find a party. He was met at the door of a modern, square-shaped mansion by a girthy man in a kimono and nothing else with Sun Ra blaring behind him. As the man took several cans, Pete tried to peer behind him into the party but was stopped.

“Your task is through here.” And he shut the door.

The party went quickly silent, and no new sound, animal or otherwise, could be heard, which just unsettled Pete more.

Pete looked warily at the invitation again. By this point it was cheap-looking and moist. It had a new directive: mile mark 45 on the westbound interstate. Pete sighed and started his car.

Pete’s car had run out of gas five miles from the location, leaving him to walk the near-empty moonlit highway. When he reached the mile mark he stood in front of an empty field once used for crops. He crossed over the rail and walked to a small indentation of dirt and sat in the middle of it. The ground was cool but neither too stiff nor too loose to discomfort him. The full moon illuminated the vast expanse of the field in a spectral blue. The only sound he heard was the buzzing of mosquitoes flying in his ears and mouth but not biting him.

Pete’s phone had died sometime earlier but he hazarded it was probably two in the morning. He speculated how his night would have gone if the invitation had not been so deceptive. Perhaps he would still be playing Kan Jam in the backyard with some straggling, drunk-but-by-no-means-too-drunk single mom or set of single moms. He opted not to dwell on an obvious fantasy. Instead he went into his cargo shorts pocket and took out the shell necklace. He stared at it trying to remember under what circumstances he got it, as it seemed so foreign to him now; some chick, he surmised to himself. Nevertheless, he put it around his neck and it fit better than the PacSun shirt.

He looked into the case and there was one can of beer left. “Don’t mind if I do,” he said to himself. He cracked open the warm can and chugged half the contents in under 30 seconds. The taste was unremarkable, like any PBR knock-off. The body was not so much heavy as swampy from sitting in his backseat for most of the night. Pete did not complain; he titled back onto the ground and looked up at the moon and stars. He sipped the can slowly now, and in the process the celestial ornaments looked as if they were moving—rotating like lights over a crib. A music rose from the trees on the other side of the road. Soft luau music, the kind he’d heard in beach movies from the 1960s he watched ironically but not really as the star-crossed thirty-something teen lovers—the goodie two-shoes honors student and the bad boy surfer—reconciled at sunset. The invitation was truthful after all. The celebration was not as he envisioned it, but Pete took what he could get at this point. He breathed in the warm night air and finished his beer.

When he crushed the empty can and tossed it aside, the music and the rotating lights stopped more abruptly than they came. Before Pete could take stock in what had happened, he felt a constriction on his throat. The shell necklace was tightening. He tried to take it off but it resisted, intent, it seemed, on strangling him—or worse. He stood up trying to fight it back, but the more he did the tighter it got. Pete could not breathe; his face was turning blue. The pressure intensified before his head ruptured like a large bubble. His body fell like a sack of potatoes, the shell necklace secure in its place on his neck.

***

The county police officer flagged down the pick-up truck at mile mark 45 the next morning. The driver, a man in jeans, work boots, and a ratty Teamsters t-shirt greeted him in front of the field.

“Sorry to bring you out so early,” the police officer said. “But I figured you might know what this was about.”

The pick-up truck driver paused and looked into the field. “I guess that explains the commotion.”

“That it does. I’m on a 14-hour shift now. I swear this happens earlier and earlier every year.”

“Well don’t worry yourself about this, you go get some breakfast and we’ll set this right.” The driver turned to his truck. “Boys!”

Two college-aged men of similar muscular builds each respectively wearing sleeveless Drowning Pool and Archers of Loaf shirts stumbled out of the car.

“Go on and take care of that over there.”

“Can’t just one of us do it?” the man in the Archers of Loaf shirt whined.

“Just do as I say. We got a delivery to make.”

The two men climbed over the rail like babies without arms. They stumbled over to the indentation where a newly filled 24-pack of BEER was placed at the center. They each took one end of the case, treating it like a biblical artifact and placed it in the back of the truck.

“Whichever one of you stays in back with it can also use the hand truck.”

Both men eagerly raised their hands.

“Oh, do odds and evens for it or whatever, I don’t have time for this.”

By the afternoon, the case was back at the pile, in its same crooked place.

THE OPTIMIST

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PLEASE STAND BY FOR A MESSAGE FROM EMERGENCY SERVICES

9:32 AM
I’m like most people. I’d like to have the power to decide who lives and who dies. That sounds kind of sinister, but people are too cynical about it. Like, just because you have this power that, in their heads, automatically means it’ll be used often and arbitrarily. But I don’t think so? I’ve thought about this a lot. The more I think about it the more comfortable I become with it. I’m sure I’d wield it responsibly. Like, just having it confers a ton of respect. Especially when you get across to the people that you (I) will use it sparingly, like only when it’s absolutely necessary. And I wouldn’t make a mistake when I use it.

Things didn’t turn out that way as you can see, so I make do in other ways—mainly by deductive reasoning. I use my deductive reasoning to determine who will likely live and who will likely die. I like to take time sitting out by the window and assess passersby. Like this old lady. Always the most vulnerable of people. I think they’ll have it pretty good for a while. Who would leave grandma behind? Of course that can only last for so long. Old people don’t do a lot, and also they’re not as pleasant as they first seem, even before all this. You ever just tried to serve one? Nah, if I was old I’d feel pretty unfortunate.

Now, a young married couple. They seem pretty likely to hold out. A tight unit, bound by love and by social bonds. Neither of those get you very far, do they? Not now. Not even before. They’ll have some solidarity as the outer world becomes less and less trustworthy. But untrustworthiness is a pretty strong contagion in itself. I don’t know what will set them off against each other. Like the saying goes each household is shitty in their own ways. I’ll probably be seeing a lot less of them.

Teens—young adults—that’s the real wildcard. They’re either the last hope for the world or its greatest menace. Either way I’m threatened by them.

11:15 AM
So I’ve had to get used to black coffee for a while. It’s not the best, not really my brand, but you adjust. All you can do is adjust. Like I never used to take it black. I guess you can tell by the bitter-beer-face I make every time I take a sip. It’s gotten better since I started, I swear. It’s really a minor thing that’s a pain in my ass. Coffee snobs—my dad mostly—gave me a lot of shit for dripping a little half and half; like just a smidge of it for smoothness. And like a half a scoop of sugar, not even. From like the tiniest fucking spoon. It’s no matter now. Last time I went to the store all the dairy: gone. All the milk, all the heavy cream, all the yogurt, all the cheese. Fucking suburbanite vultures.

That’s not fair. I’m sorry. Whenever the mass gets to thieving I always conjure up vultures. It makes no sense. Vultures are noble creatures; beautiful, in their way. But yeah, noble. They rid the world of our filth. We just keep on making it. Okay, I’m pouring this out.

12:47 PM
I like to have the news on, but I like to have it on mute. As you can see, I covered the bottom and the left side of the screen to block the ticker and graphics. It’s been that way for a while. But it falls off every now and then and I have to re-tape it. The news was useless for a long time. Then it got terrifying. Once we all got numb to the terror the news got useless again. Instead I like to sit here and create the news. I like to watch the anchors, gauge their expressions and try to form a scenario in my mind. It’s harder than you think. They don’t actually have a lot of range because it’s mostly variations on bad news, and I can’t really tell when they’ve changed from one story to another. So here I’ve just created days’ worth of coverage on the scandal of the president’s extra pinkie. You see it was discovered that the president has a little nub at the end of his right hand that twitches on its own. Experts speculate it not so much a finger as a sentient growth, but the president and his aides are in total denial. Rightly so: eleven fingers? In an election year? Absolutely humiliating for America. An intrepid muckraker, a journalist-hero of the old school, had to die to bring us this truth. Rest in Power, my friend.

2:00 PM
I know I talk sometimes like I’m winging it, like I don’t have a plan, but make no mistake, the first inkling of bad news about all of … all of this … those ominous beginnings set off the little mini-sirens in my head and I went out and started my prep buying. I did it gradually, over the course of a couple of weeks so as not to set off anyone else’s alarms. My pantry I think is indicative of nothing short of total success in my strategic acumen.

I think I cleaned this and a neighboring town of all of their string beans.

All that was left was string beans?

No, there was plenty of other stuff. It’s just that string beans are my favorite side dish, really my favorite greens, period. I used to beg my parents to put string beans with every meal, and on my birthday they’d indulge me by putting string beans beside my slice of ice cream cake. I’d make faces like I didn’t like this while still getting the joke, but on the inside I don’t think I was ever happier than I was then. I wonder if they could tell.

Anyway, now string beans are the main course every day. They don’t take much effort to prepare as of right now. But in the event that man cannot live on string beans alone after all, I did manage to get one bag of bowtie pasta. So I could make a big heaping bowl of macaroni and string beans, maybe add some olive oil if it’s around … some pepper. Sometimes I put the beans on a plate and pretend it’s casserole. You know the kind that’s crunchy and soggy in all the right places.

But I do have a plan.

I have a plan.

3:02 PM
For a while I got several talking-tos for walking the streets with this bat. Cops and neighbors would confront me saying I was stirring up unnecessary anxieties. With a fucking wiffleball bat? If anything it’s therapeutic for me. I feel a sort of strength walking with this. I feel like I’m patrolling a no-go zone or something, or I’m hunting ne’er-do-wells. I’d like to become a witch-hunter, but for accelerationists. They’re the new witches after all. I’d round them up and take them to whatever justice apparatus still exists and let them get dealt with as conclusively as possible. It’s tough work, but most work for the greater good is.

It’s mostly fantasy and bluster, though. I know that once things get really bad I probably won’t last very long. I’ve never survived by any other means than inaction and being near-invisible. Attempts to do the opposite, whether it is needed or not, seem like they would bring about the expected, terrible results.

I think it’s important to honestly assess your strength, or really your lack of it. There’s a basic human need to not want to appear weak or stupid or scared. But nothing drives our anxieties more than that need, because we go through incredible and ridiculous extremes to get at it, because deep down we know how untrue those appearances are. I guess it doesn’t surprise some that there are more weak, scared, and stupid people out there than we think, but it’s more shocking to know we are one them. We can’t escape them—or each other. You know we’ve handed untold amounts of real power to the weak. How are the strong gonna feel when they realize they let that happen? I bet they already have, and they’re safe in their panic bunkers waiting for the rest of us to be culled.

I think what upset people was not that I was carrying this worthless bat around but that I was holding it like a rifle, which, yeah, would be nice to have right about now. I guess in hindsight that’s kind of fair, but I think I’ve gone down in the anxiety-stirring priorities.

4:16 PM
Can you believe that I had like zero hobbies before all this? I mean I had interests and passions but nothing where I really felt where I was applying my whole self—mind and body. Currently my hobby is this: learning how to work this record player. I got it at an estate sale … well I got it out of someone’s house anyway. And the record collection. It’s a lot of stuff, had to make more than one excursion. Every day I try to play something for a little bit, just to see if I can. Usually I can play something, but it’s harder to change songs or tracks or whatever.

This isn’t my real hobby actually. I just kill time with it. I mean, I never actually liked music. Never got it. Like I go through these and have no idea. Never heard of this one, never heard of this one or this one. Ah, Born to Run. I’ve heard of that. I don’t know it, but I’ve heard of it. When the timing is right the real fun begins. If you look out the window you can see into the backyard. Now you look past it and you see I have a clear shot of that house and that house next to it. I’m curious as to what will happen if I launch these records against the surface of each house.

I think they’d shatter.

Well yeah. But, like, how? Against that brick façade it would be gnarly I bet. Against a window who knows! It’s also a good test of my agility and focus. I feel like those are lacking in these times, when they’re needed most. Plus I just like the look of things breaking. But I have to wait until those houses are unoccupied.

So if you don’t like music what do you like?

I like sound just fine. When I want to get motivated I listen to the sound of bones breaking in martial arts films. On the wall there you can see I’ve amassed quite a lot of video tapes. Legitimate as well as bootleg. When I want to relax I listen to chainsaws.

6:30 PM
My neighbors’ house went dark a while back, so I decided to check it out. I never really talked to them. I barely saw them. I learned their last name through a mail mix-up and soon forgot it. I never knew why their cars left the driveway or why this one light I could see from the hallway was always on after two in the morning. I passed by it a bunch of times and I felt a sort of eeriness in its stillness. Like, the smiley-face flag hanging over the garage with the tears at the edges wafted in a gently unnerving way. So I took it upon myself to do a citizen’s welfare check. Just to be clear, it was not an elaborate break-in, I found an unlocked sliding-glass door. Though it didn’t take long to determine that no such check was needed.

Care to clarify on that?

No.

There wasn’t much special about the place. They were just normal people. I relearned their last name and forgot it all over again. But I felt kind of sad in a way I can’t describe walking through each room, looking at their contents. I don’t steal. Whatever I take I’m going to bring back. And I don’t take much. Mostly I just look, take things in.

It was then that I realized how isolate the neighborhood actually was. It never seemed that way in regular times, we were polite to each other on the street, even though some dogs and children, and even adults, look barely distinguishable, to match the basically uniform houses. It was not a very warm street. There were no block parties; there were no barbecues, at least none that I was invited to. It’s easy to stand on this street, looking at each house, each now much more closed off than before, and think of all that lost time and what you would have done differently. Though in reality you would not have done anything at all differently. It’s another fantasy.

I think more houses are going to go dark. When that happens I’ll do the process all over. But I’ll make sure to preserve rather than borrow. They’ll be like museums. Or just places to lay low when my own house becomes too constricting.

It’s too easy to be voyeuristic. Anyone can do that now. I see this as being a caretaker or a manager. It’s just me trying to manage. They’d do the same if I’d gone dark, I’m sure of it. Even if they wouldn’t, what could I do?

But earlier you were sayi—

Yeah, I know what I say.

8:55 PM
I’m not nostalgic, no. This wasn’t always the case. I’m like everyone else. The sight of big changes had me running over all my old stuff … old toys, old books, old pictures … all the old memories from “normal” times. I begrudge no one who did that or still does. It happens. It’s a reflex, and it’s hard to let go. But letting go of it is the best thing that can happen to you. At least from my experience. Over time when you get out of that tunnel vision, you find that the best part about being out of normal times is forgetting everything that came before. Because you get enough distance from it you start to realize that not everything was that great. In fact most of it was bullshit. Bullshit coated in glitter. I’m not casting a pox on almost everything, per se, but things that no longer have any use for the right now should be seen more clearly as such. Like a bunch of politics stuff, and all that culture war crap that people spent hours arguing over. The same thing every day. No more. A figment. A foreign language. Utterly useless in any respect.

Forgetting sounds difficult, it takes a lot of psychological training, but at best you can go through the mental storage of your past, the pasts you shared with others, and look at each item as if you’re outside of it, like you were never part of it but you have access to it and power over it. It’s like this orb that’s dimming right in front of you. And seeing that it can’t brighten the way it used to, you just look at it and say “I don’t need this anymore.” And there it goes. It gets easier once you understand that with everything forgotten there’s more space now. What you’re gonna fill that space with will be fixed in your mind. And suddenly anything is possible.

Every morning I wake up I take a second or two before drawing up the blinds. You never know what you’re going to see each day. It could be exactly the same as yesterday, or … not. Everyone could be gone; everything could be engulfed in flames or strewn with bodies or whatever. But like I said earlier: you adjust. It’s how I always look outside and can tell, no matter what, that it’s gonna be a great day.

THE END

AN ORATION FOR MOST OCCASIONS AND SELECT HAND GESTURES

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They said that it could not be done.

They sat there, hands behind their heads, feet on the desk, cigar chomped in their teeth, that it could not be done, my friends. They told us, point-blank with a straight face, that it could not be done by us.

And yet it did get done. Yes, getting it done took some doing. Some real effort and sacrifice. Some toil and expense, not to mention more intellect than most things needing to get done tend to demand. But any cool and calm observer would be willfully and maliciously misleading to stand before it and say that it was not done. For in actual fact it was done. Done conclusively; done wholeheartedly and determinately. Done, in a word, now and for the foreseeable future.

Not only was it done, but it was done by the very people who we were told could never in any circumstance get it done: us. You, me, each other. Look at them. Now take a look at yourselves. The outcome is clear. The difference is undeniable to any sane person. We are right. They, who again said that it could not be done by us, are wrong.

But please, friends, I urge calm on this point. In the great conflicts of our species there are those who are right and those who are not. It would be nice if everyone was right and nothing ever was wrong. But think of what kind of world that would bring us: a chaotic and confused one. This person’s rightness will almost certainly come into conflict with that person’s rightness, leading to only God knows what outcome. No, friends, this is how it should be: someone on top, someone else below. It is to our great merit and fortune that we are on the top. But we must do well to carry ourselves in a sort of dignity observers of moderate attitude may expect of someone on top.

We must, for instance, not be unduly rude to those who are wrong. Despite their hurtful comments on the things that they were certain could not have been done, especially by us, we must not hold them too harshly in their now unambiguous misjudgments. We must not go out of our way to accost them on the street with forceful but puckish denunciations of their foolishness or confident exaltations of our wisdom and daring.

We must not delight ourselves too greatly or openly at their uneasiness in our presence, or in their sorrow at seeing our joy. If we are so tempted to laugh at the sight of them hunched in shameful solitude over a greasy basket of Long John Silver’s takeout (I assume that’s a thing), or whatever food with which they sate their sadness, that we simply cannot suppress it, we must do well to say that it is not them that brings our laughter, but something that we remembered from the past, something we remembered seeing years ago on Space Ghost Coast to Coast. Or Caroline in the City.

Now, my friends, let me not deceive you. While many of those who have turned out to have been wrong will be mostly sad, aggrieved, and otherwise enduringly inconsolable, you must be careful about those few who will be angry. This seems hard to believe, friends, but it’s true. In having witnessed previous things that have gotten done, there will be some very loud voices who call from distances near and far to say that yes, you did, despite our earlier claims to the contrary, get the thing done. But, they’ll go on, but you should never have gotten it done. What you got done was very bad and harmful. Why hadn’t you known this? Why did you not think? Are you immoral?

This is an audacious, unbelievable claim; but rather shy compared to a still more audacious provocation. So, these more nefarious people open, grinning slyly, you got the thing done, eh? Allegedly done, that is. How do we know for sure that it is done? Seems all too unlikely given the timeframe and your collective capacity. The thing you got done looks well-fabricated from where I stand, which is nowhere near it. Yes, very clever, they nod all too knowingly!

I have seen some pretty tense dealings with these provocateurs, let me tell you. I have seen the people being provoked react very strongly. I have seen them muster all their fortitude, fortitude that could have been applied to innumerable more productive undertakings, to setting these malcontents right. Under these circumstances you will learn that the human body makes many sounds you never would have thought could be made and are quite grateful never to feel. But I have to say, I was more disappointed than offended by these actions. Actions that were just, yes; that were responded to in fair and equal proportion to how the actions that caused them were delivered. There is no mistaking here; anyone with well-contoured moral reasoning could see it. No one with a pure, alert heart would resolve to penalize them without inviting savage consequences of their own. But, at the same time, was it needed? Did it embolden or detract the overall victory being defended? To the first I would say no, to the second I would say the latter.

But I can only advise and persuade on these points, I cannot command. I can only influence your judgment as individuals so much. You know your hearts. Some of them burn more intensely than others. People whose hearts burn less so should not be abjured for it. Some wisdom may lie in lukewarmth, some of it worth emulating. Look to each other for guidance and good conduct. At least know when going slightly above the call of good conduct is feasible.

Those who are wrong, who thought against all logic and natural insight that they were right, will be dealt in their own time. Time, indeed, will find that it does not require their presence any more than we, those who are actually right, do. History, as always, follows suit after time. Then the matter is moot. Who were they—those wrong people? No one knows. Stories tell of a once illustrious and noble people, implausible though that seems in light of their clear failure of nerve and blindness to beauty. By that point we will have the privilege of unguarded retaliatory mirth.

I should probably note one more, though: those unusual, suspecting people who will over the course of these triumphant months ask any one of us, unsolicited, what precisely was it we had gotten done. To what magnitude has it altered the world that surrounds the thing done? How, for that matter, does it affect their own lives? These, make no mistake, are questions of some paramount importance, where no trivial thought should sink its way into the answers. But remember that your accomplishment does not entitle others to be given its fullest understanding by you, the accomplisher. By what right or privilege do these inquisitors seek to understand the delicate tinctures of your heart? The finely coordinated natural light beams within your soul? They who care to know so much, I can assure you, will know in time when the legends around it begin to be told, doubtless with great reverence and clarity, by those who come after. We will not worry ourselves about it so soon after this, our finest moment so far.

HORRORISMISM

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I wrote three years ago that horror was having a bit of a moment. It had always been popular, but taken seriously only in fits and starts. That changed in the middle of the last decade when studios like Blumhouse and A24 started taking risks on ambitious and nuanced but still scary “prestige” horror films that paid off in sales, in critical acclaim, and (selectively) in awards season. Two years later I also noted that trends tend to bottom out after a certain period. Quality lessens, even if ambition remains high, but soon even that goes, leaving an aesthetic and narrative rut, right back where everything started.

It’s the typical Spenglerian cycle of triumph, decadence, and decline in miniature. It’s also pretty low stakes because, as I said earlier, horror is popular and will remain so. Moreover, horror’s greatness will rise anew sometime in the future and all the horrid shameful masterpieces of the low period will be forgotten or remembered ironically. For all of its grim content, horror is never lacking in cause for celebration, or self-praise.

Indeed, all this triumph makes me wonder what society is like from the point of view of the minority, of someone who does not like horror, who cannot stand the sight or suggestion of it. I feel a certain guilt because people who are repulsed by horror are terrible conversation partners. We of the majority are so accustomed to administering the conversation that insistence on any other subject is just intolerable; while the admission of skimming Wikipedia plot summaries in place of watching the film just to keep up is a sign of weakness. Probably the most productive conversation I ever had with a non-horror fan was centered on Midsommar, a film we had not seen and had no interest in seeing, though for different reasons[1]. But afterward, our unequal footing—me in the golden glow of freedom, her in the shadowed gloom of oppression—reasserted itself as unshakable as ever.

How then to remedy this? One way, certainly, is the giving of ground. Let them talk about whatever pleases them, be it young adult fantasy, locally brewed pale ale, Marriage Story, or whatever else people who don’t like horror like to watch instead. The thought of it sounds … not uncompelling, even a little exciting. And maybe as a last resort we may venture to such an extreme. But that’s not very productive; at least compared to the corrective we horrorists have been so negligent in offering: explaining why we love horror.

The anti-horrorists are rolling their eyes surely. “You explain your love of horror all the time, as you force me through another screening of Session 9.” Fair enough, but those have never amounted to much for me beyond distinguishing two broad types.

One is the “thrill-seeker” who chases every extreme the genre has to offer, no matter how gruesome or dull or poorly made. The tendency is escapist and diversionary, leaving the consumer with what Stephen King described as “that same feeling that comes when the roller coaster stops at the end of its run and you get off with your best girl, both of you whole and unhurt.” It’s the same impulse that brings people to “extreme haunters” like Russ McKamey, who for the price of a bag of dogfood and a waiver will torture you for as long as you can take it, when the screen- or page-based adrenaline rush is insufficient. These consumers are the most numerous, as market trends will show, they don’t take much to entertain; their imaginations are basic while their sensations are avaricious.

The other type is the aesthete, who does not go to horror to escape from the world but to find embellishment of its worst aspects. Horror turns an existential circle into a philosophical square. This strain is not new, finding its most total version in the work of Lovecraft, but has lately become more common (or at least louder) with the rising prestige of the genre. There is an assumed antagonism between the two camps, as seen by Stephen King’s unceasing complaints of the “coldness” of Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining. Critical and audience responses for films like The Witch also tend to show divergence, the former celebrating nuance, the latter condemning sterility. This need not always be the case, in fact more often it is not. Horror comes from ideas as much as stimuli. The most enduring recent case is The Night of the Living Dead. Eli Roth has tried many times to create smart exploitative horror, though I can’t help but think he is forever in despair for never having come up with anything nearly as effective as Teeth. Edgar Allan Poe is perhaps the most successful melder by any standard, but many more outwardly awful works are deep in spite of themselves.

I consider myself to be part of both camps, as I’m sure more people than we think do likewise. Horror being both escapist and philosophical isn’t so controversial, it’s more of how that emanates for each person. Lots of horrorists like to see the genre’s best ideas in a world-historic scope, but often the outcomes are more intimate and idiosyncratic, though by no means detached. It is a matter of pinpointing which work or works have had the most impact. This is usually one that is read or viewed innumerable times, and which never loses potency the more it is read or viewed. This seems daunting if you’ve consumed horror in gluttonous frequency, but it can be narrowed down. At least I narrowed it down.

I’ll never forget the first time I saw Gore Verbinski’s 2002 remake of Ringu, The Ring. It was during my freshman year in college, in the dorm room across from mine, whose occupant was exalting the film’s unnerving effect a few months before in Spanish class after he saw it in theaters. We were watching on his TV, of course, much more appropriately, causing me to conclude that he drastically undersold the film. I don’t know what became of him or anyone else in the room at the time, but that college memory has been resolute in my mind ever since. I have watched the film many times over the last 18 years, despite (well, because of) being frightened by it every time. The core philosophical quandary it produced for me was always there, but as ever it took me a while to articulate. (Spoiler alerts incoming, for babies.)

The Ring tells of a Seattle reporter (Naomi Watts) who investigates the unexplained but visibly terrible death of her niece (Amber Tamblyn), which she traces to an urban legend about a VHS tape that kills you after watching it. The reporter confirms the reality of the legend the hard way, terror (and archive-based research) ensues. It’s not hard to glean some themes on the film’s own terms. The small virtue of being an “unusual” family with an “unusual” child is one, albeit lifted from The Shining. It gestures vaguely toward a critique of technology, but what it has to say about “going viral” is ill-prepared for what was to follow in short order. Indeed, The Ring’s digital-light approach to data collection probably makes it the last horror film of the microfiche era. Its most solid theme from my viewings, however, is death. That’s nothing new for horror, but The Ring put a provocative spin upon it.

The Ring essentially tells of a psychic virus[2], the mortality rate of which is zero percent provided you do what it wants within the seven-day timeframe it sets: show the video to someone else. The symptoms of the virus and the consequences of failing to spread it are depicted with iconic effectiveness. You are tortured with hallucinations, trans-dimensional burns, and nosebleeds for a week and suffer so grievously on the final minute that you are unrecognizable at the end of it. It is, on the face of it, an unenviable last week of your life, and one that promises little to you afterward given it is dealt by an eternally embittered ghost. On the other hand, given the choice of competing versions of the inevitable, it is kind of compelling, and to a certain extent noble.

The true character of our lives comes from the circumstances of our death. A good life, we hope, better entails a good death, well cared-for and relatively light on suffering but which in any case ends with a formal burial in a place where loved ones can and will remember you. This is not always the case, as The Ring’s antagonist Samara Morgan (no relation) can tell you, having been unsuccessfully murdered by her mother and left to starve at the bottom of a well. The film from her perspective is about the transference and perpetuation of pain. From her victim’s perspective it is more complex. Being in Samara’s control for any amount of time is not ideal, yet underneath the control, the fear, and the pain she wants you to feel is a kind of mercy. Though you are on your own about the cure, Samara is remarkably straightforward about her process and intentions. You have x-amount of time before I do y, because of q-reasons that I have esoterically given. This is more than Samara got, this is more than most people get.

The Ring goes farther than most horror films in depicting the myth of the meaningful death. For all the trouble Samara puts her victims through, their lives are still made instrumental as part of a larger plan. The victims, moreover, are given options as to that instrumentality. They can aid in its spread and survive or they can put a stop to it and die. The choice is easier to consider in the abstract, and much harder with the similar options real life sometimes gives us. But this mode, with its countdown and the possibility (fleeting though it would be in the digital era) of moral victory, is still better than the more possible outcomes of reality. I think about this when I consider all the dystopian options my future has to offer, stemming as much from my own poor judgment as the uncontrollable downward drift of the times in which I am stuck. The best-case scenario being a quiet fade-out in some dingy corner of an institution for human odds n’ ends, hopefully discovered in a reasonable amount of time, followed by a group cremation and a trip to the nearest Staten Island landfill.

That is an unusual line to take given that horror is often accused of gratuitous dispensation of bodies. True enough, there are no martyrs in horror, but everyone stuck in a horrific world, for good or bad or for whatever, plays their role and does not go unappreciated in one way or another.

***

[1] I did manage to see it later but my poor impressions going into it were not fundamentally altered.

[2] The viral nature of the video is explored in a more traditionally biological way (similar to smallpox) in Koji Suzuki’s novel series on which the Japanese films are based. In his sequel Rasen, the virus is revealed to be more complex and able to spread through words as well as images.

THE RED BOX

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The red box sat on the edge of the kitchen counter, by the door that led out onto the outer deck we added onto already fairly spacious home. Three wooden high-legged chairs lined along the counter space in front of it. They were uncomfortable, not meant for relaxing or contemplative consumption. We ate breakfast in them while the Today Show blared loudly from the red box in a futile attempt to survive the morning commotion.

The red box was one of what would eventually be five televisions in the house. The first one I remember was the silvery starter TV from Connecticut, which I believe had a rotary dial, though I could be making that up. More significantly was the one we inherited from my paternal grandfather. It was a beast of a box: framed in elaborately carved wood, with numbered buttons in a compartment off to the right of the screen. There is in one of the family photo albums a picture of me as a toddler in my grandfather’s living room looking at some object on a table while a baseball game plays on the screen of the TV. The screen, I believe, was not very big.

That TV was living on borrowed time by the 1990s. Its buttons were barely functioning once we moved it from the family room to the sunroom, where I first watched The Shining in middle school to accommodate an even larger, more immovable unit that could carry HBO and more sophisticated video game consuls. Then it was moved to the basement playroom to replace the starter TV, which my next youngest brother and I used mostly to play games on an Atari set handed down from our teenage neighbors at the time, who babysat us and taught me how to curse. Their games came in a specially made container and included Frogger, Donkey Kong, Pitfall, and some others. They were amusing but not magnificent, like most videogames.

Videogames were my only reference point when the red box was showing bright dots flying up into a greenish dark surface. In truth they were missiles fired during the first Gulf War, the footage of which we watched over dinnertime on CNN. It is my earliest conception of war, and current events generally, as well as one of the few memories from pre-divorce familial life that haven’t vanished or been forced by me into oblivion.

The red box having cable, it was a basic enough last resort when all other options were, for whatever reason, exhausted. I watched Animaniacs in the morning and MTV at night. Then mostly just MTV or Comedy Central. The acoustics of the high-ceilinged extension of the kitchen caused almost anything that came through it or from it to make an awful racket throughout the rest of the house. If one was negligent with the volume control of the red box, and often I was not, the tiny broadcast transporter could be louder than all of the larger ones put together.

I was mostly careful in that time of my high school career when I was still taking early morning gym to play MTV without waking everyone else up. My reasons for taking gym at 7:00 AM eluded me almost immediately after I started taking it, but it had the incentive of forcing me to be awake at one of the few remaining times of the day MTV still played music videos. One morning from 2000 lingers for me when one of those videos was for At the Drive-in’s “One Armed Scissor,” off of their new and much-heralded album Relationship of Command.

A few weeks earlier, a friend of mine was driving me home from our shift at Pizza Hut, and put on “Pattern Against User,” the song that precedes “One Armed Scissor.” I had not heard the band before that despite hearing about them enough times. I was impressed by what now sounds like art pop punk, so the following weekend I went to Scotti’s Records (in the location that is still opened today) and bought that album along with (to my later regret) Glassjaw’s Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Silence, released around the same time and both recorded by the the nü metal aesthetician Ross Robinson. It was the following week when I saw the video. When I informed my friend (who went on to do work for MTV) he was in disbelief, though perhaps secretly elated at the same time. Maybe nü metal was not as oppressive as it actually seemed, maybe the condescension from its fans was largely imagined, and maybe the “popular” fans were fewer in number compared to those fans who were not very different from the rest of us, but those were (for the moment) low-stakes times, and so we spent a lot of time willing the pop oligarchy to validate our tastes. At the Drive-in did not stick around for that, which in hindsight was a prudent and wise decision, unlike their present reunion, which is prudent and unwise, but that is neither here nor there.

The following school year (my senior year) I was taking gym at regular hours, and quite pleased about it. I went into that year with a strangely upbeat attitude, having resolved to myself to “make the most” of the time I had left as a teenager. I remember the morning of my second day probably with greater clarity than any other. We were all gathered in the kitchen, the red box was on as usual. Ann Curry was at the newsdesk talking about an American spy plane downed by Iraq and Michael Jordan coming out of retirement. It was a beautiful day. everything was great until second-period remedial math when a hyperpatriotic special ed teacher decided to burst into the middle of class to break school protocol (one which would be laughable today) in the most calm-shattering fashion. I called by dad on a payphone. Word processing class was next with internet-connected desktops. No work was done for the rest of the day. After school we gathered around the red box to watch footage of the World Trade Center’s North Tower collapsing.

It embarrasses me at how neat and tidy that all seems. But sometimes life is like that. I will end on a more amusing anecdote.

Sometime later (or earlier, I can’t remember) my brothers acquired a new TV. Taken off of the street from one of the “spring cleaning” piles around town, it was also broken beyond repair, but that was the point. Two of my brothers (or one of my brothers and his friend) took turns throwing rocks at the screen until it shattered. Another brother filmed it. When no more damage could be done, they shoved it over the fence, half-concealed by bushes. It stayed there for a good few years. The footage is probably on the internet somewhere.

DIY DEMOCRATS

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The fear of a Bernie Sanders nomination, let alone a Bernie Sanders administration, came as all the deepest fears do, suddenly and sharply. It didn’t seem long ago—who am I kidding, it feels like a fucking century ago—that the Democratic Party was warily content to tolerate his reentry into a presidential race. “What could go wrong?” Democrats gritted to each other. “He’s pushing 80, Elizabeth Warren has none of the establishment baggage of Hillary. And then there’s always Kamala, Cory, or even Mayo(r) Pete, right? And if all else fails, a President Biden might just be senile enough to sign whatever we tell him to sign.”

This made perfect sense. Bernie seemed mostly to be running on the fumes of his 2016 phenomenon campaign. His poll numbers weren’t really changing; and he had a heart attack. But then contenders thought to be quite serious (Gillibrand, Harris, Castro, Booker) started dropping out. Warren faltered in explaining her ambitious but complicated proposals and closing her “likeability” gap. The “Squad” in the House all endorsed him. Then came some polls showing Bernie increasing his position, sometimes even leading them.

Now Bernie is every liberal’s nightmare: an obviously sexist, plausibly racist, plausibly transphobic charismatic demagogue who, if elected, would turn all of America into Jonestown. This fear reached its highest pre-primary intensity just last week when Joe Rogan told Bari Weiss and his legion of evidently Neanderthal fans that he liked Bernie Sanders enough to consider the possibility of maybe voting for him.

Many tremulous Democrats look at Bernie in total and see a radical Brooklynite reflection to the orange fist of Queens. Seeing those elderly outer-borough accents go against each other would be carnivalesque if you’ve invested a lot of your energy and intellect trying to bend reality to The West Wing. It unnerves them still more that there are others who find this pairing not just inevitable but necessary.

I’m prone to side with the latter group. I seem to have more in common with them personally and culturally, or at least with the ones on Twitter. Consider it a variation on Chris Arnade’s not very nuanced and somewhat condescending but for the moment useful “front row kid/back row kid” thesis. We are, in crude political terms, part of the back row. Like them, I see the centrist wing of the Democratic Party as hopeless and panicked. Preferring to serve “the right side of history” than any constituents, they are slipping in influence and losing the moral high ground with it. I’m not confident any of their preferred candidates can achieve the one thing they are most clear on wanting to achieve: defeating Trump (if they cannot remove him first). The desire to see “libs” owned is not a productive one, but it becomes more potent the more desperate said “libs” get. Right now they’re pretty desperate as Bernie is evincing the crossover appeal that makes for successful electoral politics. I don’t see “Bernie would have won” as an empty slogan; but my interest is not so much rooted in the prospect of President Bernie Sanders as it is in the potential of the Sanders coalition whether he wins or not.

Much of Sanders’s appeal, I think, is rooted in his time as mayor of Burlington, Vermont, in which he was elected to four consecutive two-year terms from 1981 to 1989. There is good reason for this. Sanders’s time as mayor was nothing if not active, applying, in the words of The New York Times, “an amalgam of economic pragmatism, political savvy and a dash of his own brand of socialist theory.” The arc of his mayoralty is well known. Despite early opposition from entrenched city administration, a moderate city council, and distrustful business interests, Sanders had a knack for making collaborators out of enemies in his many projects to attract businesses, improve city conditions, promote affordable housing, and keep all economic benefits from going lopsided. (Though critics do like to point out that the number of families in poverty rose 42 percent by the end of his tenure.) For instance, the struggle to keep a once-desolate lakefront from becoming a luxury property ended as a “people’s waterfront” with public beaches, a bike path, a science center, and a community boathouse. It is so integral to Burlington that Sanders announced his 2016 campaign in front of it.

But even more significant, for me anyway, was 242 Main.

I’d heard of 242 Main in high school as being a regular venue for punk bands touring up the northeast. In the late ‘90s, Burlington’s own Drowningman was practically the house band. What I didn’t know was that Mayor Sanders, through his Youth Office run by his now-wife Jane, helped create the space. It was part of a major initiative to reach out to the local young, which included, according to Vice, a “public access TV show run by kids; opening a sliding-fee scale daycare that’s still running; helping the elderly with snow shoveling; and starting a newspaper run by teenagers that published stories on issues ranging from teen suicide to the school budget.” 242, converted out of a disused public office, was significant for being an all-ages, substance-free youth center that was run by teens and young adults and which helped undo a prohibition on live music in public spaces. The original venue closed in 2016, but the 242 Main program is still in place. 242 Main, in Jane O’Meara Sanders’s words, “was something that the community of young people said that they wanted, needed, and were willing to take care of. They didn’t ask us to give them anything—they asked us to provide the opportunity.”

242’s opening in 1986 was a stroke of good timing. It was the year Black Flag broke up and the year before Fugazi formed. The former had helped forge the network by which the American indie rock scene communicated and traveled; the latter perfected the civically engaged punk that 242 sought to engender. Though scenes were more connected than ever, a punk bands’ resources were still based in their immediate community. Fugazi being highly sensitive to this arrangement, sought to help bring as many resources back in. As such, they became masters of the benefit show, having raised up to $250,000 in their 15-year history for DC-area women’s shelters, homeless programs, AIDS and gay community centers, free health clinics, abortion rights groups, and youth programs. Other bands in other cities and towns did the same, instilling the notion, contrary to conventional rock wisdom, that a small or midsized locality can be cultivated rather than left behind for a larger one after a formative period. Indeed, opened the same year as 242 was 924 Gilman Street in Berkeley, CA, another legendary touring venue that also housed local acts like Green Day, Operation Ivy, Samiam, and Neurosis. They also (for a time, anyway) took in Jawbreaker after the band had flamed out in Los Angeles.

While Beto O’Rourke and his supporters bent over backwards trying to show (unpersuasively) the overlap between his formative punk years and his political project, Sanders had already demonstrated that overlap with tangible results. His mayoralty, like the punk scene, was one of bridging community needs with the high ideals he brought to the office. And like the punk scene, it had to contest with an obstructionist establishment, draconian ordinances, and just basic political realities. Rather than reject or antagonize the opposition outright, as the stereotype goes, each sought to engage as best they could for the most optimal results. In his rather vague interview for the New York Times endorsement, which he didn’t get, Sanders gestured that he’d never work with Mitch McConnell (as if working with him was possible for any Democratic president to begin with); but this runs counter to his mayoralty, during which he worked with Republicans to establish the Community and Economic Development Office “to seize power from the Planning Department, an obstructionist agency controlled by the old guard.” This collaboration was made with a professed shared goal of “economic growth,” but Sanders used it to put affordable housing projects in place. One such project, the Champlain Housing Trust, still works today.

Before this piece becomes too choked up in idealism, about which I am greatly embarrassed, there are two objections to this argument worth airing. One is the purely political/ideological objection that comes from both sides of the spectrum. From the center-left side is the reminder of the conflicts that arise between state and local government, particularly when the former is conservative and the latter progressive. A city may propose whatever it wishes but which will be made possible or impossible by overriding “political norms, not legal structures.” From the right is the insistence that progressive state and local governments have become so politically correct and rights-thirsty that they’ve given the homeless and mentally ill free rein and rendered public safety an impossibility. A fair point. The challenges of deinstitutionalization in American cities have often overshot its good intentions, though the proposed solutions are so vague, if existent at all, that they hardly rise above apartheid for crazy people.

Then there is the wider cultural objection, which sees grassroots communal action as outmoded. 30 years into the digital age, communities are more amorphous and self-arranging rather than tied to place or circumstance. Culture is algorithmic and less concerned with context or creations as such. People are together even as they are apart. Things are not made; they are just there. The idea of a community center is one that belongs in films watched ironically. Physical retail, moreover, is declining in favor of digital services and home delivery. Fewer people have reason to go outside, and malls are quickly becoming landed ghost ships.

But objections are not discouragements. Indeed, the conditions they highlight are just those that propel bottom-up social action. They are either overlooked or unable to be adequately addressed by national government. If the Bernie coalition is as eclectic as the Democratic establishment and its orbiters apparently fear, a turn to the local would make more sense, not less. It must prove that it is more grounded in reality, more willing to listen, to invite participation from perceived outsiders, and to convey concerns and to exchange ideas meant to address them. For many, acting local means acting modestly. But ideas that seem modest in the abstract become much more significant in the concrete, like starting a community center, getting people to go to it, and keeping it open.

One of the criticisms laid against Bernie is that, like Trump, he is more than a candidate for office. He is a symbol (or rather, a symptom) of the corrosion of our social norms that cede civil power to the irate and the extreme. His followers are blinded by their grievances and easily seduced by his talent for echoing those grievances. Berne, in short, is a false, malicious hero to the rejects and the unhelpful. I agree that extremism is gaining ground, if only because the times themselves are extreme and have been for a long time. But I agree moreover that Bernie, to the extent that he reflects the times at all, is more than a candidate. That could make him different things to different people, for me he is a catalyst. He’s someone that, win or lose, signifies the beginning of change rather than a peak or a conclusion. I realized this effect on rereading an article in Jesse Pearson’s Apology magazine about the influence of Black Flag on pastry chef Brooks Headley. “Black Flag offered a generation of punks, musicians, artists, and—yep—pastry chefs, a blueprint for how to be an independent creative person in the shadow of the normal world,” Pearson writes. “As Brooks succinctly puts it, Black Flag makes you want to fucking DO SHIT.”

Bernie the candidate could be safely set aside at whatever point in this election; but you, the supporter, will still be there. It’s only a matter of going where you are needed.

ARSWYD

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I see Wales everywhere. Not whales—plural; I see Wales—singular. Not whales with a little “w”’ Wales with a large “W.” I see Wales everywhere even though there is only one. Wales cannot be replaced even as it replicates. Weird, right?

Wales has enough space to accommodate 3.1 million people. But I am not one of them. I’ve never set foot in Wales in my whole life. Despite this, Wales has become one of the most consistent parts of my life. People can come and go, and have come and gone. I’ve spent years with some people, yet never with such consistency and interest as Wales has had with me. I don’t ask to see Wales. I turn any which way and it’s there as if it always had been.

In the early stages I thought it might have been a prank. I’d wake up in the morning and see Wales on my lampshade. I’d go to the cupboard and see Wales on my coffee mug. It was a bit elaborate for a prank—and esoteric, clearly carried out by someone with strong feelings about Wales, which before this time I had none at all.

For those who don’t know, this is Wales:

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But then it evolved. There it was in the clouds as I stood in line at a food truck. I could at that moment wave it off as a coincidence, but making my way through the park, a dog relieving itself left behind a yellowy puddle in the shape of Wales.

Ignoring it seemed like the best option, but over time that only made it worse, as if I was being provocative towards it. A polka dot dress became less dotty. A coworker’s Our Lady of Guadalupe-shaped birthmark on her upper arm looked strangely smeared, or exploded. A fried chicken breast had globs of batter crisped up in all the wrong places. I just couldn’t eat it.

I consulted a head doctor, having asked for referrals on the vaguest of premises (anxiety, repressive sexual panic, whatever). He couldn’t make heads or tails of it. He took out the Rorschach cards. “What do you see here?” he asked holding up the first card. “Wales,” I said. He flips to the next card. “Wales.” Next card. “Wales.” Next card. “Wales.” He looked exasperated at this point. Next card. “Two Waleses facing away from each other.” He looked at the card, then looked at me acutely. “This is a map of Cornwall,” he lied.

I cleared every inch of my apartment to see if that would reduce the sightings of Wales. I got rid of everything but the mattress. The mattress had a brownish red stain in the middle of it, source unknown, that was semicircular in shape, like an unnerving but basically harmless mole. Looking directly at it changed nothing. But giving it side glances for only a second caused me, at least, to second-guess.

But the spartan conditions did the trick for the most part. Wales seemed to keep its distance, and I was at peace.

Then the smell happened. It was a sour sort of smell; like spoiled milk and rotten apples. I could not tell its exact source but in my apartment it was very strong. I tried my best to ignore it, but you know how that works. So I went outside for long stretches, darting my eyes to keep from lingering too long on one thing, person, or surface. It made me dizzy.

When I returned from one such jaunt my door was opened and I heard banging coming from within. I saw the landlady standing stern and cross-armed in the middle of my living room while the super stood in front of her going at my wall with a sledgehammer. “Just in time for the big reveal,” she said with a sneer. All three of us stood before the huge hole, displaying a splotch of black mold at about my average male height and in the shape of the Celtic country west of England. “I think it’s time we redrew our arrangement,” the landlady said. “Seeing as how you’ve basically moved out already …” She didn’t know all of what has happening, but she knew enough to know that it wasn’t her problem. “Naturally, this is coming out of your deposit.” At some point in this exchange, the super collapsed in howls of shrill, not altogether human-sounding laughter.

Now I spent almost all of my time outdoors with intermittent shelter in hostels and among what few acquaintances who wouldn’t ask too many questions or “express” their “concerns.” I spent my days at McDonalds where I was served Wales-shaped chicken nuggets. Rather than push them queasily across the table, I ate each one with the relish of a god who scraped it off the globe like a scab over and over again. I spent my nights at one dive bar after another. In each joint, every beer can crushed the same way.

In these moments I thought to myself that I should try not just to avoid or even cope with Wales, but to take power over it as best I could. But like all my previous approaches, it worked until it didn’t.

One day I went over to the beach with a newspaper, a six-pack in a paper bag, and some chips. I sat on the sand and opened the newspaper. No news about Wales. I took that as a good sign. I ate the expectedly shaped snacks and downed half of the expectedly shaped cans and lounged back in the sand. I had grown accustomed to this arrangement by now. We had reached détente, I thought.

The beach was mostly sparse. A woman came onto the sand a few feet to the right of me, wearing a muumuu and a sunhat and carrying a cooler and some beach chairs. Nothing out of the ordinary. After she set up her space, she pulled over her muumuu and there it was contained in the swimsuit: Wales. This was an act of aggression. Then came her two children with the towel bag and the beach umbrella: Wales in pigtails and Wales in a baseball cap. I very nearly choked on my chips as the two small Waleses hit the beachball at each other while the mother Wales sat and read spy novel. “Hey,” said a man with no indication of Wales on his person. He caught me staring. “What’s your problem? You can’t have those on here.” I held the crushed beer can up to him as if that would somehow set everything right. “Don’t make me call the cops.” Everyone else was staring now. I stumbled out of the sand and puked chips and beer onto the windshield of a Wales-shaped K-car then ran off into the almost certainly Wales-shaped sunset.

All bets were off now as to what it wanted to do next. Wales was getting bored, I guess. It started with the headaches, then the chest pains, then the abdominal pains. Sometimes in isolation, a lot of times all at once. It wants me to go to the doctor. It wants the doctor to order an MRI. It wants me to see its masterwork. It wants to tell me what I already sort of know by now. This is no longer avoidance or confrontation, but resistance—refusal. I refuse to accept dominance.

This isn’t any easier than before. It’s actually harder. It comes to me at night. Every time I go to sleep it’s the same dream. I’m on an operating table. The doctor and nurses are over me, preparing to extract what they’ve deemed to be the source of all my woes. But as the open my chest, a sound comes out. Music; getting lower the longer they make the incision, until it blows them all against the wall. It’s a bit muffled and distorted. I know it, even if I can’t quite place it.