Black Ribbon Award

A PLEA TO MY READERS

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If you’re anything like me, you despair at the current state of our so-called “discourse.” You’ve become a bit jaded and exhausted by the projectile flow of content, the anemic repetition of opinions, and the barking ferocity of polemics. You’ve become still wearier over where it all leads. Not to a better-informed public, alas, nor to a rejuvenation of civility, collegiality, or simple virtue. It seems that all anyone ever cares about these days is being shook, or shaking others. The prime objective of commentary is not to open the mind, but to jolt it, to own it, or to trigger it.

Maybe owning and exposing oneself to the risk of getting owned is someone’s idea of fun. I can’t say that it doesn’t sound in some way exhilarating. But just because base-jumping is, in the strictest sense, fun doesn’t mean it’s worth constant dedication. This is serious business, my friends, with immense stakes hanging in the balance.

The people to whom I write are not slow-moving whack-a-moles. They are as human as anyone, with hopes and fears and consciences all their own. They come to me out of need, I’m sure, as a refuge from the harsh hinterland of conventional “wisdom.” Here there are no tricks, there are no stunts, no affectations or posturing—only truth and clarity.

Some may say that I am ostracized for my commitment against sophistry. To this I cannot say, and will not say. For even if exile hadn’t been my fate by compulsion it would still be my fate by choice. For what I lose in partisan allegiance or back-patting clubbiness, I gain in mutual trust, honor, and integrity with you, dear readers.

As such, all opinions given here are not simply from the hip. They are not wild rootin’-tootin’ cracker barrel improvisations on what I prefer the world to be and its people to think. These are considered meditations, sculpted from the most cogent concrete rationales and polished by the most refined argumentative rigor. This is what every writer owes but few actually pay their readers. It is against this malaise—nay, this hostility—that I take my stand.

And so it is under these auspices that I inform you that you don’t actually need blood to live.

It seems that from time immemorial humanity has been taught of the central role blood plays in our biological maintenance. Whole industries, in fact, are fortified on this notion. They profit by our seeming need to have blood in our bodies, coursing through us, keeping our natural equilibrium in balance. But, friends, I’ve recently come to the opposite conclusion, and I’m here to awaken you from your Big Blood-induced slumber.

Naturally this conclusion was arrived at by the same painstaking analysis and examination I give to all of my professed views, but your time is precious, no doubt, and surely you want me to summarize my research to the best of my ability, and so I shall.

Like, come on, guys. Think about it. Really, go ahead. Only the most ingenious dystopian fantasist could dream up a story of people kept under control by a gooey liquid flowing inside of them. Nothing seems so opposed to the wonderful miracle of human greatness than being in the thrall of an unseen red terror. It almost makes me kick myself for not thinking of it first! Imagine the money I’d be making with my book, King Crimson. Readers young and old would be delighted by its imaginative faculty and by the willfully perverse logic of this topsy-turvy existence. They would no doubt sight it as prescient when similar bio-authoritarian trends start to encroach on the scene. But alas, it was not to be! The fantasy is but the reality.

I will not kowtow in the court of the Crimson King anymore. I implore you to join me.

Of course rejecting a truism you’ve known all your life is no easy task. But by looking into yourselves you’ll find that it is not impossible. Indeed, once you’ve accepted the absurdity of the circulatory system, there will be nothing but possibilities set before you. You will discover that your life’s force is driven by sources you never before considered. No one life force is the same for everyone, but that is the enduring blessing of being human. One person’s life force might be found in curiosity, while another might be found in anxiety. Still another could fuel him or herself through sadness, eating fried carbohydrates, or only buying products made by Louis Vuitton. But discovering your own life force is your adventure alone. I’m merely here to tell you that it can be done.

But you might ask: Why do we have blood at all? Fair. God’s design is mysterious indeed, but if I had to hazard a guess I’d say it’s there for aesthetic effect. Blood looks very cool. Its hue is the most intense on earth outside of vantablack. Even a slight nick from shaving startles us into a reverie of red. But this is all according plan. Scrutinize the data enough and you’ll find that there is no conclusive proof of anyone dying from blood loss. This is yet another conspiracy orchestrated by blood enthusiasts and profiteers to keep us complacent. But the wheel of progress if ever turning, and soon we shall see this faulty diagnosis replaced by the more accurate “lack of hustle.”

What remains then is what to do with all that frivolous fluid swirling about inside of us. To that I say again: whatever you wish! The world is your oyster. Don’t want it anymore? Give it away! Give it as a gift to your loved one. Put it in a fancy vase or a mason jar. Put it in a lava lamp—those are in need of a comeback. Paint your walls with it. Trade it on the market as a commodity. Use it for cooking: mix it into risotto, marinate your steak with it, glaze it onto a cake or a doughnut, or ferment it. Soon there will be a whole new branch of sommeliers trained in judging a blood’s singular vintage.

But the fun is only just beginning. Once you’ve drained yourself of your blood, you are free to refill your veins with the fluid of your choice. Honey, rosé, shamrock shake, Tang, gasoline, actual piss and vinegar, embalming fluid, whatever!

Once we’ve usurped King Crimson, we will be free from an immense and lifelong burden. And from there we may bravely march onto the next frontier. May we all have the hustle to see our grandchildren fill their swimming pools and reservoirs with the blood of their forebears.

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MISSING PAGES OF MY SECRET DIARY

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November 10, 2018

I guess it’s inescapable, given the state of the world, that social life would dissolve into the structure of a drama. In truth that’s not very different from the past, only now we have greater means of becoming a protagonist. Such is the power of social media. People like to talk about the decline of privacy—few talk about how much privacy people are willing to part w/ in order to clear central casting in their own mind. I think the “precience” of The Truman Show was a bit off. No one is horrified. No one is running away.

The Truman Show [is] a good “would you rather?” Who would you rather be: Truman or his friend—that guy whose name escapes me? It’s a trick question on two counts: First, the real answer is you’d be Kristof (?)—that creepy man-God Ed Harris plays. But second, you don’t even get that. You are really just an extra—a walk-on; a peripheral presence. Like a store clerk whose only line is the amount owed and (if you’re lucky) “Thank yo Have a nice day!” Or just a neighbor who waves every so often.

I think I’d be fine w/ this to be honest. Provided I had some kind of choice in whose background I get to populate. Lately I’ve grown weary of the current background and have been needing a change. I wasn’t sure just what until I watched Riverdale for the first time. Honestly I couldn’t follow any of what was going on. It was kind of like real life in that sense. And like real life I couldn’t turn it off. But I could and did put it on “mute.” I went over and grabbed a book, letting one episode drift to the next like the passing of days.

As I glided over the same two paragraphs on page 212, I kept thinking that this is how life should be.

***

November 12, 2018

My afternoon’s peace was shattered by the ringing of the doorbell. So seldom does this happen that I hardly recognized it at all. It was so loud. I did not move. Like, I was stock-still frozen in front of my laptop like a stock photo meant to convey some type of contemporary anxiety. Possibly the anxiety born of this very moment. But then it rang again. Seemed important. So I got up and looked out the ever so sneakily out the kitchen window. I saw no one—maybe not so important after all. But, as I was walking back to my desk, it rang for a third time.

“Fuck me,” I whispered in exasperate. Then slowly opened the door.

No one was at eye-level. I looked down and there stood a grinning kid, maybe 9 or 10, dressed in drab clothing out of, dirty clothing as if from an old-timey photo set, or Newsies. There was even soot on his face. He had, like, 5 teeth.

“Spare me a few pents will ya, Guvnah?” he said, and held out his hand. I’m usually good with British accents but this seemed like he was cloaking a Yorkie with a Cockney. This memory is not entirely correct, let’s say.

“What?” I said.

“Me mum, sir. She’s ever so sick w/ cholera. She be in bed nursing me littol sistah who’s no bettah w/ the measles.” He held his hand out a little further.

“So … you’re a charity?”

He just stood there, his eyes twinkled a bit. I went quickly back inside sifting through the change on my dresser. I returned, his hand had not moved at all. I put a quarter in it. He looked at it, put it in his pocket, and held out his hand again.

“You want more?”

“Bless you, sir.”

I placed the remaining change in his hand: a dime, a nickel, and two pennies. He looked at the coins and pocketed them. He looked back up at me, his expression had gone sour.

“Piggy to you and your own, Guvnah.” He made a rude hand gesture.

“Well fuck you, you ungrateful swine.” I started to approach him, he darted back and skipped up my driveway and back up the street.

***

November 13, 2018

ME: So what makes you happiest?

DATE: That’s a deep question.

ME: I guess, yeah.

DATE: Uhm …

ME: You don’t have to answer that.

DATE: No, no—it’s interesting. Like, I want to say something accessible. Like being with my family on Thanksgiving.

ME: I guess I like that, too.

DATE: Yeah but it’s not really what I want to say. It’s fine, but it’s not true.

ME: Not true happiness?

DATE: No, it’s very basic. (Pause.) Like, I want to say … finding the source of an itch. Especially when it’s on a part of your back you can reach. Or pulling out an in-grown hair. Also, popping a blackhead and finding out it’s actually a HUGE blackhead.

ME: Yeah. Totally.

DATE: What about you?

ME: “Flummoxed.”

DATE: Like being flummoxed?

ME: No, just the word. It doesn’t seem like a real world with any meaning, you know? Like someone made it up for our sheer enjoyment. I think I can use I like to think that I can use it in any context and people will be very delighted. Like if I was in a tense situation—like I was about to get my ass kicked—I’d say “This sure is flummoxing!” and escape danger.

DATE: Do you get into fights?

ME: No.

DATE: Oh.

ME: Is that bad?

DATE: Not really.

[We say nothing for a minute.]

ME: Also sometimes I try to make up my own words on the level of “flummoxed.”

DATE: Have you made any?

ME: None I’d say are that great but … Papriciation. Tönenjecture. Praxiliating. Provemial. A lot of “p” words.

DATE: Clanging?

ME: I think that’s a word already.

DATE: No I mean is that what you’re doing?

ME: Oh. No.

DATE: Okay.

[We say nothing for maybe three minutes.]

DATE: [Something I don’t remember.]

ME: There’s an old graveyard across the street.

DATE: Oh, cool!

***

November 14, 2018

This morning I went out to get the mail and saw the mailman standing in the driveway for a longer time than usual. Rather than sorting next door’s delivery he was staring perplexedly at the garage door. As I approached him I understood what caught his attention.

The drawing was crude, in red chalk, of a stick figure with something jagged encircling it. Under it were scrawled words that read “membah REmembah.” I took that to be a reference of Guy Fawkes burning in effigy. I don’t know if Fawkes ever wore glasses but I suspected anyway that the circles around the stick figure’s eyes were supposed to signify my own pair.

Cleaning up the door I couldn’t help but be astonished that the little pisant knew I was Catholic. English have a sixth sense for it, I guess.

***

November 16, 2018

We spend an inordinate amount of time complaining about the New York Times. In fact everyone seems generally united in how loathesome the op-ed section has been or has become. It’s so easy that it’s a reflex now; or a spasm.

I decided that perhaps I’d been a tad unfair—too willing to go along with the crowd. So I did what I haven’t done in I don’t know how many years—or maybe ever. I took out the print edition of the NY Times, turned to the Opinion section, and read it. No one can now plausibly accuse me of close-mindedness. I was being as open-minded as humanly capable. So much so that my brain came close to dangling out of my skull.

Of course you can be as open-minded as you wish. It may just change your initial unfair assessment to a fair assessment. Writing really is bad. It’s hard to deny. NYT in particular seems like a buffet with years of health code violations. The meatloaf is fly-strewn, the gravy looks elastic, the mac-and-cheese looks like plastic, and the Jello mold is just moldy Jello.

It is hardly a surprise that every smart person’s favorite game is restaffing the op-ed section w/ their favorite writers. As if that will do anything. Frankly, I see things a little differently. The terribleness of the NYT op-ed section is a feature, not a bug. My suspicion is that no matter who you send there, they, too, will be fly-enswarmed meatloaf soon enough. Therefore, my fantasy op-ed page works a little bit differently. Instead of rewarding writers I like, I prefer to condemn writers I loathe. That may seem like praise with faint damnation—the “damnation” of a wider platform and a higher paycheck—but there are trade-offs and they will sting like hell.

I’m not going to reveal the contents of my list. It remains purely in my cerebral notebook. Anyway it keeps getting revised for one reason or another. I always felt that at some point I would forget why I was mad at Sam Kriss at all. But I guess that came a little sooner than I thought.

Side note: I’m also thinking of a sort of intellectual version of Showgirls set at the NY Times op-ed page. David Brooks would be the sleazy strip joint owner, and Maureen Dowd his saucy MC. Bret Stephens will be Penny, Frank Bruni is Tony the director, James Bennett is Kyle MacLachlan, and Ross Douthat is Gina Gershon. I stop just short of casting the Nomi Malone part before I get full acid-reflux.

These are terrible thoughts. Terrible thoughts that may require some kind of retribution. Like, say, getting a column in the NY Times.

***

November 17, 2018

I sure hope this journal doesn’t leak.

***

November 19, 2018

Last night I was plagued by, as Kafka would say, uneasy dreams. To be honest I can’t remember the whole dream. Some nights they are more vivid than others; last night I wasn’t so lucky. Then again maybe I was.

I do remember some of it. I remember walking down an empty country road on a winter afternoon. It wasn’t snowing but it was freezing. I had a coat but was annoyed that I had lost my hat somewhere along the journey. I came to a house—an old, seemingly deserted house, the only one on the road, w/ one light on upstairs. I think I was looking for someone there. I went inside and it was quite dark. The living room did not look fully furnished; I saw, I think, a knocked over armchair and a box. I saw the light glowing upstairs from the stairway. I made my way toward it but the closer I got the further away it seemed. It felt like something was pulling at my waist, gripping around it, trying to heave me back into the darkness. Then I was hit on the stomach, then all around my upper-body. Dark figures zoomed around me yelling “Birthday punches!” every time they struck. They sounded a bit like my brothers, but my birthday is not in the winter, they must have mistaken me for someone else. I tried to cry out to alert them of their mistake but it seemed futile. Last I remember I was on the floor, it was dirty.

I woke up quickly, coughing. When my head cleared I very quickly wished for obscurity again. I looked at my hands I took a look around me and wished I was back in that house. On my hands, on my comforter, on my face there was soot—black, dusty soot. And on my white walls there was still more soot, this time taking the clear shape of hands, a child’s hands. Children’s hands actually. The English urchin came back, gained entry into my home, and brought friends with him. I had planned to call child services at some point to let them know that there was a street boy in need of a workhouse. I’m not sure how they’re going to respond to several street boys, roaming the neighborhoods day and night, causing mischief and singing jaunty chimneysweep songs.

This is ridiculous, I thought while I flossed. Who has chimneys around here anymore?

***

November 22, 2018

Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck Fuck. Fuck. FUCK. fUck. fucK fcuk fuk fuck fuckfuck; fuck. Fuck/fuck/fuck. Fuck; fuckfuckfuck! Fuck? KCUF FUCK. /fuck/ #fuck Fuck—fuck—fuck. 01100110011101010110001101101011 Fuck. Fuck. <fuck> 🤮 Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.

Fuck fuck? Fuck.

***

November 28, 2018

It is 3:36 AM. I have decided not to sleep anymore. That seems extreme but it is also the least of my sacrifices. I barely leave the house, for fear of accostment by my now-Victorian (Edwardian?) nemesis. I don’t answer the door. It rings incesently. It’s always him. Little sonofabitch, asking for bread, asking for coins, singing his jaunty tunes about “sweeping ‘round the world.” No. No. NO. And yet he comes. There are so many homes around mine yet I seem his routine victim.

I remain vigilant for my protection. I don’t call anyone because he might hear me. I took up tea-drinking recently, but stopped because he might sniff it out or hear the kettle. Not that my strong moral sense gives me room to retaliate. I just shoo him off to wherever he goes. He responds positively to brooms.

I have been keeping away by binge-watching The Great British Bakeoff. I’ve finally gotten to the new series with Noel Fielding. The new series is fine. It’s fine. I don’t know what

ON BEING A NORTHERNER

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I should hope that it is generally agreed among most Americans that the states in the United States are far too numerous. 50, to be sure, is a nice round number, and gives our flag a vague if tenuous sense of aesthetic composure; but looking at all the states laid out on a map gives one a different sense of, I want to say, confoundedness with unease simmering just below the surface. The American starts to question things he or she had been taught to be unquestionable. Why, for instance, are their two Carolinas? Or two Dakotas? Why must a chunk of Virginia be so distinguished from the rest? How much difference is there between Washington State and Oregon, really? Why is there a Delaware at all?

Though if one were to ask these questions aloud, and in the aforementioned states, one may get a few definite answers. Or rather, one would get vague answers enshrouded in romantic overtures that verge on holiness. Of course North Carolina and South Carolina are distinct! cries the Carolinian. Significant daylight separates the vibrancy of Charlottesville from the dismalness of CharlestonPerhaps the plains of the Dakotas are all Greek to you, my friend. But give me the fertile, rich plains of North Dakota over South Dakota’s arid tundra any day; Delaware is neat!

In an era when America’s most profound divisions are more complicated than its legal borders, the issue of states appears increasingly meaningless and burdensome. It produces a sort of pettiness to which I, a sagacious and disinterested fellow in most things, am not even immune. I can’t say that there’s anything about New Jersey that makes it terribly distinct other than it is a fucking expensive place to live. Still, the temptation to give it some manner of preeminence among the 50 is a real one. I find that this intensifies amid my neighbors, about whom nothing charitable can be said. Pennsylvanians are childishly dimwitted, Massholes are oafish clowns, New Yorkers are maniacal snobs, upstate New Yorkers are cripplingly depressed, Connecticans are demonic sweet potatoes dressed in human costumes. And I can guarantee that each denizen of these states may have said similar things about mine.

But all of this is foolish! Not because it is too mean, but because it is misdirected. Why should we kneecap ourselves with petty provincialism when acting as a region in unison we may find the greatest remedy to wider ills?

I have been a northerner all my life. If you want to get specific, I have been a greater New York metro area-er all my life. But even if anyone who met me for the first time had not been privy to that specificity, they would nonetheless be resolute in deducing my more general area of origin. Few can mistake my air of cosmopolitanism that shuns no corner of the world’s cultures, my flow of erudition that, even had I been as dumb as rocks, would move no less gracefully through my dullest interests, or my glow of arrogance convincing me that any one of these traits more than makes up the differences of any personal fault.

Any idiot can be cosmopolitan, erudite, and arrogant, of course, but no other region of the United States claims these traits as first principles. Indeed, for anyone not part of the northern United States, these are identifiable as both genuine quirks and convenient masks of grimmer attributes. The non-northerner might detect an aloofness of demeanor and an abruptness of manner, as if friendliness and cheer were forever surplus to requirements.

Spend enough time with a northerner, the non-northerner might come to see him or her as possessed of a psychological vampirism that becomes more and more literal with each encounter. It is a matter of time before the non-northerner realizes that they only ever see the northerner at night, in solitude, and imbibing a deep red beverage.

Soon a more complete picture comes into view. The northerner wakes up every morning with but one thought: What can I exploit today? The answer invariably turns out to be: Oh yeah! Everything and anything within my reptilian reach. There is something of the animal to the northerner. For all of his or her culture there is a base appetite that forbids such human niceties as nuance or decency. Something works or it doesn’t; something is useful or it is useless. The Pilgrim’s Progress finds itself replaced in favor of the Pillager’s Pragmatism. There is, at the end of the day, neither love nor joy in the heart of the northerner, if indeed there is anything properly recognized as a heart giving the northerner life.

Yet even these darker attributes are just additional masks to conceal the depthless reserve of disdain the northerner holds toward the other regions.

If the northerner might deign to set foot outside his or her comfortable confines, he or she is possibly prone to find any new atmosphere not entirely desirable. If, say, the northerner goes southward, he or she would be disinclined to appreciate their simplistic warmth, their communal intimacy, their rugged self-sufficiency, and their deeply rooted authentic worldview. If the northerner traipses to the vast middle section, he or she may be somewhat put off by their simplistic warmth, their communal intimacy, their rugged self-sufficiency, and their deeply rooted authentic worldview. And reaching to the furthest western part of the continent, the northerner finds minimal enthusiasm for its people’s simplistic warmth, their communal intimacy, their rugged self-sufficiency, and their deeply rooted authentic worldview.

Such assertions call for some response. That northerners are arrogant, aloof, pragmatic in the extreme, and a bit vampiric is not to be disputed. Non-northerners have assessed the substance of the northerner’s character with admirable precision. They do, however, err in assessing the style. To say that northerners do not love is not quite correct. We northerners are boundless with love; it is rather in how we express it that gets understandably lost in translation. Exploitation is a form of love. It may even be among the highest forms of love: love of utility. When we seek to exploit someone or something we never do it out of indifference. Indeed, we are ever respectful of the vessels by which we extract our resources. Though it is a very temporary relationship, to have never had it at all would be of great distress to us.

That we are joyless is also misunderstood. Perhaps the non-northerner has seen us without joy, I can only assume that the non-northerner was feeling or acting in a state of freedom not to the northerner’s liking. That we seek to dominate the other regions is without question; that we are exhilarated by the act of dominance is not as appreciated. A world governed by the rawest capitalism, an aristocracy of opportunity, seems to the outsider one possessed only by cynicism and rage. Not the case, I can assure you!

Which brings me to the final charge of regional disdain. We have not overlooked the other regions’ expressions of “local culture,” though it’s more a source of amusement than outright disdain. These, we find, are basically plausible masks of their own, for each region’s darker proclivities. Lift them away and one is bound to discover the South’s own manner of exploitation, the Midwest’s own stoicism, and the South and Pacific West’s own brute pragmatism. We begrudge none of this. In fact we welcome it. Their existence and their more or less clever concealment bring each region nearer the embrace of their unquestioned overseer.

To dominate each region of the United States is not just a pleasure of the north, but an imperative. As we make no bones about our basic attitudes, and find them most amenable to running a state, it is only sensible that we be given the reins to do so. We’ve done it before, it was quite a hoot, and it proved us as capable administrators. One could say that we have taken them anew this time around.

I have to say that I was quite disappointed to see Anthony Scaramucci and Hope Hicks depart from the White House in the past year. It deferred what could have otherwise been the great bridge-and-tunnel Camelot that no one asked for but which congealed into place with little outward direction. What they actually did I have no idea, I don’t suspect anyone does anything over there save three or four Californians, powered by cereal bowls of Zoloft and Pepto-Bismol—or whatever it is they consume to get themselves through life.

Please forgive me if some of this comes across as triumphal. I mean no such thing. Does this order complement God’s universal design? I couldn’t possibly say. But this is the bed we have made, and which we must sleep in to maintain the balance of our civic polyamory.

And let it not be denied that we have learned from our past mistakes. Even the north is humbled by potholes on the highway of history. If any one region is so distressed by this arrangement to the point that it really must extract itself for an extended period, well, we can do little else but allow it. But please, if it must, permit us at least the courtesy of showing it the door.

FOUR PROSE POEMS

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The Ostrich

I once saw a paining that was so bad that I wanted to write a poem about how bad it was.

With my mastery of detail I would tell you how crude it was. In vigorous language I would show how its palette was sickly; how, for instance, the sky looked like a poisonous elixir and the earth looked like bile dried out on a bathroom rug.

With precisely enumerated stanzas, I’d expose its formal sloppiness and ambiguous vision; how, to a sophisticated gaze, it could not register as impressionism, expressionism, naïve art, figurative art, or even outsider art.

For a full week I drafted this poem. Every other line was diamond sharp and every line between those was pearl smooth.

But I stopped writing the poem, having realized, despite my best efforts, that I was moral after all. For it cannot be that the poem is bad.

The painting was of an ostrich.

***

An Observation at the Park

I was looking at two young lovers in the park.

I was walking by my lonesome with no specific agenda but to pass time when I saw two people, presumably acquainted with one another, embracing beneath a tree. In dark sweatshirts and torn jeans they writhed into formlessness, like an undulating ink stain or a void rifting into our continuum. I was in a pea coat and I left my cap at home.

Two people distinct in gender, similar in age, and identical in dress rendezvoused at the local park in the cloudy afternoon at the cusp of fall and winter. What their precise purpose was none by they could say. One could only deduce that it was pretty much what they found themselves doing: to envelop and entwine in passion under the spiky twigs of a tree. From yonder on the gravel path came an intruder, though a clumsy and innocent one. They, unaware of their breach in privacy, paid no mind to anything else than kissing, caressing, moaning, whispering nothings to one another that the intruder, with all the evidence before him, could only assume were sweet and not sour. “Here is proof,” said the intruder, “that love is not lost after all, is more than enough, and worth leaving the house for on a day like today.” The intruder did not say that out loud.

I really hope the Wi-Fi comes back soon. It looks like it’s going to rain any second. Serves those perverts right, I guess. But I’ll wait for a puddle to form, and lay my coat out for both of them. Then I will check with the cable provider.

***

Failsafe (A Poem for My Niece)

By the time you’re able to read this, it is to be expected that you will have read many poems of great esteem and quality. You will be able to discern with firmness and fairness which attributes make a poem good and which make a poem not good; which attributes uphold the time-honored standards of beauty and linguistic perfection and which do not.

You will, it is further hoped, use this knowledge to develop your own tastes and sharpen your sense of discrimination; that henceforth there will be poems that move you to feeling that no one but yourself can fully comprehend; a feeling that, on the one hand, sets you far above the mundane drudgery of day to day humanity and, on the other hand, brings you in closer commune with the perplexing mystery of human creation.

I’m not saying it has to be this poem. This poem could be quite bad. This poem could fail you. But that’s okay, because by the time you’re able to read this, you’ll know just where to go.

***

No One is Dancing

Just think: this could be your last moment—your final opportunity to get things off your chest. Everyone is here. A spirit is telling you—“There is no time like the present; now that there is no foreseeable future.”

Everybody’s doing a brand new dance now …

Or you could stay in the corner—where it’s not too cold, not too crowded, where you have a good view of the room, and where the room has almost as good a view of you.

I know you’ll get to like it if you give it a chance now …

This room is nothing but corners for everyone to be in. Real corners and psychic corners. The spirit compels you still—needling you almost. But the spirit isn’t the boss of you. The spirit isn’t your dad.

My little baby sister can do it with me …

You should probably call your dad—soon, by the looks of it.

The tassels are starting to fall like silver hairs of an aging angel—onto the floor, onto your shoulders, even into your gin and tonic. One of the three balloons has popped—panic ensues and recedes in an instant.

It’s easier than learnin’ your a-b-c’s …

You start to wish that the future was not so foreseeable already. You wish that person who brought the camcorder would point it elsewhere, or at least to take the lens cap off. But by the time you get up to tell him—only then will it be too late.

So come on, come on …

Somewhere in the wreckage there will be grainy video evidence of a void filled with music and no one dancing.

… do the loco-motion with me

THE BUBBLE

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Growing up in the suburbs gives one the impression that the world itself is a suburb. There are no town limits; the suburb just keeps being the suburb. The suburbs end where the ocean begins. If you cross the ocean, the suburbs start over. “The city” is merely a part of the suburb. It is to the suburb what a beauty mark is to the skin.

The first thing you learn as a dweller of the suburb is freedom. You learn it by example—your own example. Parents in the suburbs tend to allot freedom to their children with minimal restraint. For most children that means embracing the strenuous life of self-sufficiency and risk. Childhood in the suburbs is often retold in injuries rather than in words. Each scrape, each fracture, each sprain, each break, each concussion is its own chapter.

***

One time in second grade I was playing by myself on the playground after school. I was sitting a few feet from the swing set, putting the pebbles and sand into a large mound, because why not? Another child approached me, he was a grade beneath me; he was much bigger than I was and with bright blond hair. He complimented the efficiency of my piling. I’m not sure I answered him; anyway he pushed me to ground. I ran wailing to my mom who was reading to herself some ways off by the baseball field. She told me in no uncertain terms to deal with it myself. I think I just sulked back and resumed my mound-making once the kid was gone. The next day I was sitting by myself at lunch and he walked over and sat across from me. “I’m sorry I pushed you,” he said. Then he paused. “I’m going to beat you up after school.” Then he walked away. Nothing happened, but that was my first pause.

***

The astute reader will notice that this was when I first started to consciously spend time alone. I guess it was at this time that birthday party invitations stopped being automatic and you had to sift to your own friends. I never actually did that because I was separated from the larger student body and placed with kids who had learning disabilities and disciplinary problems. We had smaller classrooms and were brought to them by a smaller bus. Here I was taught the concept of the “mainstream.” The mainstream was something I was not a part of. If I improved my performance in this or that subject I could be “mainstreamed.”

I had one classmate who lived down the street from me. We’d wait for the bus together at the top of my driveway. His dad would walk him over every morning; he was a researcher at Bell Labs when it was still called that, he always wore sneakers, jeans, and a sweater to work, which always astonished me. One winter this kid decided to throw snowballs at passing cars, including our bus. He was mainstreamed when it was discovered that his learning disability was actually a peanut allergy. He went to Stanford.

I had another classmate named Shawn who made constant overtures of friendship toward me which were responded with constant overtures of refusal. I believe the sociological term for Shawn would be “spazzoid.” Eventually I felt ashamed enough about this that I went to his house exactly once where we played some Michael Jackson-based video game. I tried to take up his hobby of coin collecting, but it didn’t take. I switched to another elementary school and I never saw Shawn again.

I was given some time in “mainstream” classrooms. The one in third grade had a ratty set of World Book encyclopedias from 1975. I used all my free time flipping through it. I don’t think I’ve ever been happier than when my parents got me my own up-to-date set.

***

In fifth grade I developed an “interest” in the Catholic Church. This is distinct from taking an interest in the Catholic Church as it was altogether independent from my instructions in Sunday school and CCD. I was not interested in the catechism, morality, or theology, such as they were in that parish. I was curious about the experience: about the rosary, the rituals, the Gregorian chants, and the hierarchy. I was interested in Hell. I talked about these openly at home and at school in a way that may not have been coherent to anyone. I hung a crucifix in my room for a while. It might still be around somewhere. My parents indulged this curiosity, deducing, not wrongly, that I’d found my grandmother’s parochial effects and was trying without much success to connect now to then.

***

My strenuous life was by now largely internal. Going outside was a kind of acquiescence I made in exchange for more of this particular freedom. My interests were expanding rapidly. From what prompting I cannot recall, I asked my mom what “S&M” meant; unfazed, though erring on a clinical tone, she told me. Recently a friend told me that his first encounter with sex in literature was through Isaac Asimov; mine was from the Marquis de Sade, in middle school.

From de Sade I went to EC horror comics to Alfred Hitchcock to H.P. Lovecraft to William S. Burroughs to punk to industrial to Joel-Peter Witkin to fringe politics to murderers and cults to manifestos-as-literature to the avant-garde of almost everything. All of this cut from the same outré cloth. I didn’t become an extremist in my own temperament, but I placed a certain superiority, mostly aesthetic but sometimes moral, upon those who were.

***

Riding the bus to my high school meant passing two historical landmarks. One was the Kopechne family house on Debbie Place and the old Bell Laboratories complex on Mountain Avenue. Bell Labs was past its Cold War prime by that time, and had changed its name to Lucent, but for a while it still attracted eminent people of the world—I believe Jiang Zemin once visited—and cast a long shadow over the town. Some towns are factory towns, some towns are college towns, some towns are full of secrets, some towns are without pity, some towns are two-thirds highway, and some towns are simply excellent. When social critics like to make hay about the “meritocracy” they tend to have something like Berkeley Heights and the surrounding area in mind. Our school forsook rankings but had a quant fixation that was appeased with numerous standardized tests. There was even a test to qualify for graduation; I do not remember what it was called, but I did not pass it and had to sacrifice a study hall to take a prep course for the retake. With me was a girl from the standard-issue popular clique who was in tears on the first day. We did fine.

The most meaningful test was for advanced placement. In a technical sense, passing the test gave one access to courses with transferable college credit. In a grander sense it conferred a certain status. Advanced placement students had advanced placement problems far removed from the rest of the student body. In a personal sense it meant that advanced placement students were approved to read Waiting for Godot while I was going to get Of Mice and Men and I was going to like it. Before I get sanctioned for hyperbole: I wasn’t a complete waste case. I was in honors history, I did pretty well in electives, and was active in the newspaper and literary magazine. But having grown accustomed to not appreciating arbitrary limitations, and being otherwise cordoned off from public standards of excellence, I took firmer possession of my freedom. I placed it on a pedestal. I blew it out of proportion.

***

“Free-range” parenting has grown out of fashion lately. But to have experienced it at its zenith—in the suburbs, in the 1990s—was to appreciate its clever design. Free-range parenting, contrary to recent popular myth, was not a blithe attitude toward child safety, but a reinforcement of it. Unsupervised limitlessness was much more supervised and much more limited than first assumed. Children were not so much as expected to gain a fondness for their personal autonomy as they were to admire the bounty within the suburban bubble: the bubble that does not end. One road out is just another road into somewhere similar. You may go out as far as you like, the keepers of the bubble say. I’d say that one day you’d be back, but really you’re not going to leave. At the core of every suburban parent is their desire for their children to become suburban parents as well, to perpetuate the comforts of a value-neutral world. It is as close to a utopia as I or anyone I grew up with will possibly experience.

***

The suburbanite, like the colonialist, comes to see his world and its value-neutrality as complete. He accepts that his position and the freedom it confers is a luxury easily attained. He sees those whose access, for whatever reason, is closed off and her agrees that they desire it, that it should be made open for them, and they will be guided with care. And like the colonialist, the suburbanite gives himself to the reactionary. He doesn’t really understand or acknowledge those who are opposed to this world; not least of all those within the bubble. He cannot reason with those who profit little from the freedom they are given; who, in other words, find more to admire in John Lithgow than in Kevin Bacon.

Behind my old house lived a family of, I want to say, eight. It may have been more than that. But they lived behind us and they played with us sometimes. The children were homeschooled, and the family was pious. So pious, in fact, that there was a gap in our interactions as a result of their being forbidden to associate with the children of a family whose parents were undergoing divorce. This was told to me indirectly, and after the fact, though knowing what I know I can’t say that I disbelieve it.

That left a certain impression, as the saying goes. It would not be some time until I interacted in any substantial way with people more against my grain. Other people who were homeschooled, people with more expressive religious convictions, people who didn’t go to any public school, people who grew up in more wide-open spaces, people who did not see an R-rated movie until they were 18. I’d like to say that in coming into contact with these kinds of people that it reformed me. That I broke free from freedom, broadened my perspective, and ultimately burst the bubble. If that were the case there’d be no reason to write this. You can’t burst the bubble. You can only make it bigger, make it take up more space, and make its surface more kaleidoscopic.

***

There is no mistaking how defined I am by the bubble despite my discrepancies within it. Nothing else comes close to giving me a rationale for every thought, every action, every fear or thrill that courses through me and propels me. Nothing else in my history or body is as equal in its force. I don’t presume to speak for my peers, but I can’t discount that they, on some visceral level, share this understanding, particularly as many of them start making their way back, finding their roots more firmly planted and resiliently sprouting than when they last left. But even if they are in some far off place that has nothing, not even a Dairy Queen, the bubble is going to be there, around them, filling them with a feeling that I can only describe as History ending endlessly.

(THE END OF) THE EXCELLENT ADVENTURE

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I believe in excellence. I’m pretty sure I’ve said that before—a couple of times, maybe. But I think it bears repeating. I believe that nothing is worth doing that cannot be done well. That’s the ideal, anyway; it’s the only one I do my best to try to live out. Indeed, when one believes in excellence, one finds that very few things can be exempt from its exacting standard. I try to write with excellence. I try to make a grilled cheese sandwich with excellence. I try to floss with excellence. I try to nap for 15 minutes out of the day with excellence. The excellent life is not for the timid or for the consciously mediocre. So intense is the excellent life that even setting limitations on excellence requires its own excellence.

David Brooks, like me, is a believer in excellence. And, again like me, has very probably mentioned excellence more than once in his long career. He has done so quite explicitly in his most recent column. But unlike me, Brooks came not to praise excellence, but to mourn it. Excellence is on its deathbed, it seems, felled by the greasy, stubby grips of “the remnants of the B teams and C teams” and now the “D teams” of Donald Trump’s administration. “Many of those staffing the White House,” he writes, “could not get a job in any normal Republican administration, which selected people according to any traditional criteria of excellence.”

Brooks is not wrong. From the first day of business the machinery of the Trump White House was held in place with Elmer’s glue, paper clips, rubber bands, and Scotch tape. It is forever becoming disentangled and reassembled in the greatest haste and panic. And the center holding it all in place appears to be … Stephen Miller. This is worth pointing out as it seems very much unlike past presidential administrations, and totally alien to past emanations of conservatism. During the Cold War “being a conservative was a moral cause. … Compassionate conservatism and the dream of spreading global democracy were efforts to anchor conservatism around a moral ideal, but they did not work out.”

After the fall of the Soviet Union, conservatism became “technocratic, economics-focused.” Worse still, it embraced a tenor of resentment and a sense of rejection. The rejected “resentniks” took a jaundiced view of excellence and moral fortitude, and it has flowered into our current situation:

In such a situation, you’re almost bound to get a return of blood-and-soil nationalism. The losers in the meritocratic competition, the permanent outsiders, seize on ethnic nationalism to give themselves a sense of belonging, to explain their failures, to rally the masses and to upend the meritocracy.

In office, what the populist nationalists do is this: They replace the idea of excellence with the idea of “patriotism.” Loyalty to the tribe is more important than professional competence. In fact, a person’s very lack of creativity and talent becomes proof of his continued reliability to the cause, as we’ve seen in the continued fealty to King Trump.

As I am taking the time to write about a David Brooks column, clearly I have trouble with this analysis—not so much with the “blood-and-soil” bit, which is undoubtedly much more present than it once was. But his use of both “excellence” and “meritocracy” are worth closer examination.

When I speak of “excellence” I speak specifically of cultural excellence. Cultural excellence, as I see it, is a democratic endeavor. It must be, because people are cultural animals. We communicate with each other by exchanging and contrasting our ideas of what best exemplify our respective worlds. And while one cultural creation will have a different style, talent pool, craft requirement, and social context from any other, it can still be judged by and recognized through its own standards because each creation in cultural excellence is some admixture of hazard (or market demand) and discipline. Hence, Eric B and Rakim’s Paid in Full, Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade, Sade’s “Smooth Operator,” Alan Moore’s From Hell, and the Space Mutiny episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 all meet a kind of excellence. They are respected within and without their cohorts and seldom surpassed.

Brooks on the other hand is speaking of political excellence. And while he uses “meritocracy” in association with it, he uses the term (perhaps unconsciously) as a euphemism for “aristocracy.” This is a classical understanding where excellence represents the highest human ideals, imposed on everyone but wielded by a trusted few. Conservatism, he concludes, “has to restore standards of professional competence and reassert the importance of experience, integrity and political craftsmanship.” Such standards aren’t just given out at Kmart.

We are apparently supposed to take Brooks at his word that restoring a standard of excellence in politics will reverse the ills of Trump’s White House. History complicates that somewhat. Between James Buchanan and Abraham Lincoln in the 1860 election, Buchanan held multiple prestigious diplomatic offices, including Secretary of State, while Lincoln spent one term in the House more than a decade before. But Buchanan lives on in our memory as the man who let the Union fall apart, and Lincoln as the man who forced it back together and put it on the path to becoming a world power. A generation earlier, Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and John C. Calhoun were the most revered senators of their era, and arguably more powerful than their presidential contemporaries. Respectively they were the Senate’s top orator, negotiator, and theoretician. They were on different sides of the slavery debate and put all their talents into turning the country away from the precipice to which the debate was driving it, only to push it over.

Politics relies much more on judgment than it does on teachable skill. “Judgment” appears nowhere in Brooks’s column. In this framework, though, “judgment” is merely “impulse” in sheep’s clothing. Fair, to a point; Otto von Bismarck based an entire career on making judgment calls, almost all of them terrible, and still countless would-be powers-behind-the-throne flock to Harvard or wherever to somehow replicate his genius. But judgment is all around us. In fact it’s free.

When Donald Trump was elected I knew two things. First was that starting then, an entire nation’s oxygen was about to be continually inhaled by this person. Nothing we could do would ever be too far separated from his name, no matter how trivial or tangential its relation to it. And every activity would somehow be made to be a referendum on him. In short, I knew it was going to be a long four years. Second was that those four years were going to become eight years before I knew it.

I don’t know what can be said about Trump supporters that has not been said already, other than they come in greater variety than most like to think. There are blue-collar rural Trump supporters and white-collar suburban Trump supporters. There are poorly educated Trump supporters and well-educated Trump supporters. There are Burkean moral order Trump supporters and Landian accelerationist Trump supporters. There are dovish Trump supporters and hawkish Trump supporters. There are evangelicals for Trump, Hindus for Trump, goths for Trump, and Trump supporter supporters. Trump is to his supporters what The Shining is to fan theorists in Room 237, they have their very committed idea of who he is and what he means and not all of them are going to be right. But they seem fairly united in their rejection, in one manner or another, of Brooks’s call for excellence.

Trump supporters and detractors are copacetic in their view of Trump’s style of leadership. Each understood straightaway that Trump would never be civil, would never pay lip service to the inherent gravitas of “acting presidential.” He would disregard “norms,” and he would treat his opponents as you’d expect anyone else to treat their opponents—not coolly or with kid gloves. And all of that, to the supporter, was good, beautiful even. Trump would free the presidency of its delicate habits bringing it back to a sterner, Spartan, business-like, and purely pragmatic office. Under Trump, the presidency is not the office that feels other people’s pain or inspires us to seek greater heights of purpose as virtuous citizens. The presidency is the least moral it has been since Nixon’s term. People like to remember Nixon’s presidency in fractured ways. It was undeniably criminal and cynical at its core, but occasionally centrists and liberals bestow their alms for his straight and narrow policy victories of environmental regulation, conscription abolition, and bringing China our of its hermitage. (He was also a hit on Twitter before Trump was.) At the close of this year, Trump is advocating for a bipartisan criminal justice reform bill that seeks to reverse the excesses of Bill Clinton’s own crime bill, which is as Nixonian as anything else he is accused of. So when Brooks decries what Trump is doing to the office, his enablers must reply in unison: “And?”

A post-excellence American politics lacks a lot of attributes familiar to the American public. Not only are virtues and civility obsolete, but so are glory-seeking, ambition, and adventurousness. This seems rather difficult to accept given that Trump is nothing if not all three of those things. But while Jordan Peterson likes to explain Trump away as the perfect manifestation of a decadent age, Trump can also serve as the imperfect catalyst for a new political paradigm. Politics after excellence sees the politician reduced in stature. He or she will have become a crude functionary sublimating individual sentiment to popular will, and whose level of empathy does not exceed the level of his or her voters. It’s the kind of politician Americans have been demanding for decades, and after excellence there will be no other model of governance at every level of service and in each party. There may be remnants of the old civility still milling around speechifying by their lonesome. They will attract curiosity, pity, and occasionally scorn in any elections where their presence will be tolerated.

It is easy to see 2020 as yet another—this time the ultimate—referendum on Trump. And sure, we can succumb again to that temptation, as we have done with every election in the past. Or we can see it much more broadly as an election between different ways of doing business, with the line of persuasion being drawn between the old excellent way against the new functionary way. Much can happen between now and the next two Novembers—like, a lot, in my imagination alone—but as of now I see a majority of the people tilting a certain way. To a governing style that leaves excellence to fend for itself among the wolves.

COCKTAIL DISCOURSE

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Napkin no. 1: Liberalism, as I see it, is seeing ideological formulation in the choosing between which injustice one disfavors more: injustice through hatred or injustice through indifference. Generally,

Napkin no 2: people of the Right tend to disfavor the former while people of the Left disfavor the latter. There is much that separates those injustices. Injustice thro-

Napkin no. 3: ugh hatred is more dramatic and traumatic, but it is seldom enacted and even more seldom successful in its aims. Injustice through indifference on the other hand is much more pervasive,

Napkin no. 4: its effects are slower and generally absent of ideological framing or even deliberate intent; its scope is as far-reaching as hatred’s but its gradual nature means discovery comes far past the point of prevention.

Napkin no. 5: Injustice through hatred is combatted with equal or greater hatred. The outcome of the conflict is

Napkin no. 6: based not on which hatred is purer but on which has greater strategic advantage or fortune. Ind-

Napkin no. 7: ifference has been combatted against through many means, none of them entirely successful. If hatred is like fire, indifference

Napkin no. 8: is like weeds, corrosive weeds at that, if one patch is found and eradicated it will just as easily grow elsewhere, often in gre-

Napkin no. 9: ater abundance.

The liberal position tilts decidedly against indifference but finds hatred similarly repulsive. Its ultimate end, willfully or not, is stabilizing the severity of each. Of course it never

Napkin no. 10: does this on its own and is empowered most often by a strong economic situation. Citizens generally will not acquiesce to a liberal scheme

Napkin no. 11: if the word “liberal” is anywhere associated with it.

Conservatism shares a similar view with liberalism, except where it has a greater sensitivity toward, and hence a firmer vigilance against,

Napkin no. 12: injustice through hatred. Liberals may accommodate, or be oblivious to, the hatred of factions under its tent; in certain circumstances

Napkin no. 13: they can even be useful up to a point. If a conservative can make the same vaguely liberal case, without conjuring “liberal,” the citizens will tend to flock to that case.

MAN 1: Dude, did you get her number or what?

MAN 2 [stuffing napkins into his coat pocket]: I doesn’t look like I did.

THIS IS YOUR FOREST; THESE ARE MY TREES

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Lately I’ve come to find myself burdened quite terribly by the weight of Expectations. All about me I am pestered, well-meaningly let’s be clear, by interested admirers and casual onlookers alike as to when I am going to write a book. Actually, no one has asked any such thing, but for the sake of speculation let’s pretend that they have, and that every day I am beset on all sides by a Gregorian choir saying, “Chris, it is high time you’ve come out from the dark margins and into the center stage as per your calling. And soon preferably—you’re not getting any younger.”

I suppose in some sense I should be flattered. The call to promise is one step in many to being seen as a genuine writer and not some dithering dilettante with his copious semicolons, insipid italicizations, and his alliterative fetish. But that sounds like a lot of goddamn work. And anyway I rather resent this veiled derision towards my “dark” marginalia. And I have reason to think that even if my marginalia was “light” it would be no less derided. What is this distaste for marginalia? Some of my favorite, most memorable pieces of literature are of that variety. I am, so to speak, a man forever missing the forest for the Lilliputian trees. I take all-comers: impassioned all-caps emails, scrawled notes, personal prayers, pensées, graffiti, SAT essays, break-up texts, quoted tweets, Tumblr posts changed in Google translate to Basque to Welsh to Esperanto and back to English.

Footnotes! I love footnotes. I adore footnotes. Some of my best friends are in the footnotes. I’ve never read a David Foster Wallace novel and maybe one and two-halves of his essays, but I’ve read all his footnotes. Way better than his actual writing. So candid, so real, so edifying, so much less time-consuming. My favorite thing ever might actually be a footnote. It’s buried a few hundred pages into the second edition of Kojève’s Introduction to the Reading of Hegel. That eight-paragraph behemoth where he’s all “since no animal can be a snob” blah blah blah “To remain human, Man must remain a ‘Subject opposed to the Object’ even if ‘Action negating the given and Error’ disappears” yadda yadda yadda “while henceforth speaking in an adequate fashion of everything that is given to him, post-historical Man must continue to detach ‘form’ from ‘content,’ doing so no longer in order to transform the latter, but so that he may oppose himself as pure ‘form’ to himself and to others taken as ‘content’ of any sort,” et cetera, and so on, amen.

Now that I think about it, the prospect of writing a larger work seems all the less tedious and intimidating if I can be given space for a steady stream of footnotes.

In fact, here’s a thought: take a look at this blog, all the 170 or so posts I’ve put up here in the last three years. Seems like a big waste of space, right? A bunch of randomized thoughts leading nowhere coming from practically nothing. But what if it … wasn’t? To wit, what if each post was but a footnote to a larger text that I have committed many more years to bringing into existence? Of course, if by “existence” you mean written out in some structurally and linguistically coherent form, or any form then, no, I haven’t done that. But, and again, because we’re already here, let’s say that there is a text but that it is invisible and awaiting revelation. How it is revealed is up to the reader. You could even say that the book is already inside the heads of every reader right now, and the readers must venture deep into their respective subconscious to tease it out. Yes that is definitely what I’m going to go with here. It’s 2018! It’s fun! Reading is an adventure once more! No one knows what’s going to happen next, not least of all me, the author!

Everyone who reads this post footnote will be charged $27.95 in conscious currency.

DANGEROUS AND DANGERESQUE

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I was trolling up and down the stacks of my local library this week when I came upon what must constitute the most recent artifact of our era. It was Dangerous by Milo Yiannopoulos. I’ve never read the book, and didn’t really know it had been published. I only knew its legend: born of a six-figure deal with a major publisher, then killed because Milo is Milo, then exhumed from its sepulcher to the wonder and amusement of maybe a couple thousand people. But there it was in my hands, a neatly packaged product for a self-published affair, far above the quality of your average CreateSpace tract. Nice work if you can get it, I thought to myself.

I was more surprised than anything else upon seeing it. It had been at least several months since I thought of or heard about Yiannopoulos. Those months feel like eons, and the book as a result seemed more ancient than it was. He really does belong to a certain time: election 2016, when the “danger” of an ascendant political order was a fun possibility, and triggering those with concerns about that order was practically a hoot. Things got awkward when the order actually ascended. Those concerned were no less triggered, but the stakes were not what they once were. The burdens of power or being a political apostle were not of much interest to Milo compared to finding new and better revenue streams as others were drying up.

This revelation is born not of hindsight but in confirmation of previously perceived hunches. They weren’t even weak hunches. When I flip to the back of the book I see an unusual set of blurbs. Blurbs are the most annoying aspect of publishing, the indignity of which takes away not all but a lot of incentive to see a book through the publishing process sometime before death. At least Milo still had some fun in him. “Cynical ignorant fucker,” says Stephen Fry. “BOO AND YUCK AND GROSS,” declaims Sarah Silverman. “Fat people will hate this book,” assures Ann Coulter. Not to be outdone is Peter Thiel who warns us to “Buy this book while it’s still legal.” Again, fun; patently obvious as well. Milo, like one of the endorsers and the two haters, is an entertainer, and one whose market value has, for the time being anyway, declined somewhat. (I’ve since checked that he’s published another book just last week about Pope Francis and the clerical abuse scandal, recalling his early days as a Catholic polemicist. We’ll see how that goes.) He is not so much dangerous as he is presenting an idea of danger, which is a variant of impoliteness and mid-level impishness. Dangeresque, to borrow a phrase, might be more accurate.

Milo is worth bringing back, though, as his play offers some instruction in the actual lover of danger. The danger-lover is not unlike Milo in most respects. The danger-lover is gregarious by nature, boundless with energy that can often be confused with ambition. The danger-lover can think rapidly but not deeply and logically but not soundly. The more negative and opposing a force the danger-lover faces, the more motivated the danger-lover will be. The danger-lover wishes no one direct harm and will even consent to assist the weak up to a point; as such, the danger-lover is discriminating to the point of caginess, if one thrill loses its luster, whatever honors or rewards it reaps, the danger-lover will abandon it without a thought. The danger-lover is cynical, impulsive, and careless, which enables an indifference to rather than a fearlessness of risk. We aren’t unfamiliar with this type—the antihero, the outsider—it’s all over our literature and cinema and cinematized television. In those realms they are often greatly appreciated for the complexities they embody. Milo took that dynamic and reproduced it in real life, which was less well received, in part because he seemed to relish antiheroism for no real reason. But the antihero as envisioned by liberal-minded showrunners has much different preoccupations from those who play the role seemingly for lolz.

An embrace of danger comes certainly from an acquired taste for it but also from a distaste for something else. It’s not good per se, for even the danger-lovers subscribe to an idea of the good: the good that extends to me, my domain, and very little else beyond it; that good which is more manageable but stringent. Rather it is from the opposing good which extends to me and anyone in humankind even if they can’t reach it or don’t really want it; that good which is much more generous but practically impossible. The former good encourages strength, self-sufficiency, and loyalty, some of which the danger-lovers applaud; the latter good fosters safety, charity, and harmony, all of which the danger-lovers abhor. That latter good is the good of the deluded, the foolish, the weak, the posers, the do-gooders, the virtue-signalers. It is not the object of the danger-lover to proselytize their version of the good but to defame the opposing one for its uselessness, hypocrisy, and dishonesty. They prefer to shock or disrupt one out of complacency rather than to persuade. What’s good, you see, is actually quite bad, very bad—evil, when you get right down to it. We stand up for those who deserve to be stood up for. We have integrity; we don’t need to be nice.

Some credit is due the danger-lover here if we’re being honest. Good intention is a powerful drug that can alter a user’s mind into seeing the scope of their effort extend much farther out than it really does. The do-gooders can be easily clouded by the absolution their vision to the point that everything not expressly demanded by them is a worthless half-measure, a concession to the corrupt. Or they can be rather dishonest at how inclusive their efforts really are. The danger-lovers will pounce on those weaknesses, all the more, perhaps, to hide their own. That their out for what’s mine morality, though prudent and modest, opens itself to multiple levels of cruelty. And that that morality is for the present time, and indeed for much of its history, en vogue in American society, its upholders might not be ready to have their own complacencies disrupted.

“Forgiveness is the very cornerstone of my faith. And the struggle to deepen my faith is my life’s journey,” Jim Broadbent said while portraying Frank Pakenham, the seventh Earl of Longford, in Tom Hooper’s 2007 film Longford. Lord Longford has a unique reputation in the United Kingdom. He was among the last of the hereditary peers, and among the last to serve in the cabinet. He was better known for his extracurricular activities: his copious books on Irish history (he co-authored an official biography of Éamon de Valera) and religion, his personal eccentricities (his unkempt, quirky appearance, his succession of sea changes in party affiliations, religions, political philosophies, etc.), and his fervent appetite for social causes. Longford crusaded against pornography, which went nowhere in the immediate wake of the Jenkins era. His advocacy for decriminalizing homosexuality in the 1950s hardened by the 1980s with his support of Thatcher’s Section 28, and he was still trying to restrict it well into the last years of his life. He reminds one of Churchill or Burke who were similarly attached to crusades, most of which failed but one. Though in the case of Longford it is more complicated.

Longford was far ahead of his time in his advocacy for penal reform. Generally it was not out of keeping with his Labour cabinet which oversaw the abolition of the death penalty and the establishment of the parole system with his help. But Longford’s independent activities went one further with committing to the notion, still radical in some corners, that convicts are still human and capable of rehabilitation, even redemption. From the 1930s until his death in 2001 he regularly visited prisoners and personally advocated for their paroles. This included Myra Hindley, at the time one of the most hated people in the country for murdering three—later five—children and adolescents with her boyfriend Ian Brady and burying them in the moorlands outside Manchester. The events of Longford (scripted by Peter Morgan) cover this period, which saw Longford tirelessly advocating for both the release and forgiveness of Hindley to anyone who would listen, which included many television shows, and receiving a great deal of grief for it in return.

Longford is less a moral film judging the worthiness of defending a murderer in public than it is a study of a character who didn’t care that anyone was judging at all. Broadbent’s Longford is the embodiment of Christian piety in the extreme. He is boundless with charity and bereft of guile. Terms like foolchildlike, and do-gooder are lobbed at him by his contemporaries, and even his family are exasperated (not always wrongly) by his genius of faith. He commits the ultimate socio-political sin of extending the benefit of the doubt to everyone, and to make an exception for Myra Hindley is against his principles. Hindley, played with great depth by Samantha Morton, is outwardly repentant for her past actions even as the sincerity with which she acquiesces at Longford’s encouragement is left unclear. She is, however, not a villain. As with most Peter Morgan-scripted endeavors, Longford is something of a buddy drama, setting up two distinct central characters into a milieu with very faint lines separating alliance, conflict, and reflection. (See the newlywed royals in The Crown, the monarch and her new Prime Minister in The Queen, the African dictator and his white doctor in The Last King of Scotland, and the washed-up broadcaster and the washed-up ex-President in Frost/Nixon.) The distinction between Longford and Hindley is not that one is moral and the other is amoral, but that one has willingly given his personal agency away to a higher power in favor of a moral order and the other has had her agency taken away from her over the course of her life so that morality of any kind is totally alien to her. Hindley in this framework is reality in the extreme, in all its contingency, malice, and tragedy.

The focus remains mostly on Longford, and for good reason: we hardly recognize his view, and we instinctively recoil from what we do recognize. His ordeal with Hindley subjects him to humiliation and recrimination by a mocking public, a righteous Ann Downey, a contemptuous and sinister Ian Brady (played with infernal relish by Andy Serkis), and ultimately by Hindley herself when she confesses to the two additional murders. Longford is not so clueless as to overlook that Hindley was ultimately not the person he thought she was willing or able to become. But he did not regret having reached out to her or any other convict. “If people think that makes me weak or mad so be it,” Longford says. “That is the path I am committed to. To love the sinner, but hate the sins. To assume the best in people, and not the worst. To believe that anyone, no matter how evil, can be redeemed eventually.” This is a tenet that many have heard, and which some could persuade themselves to believe; but to see it acted with such purpose and clarity, as an end in itself, is a rare thing. It is not just empathy or tolerance for the weak, but love; an ancient kind of love so misunderstood as to be transgressive, shocking, even dangerous.

At the end of the film, Longford and Hindley are brought back together, with Longford in his nineties and Hindley, still imprisoned, with emphysema. It is Hindley’s dying wish to apologize in person to Longford for her lapses against him. Of course he forgives her and they retain a mutual respect as humans and as people out of joint, in their own ways, with the wider world. Yet Longford does ask if Hindlely really took her confession as she earlier claimed. Her answer is peculiar. “I’m trying Frank, to know the God that you know. But if you had been there, on the moors, in the moonlight, when we did the first one, you’d know, that evil can be a spiritual experience too.” It’s less an evasion than it is a dialectical reflection of Longford’s own creed, which, like his, is recognizable enough, and which most humans could be persuaded of its truth. Only it’s much truer than we think we know; certainly to those few who see it in themselves to act upon it, but no less to those fewer who submit their lives to act against it.

THE GUILTY BYSTANDER

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I’ve been thinking a lot about Billy Zane’s cameo role in Zoolander. I’ve been thinking about how it’s not really a cameo role, but a brief central role inseparable from the wider dynamic of the greatest satire of the late-1990s (perhaps better known as punctual capitalism).

A cameo, like its namesake jewelry, is a kind of decoration. A cameo actor doesn’t really need to be in a film and seldom adds anything to the atmosphere or narrative that wasn’t already established. A cameo, like its namesake literary medium as well, is a living self-caricature, playing off the personas that made the cameo actor famous. David Duchovny’s cameo propels the plot somewhat but builds off his X-Files-style paranoia. David Bowie, who appears right after Zane, is merely a restatement of his God among men iconography who is judging us all. Hence, cameo appearances are fun accent marks not to be overused. Ben Stiller mastered this in Zoolander to the extent that he assumed abusing it as he did in Zoolander 2 would go unnoticed.

Looking at Billy Zane’s appearance, however, it does not fit the criteria of mere cameo. Indeed it transcends it. His performance might be the first thing that comes into the minds of most people when they think about Billy Zane. This is by no means an insult to him. Zane has always been a capable performer, but using him never seemed like a simple task for casting directors of his era. There’s something out of time about him, about his looks, his voice, his manners, and his charm. It is no coincidence that after Zoolander he is best known for Titanic, usually followed by The Phantom, both kitschy period films. Even his brief arc in season two of Twin Peaks plays off this marquee star camp quality. In the context of the 1990s, Zane was very sui generis. He was like a walking cubist presentation of classic masculine charm; or less generously, as one half of Jon Hamm. It presents a gravitas that was uncommon in the quirkier, peppier time in which Zoolander was made. But it also seemed as self-aware as it was authentic, and Stiller—in collaboration with Zane no doubt—used it to great effect in his scene which, in addition to having greater screen time than the average cameo, has considerably greater depth.

The gravity of Zane’s role is not immediately appreciated because it comes in a scene stuffed with cameos. It not only precedes Bowie’s but also appears in between an ascendant Paris Hilton and a then-descendant Winona Ryder. But through Stiller’s framing, his significance becomes more apparent. The scene is the pre-runway party for Mugatu’s Derelicte line, Derek Zoolander’s comeback as a male model after a career decline. Zoolander is riding high on the hype and relishing the uptick in attention. Billy Zane is present, praising him and his anticipation of Blue Steel Magnum. The interaction seems quite different, more intimate. Here Zane is neither the preening villain nor the gallant hero, but a friend. This is especially evident when the party is crashed by Zoolander’s rival Hansel. Most of the frame is henceforth taken up by the two leads, but Zane hangs cautiously and stoically in the background behind Zoolander. He, like everyone else, is aware of the ongoing conflict and what it means to Zoolander, who is faced with having to reprove his worth to the upstart and to the world in the form of a walk-off. Zane is firmly in Zoolander’s corner exuding a timeless sense of loyalty and respect no words can ever adequately convey. This train is barreling at ludicrous speed and he is not neutral. But he is uneasy and concerned. Hansel did not get where he is by blind chance. Assuming the role of wise counsel, he tries to beg Zoolander off from the possibly quixotic challenge. “Listen to your friend Billy Zane,” Hansel jests albeit earnestly, “he’s a cool dude. He’s trying to help you out.” But nothing doing, Derek rather abruptly sets aside Zane’s concerns. The stars exit, leaving Zane resigned to events. “It’s a walk-off … it’s a walk-off.

That double line always stuck out to me as being among the best in the film, and its status as a meme 20 years later shows that I am not alone. But why? Certainly for its humor: its delivery capturing the absurdity and absurd tragedy of the moment.

But it sticks out just as much for its reality. There is something embarrassingly recognizable in Billy Zane’s countenance in the party scene and in the subsequent walk-off scene. We have, I think, all been in such a role: stuck between two opposing sides whose mutual animosity is becoming increasingly intense. The eruption was always inevitable, we knew it deep down but as with most bad omens we avoided it until it was too far past the point of sane management. A conflict is nigh. We take the sides we take and we contribute what little we can to help. We are no longer mere friend and ally; we are the guilty bystander. We knew the conflict’s outcome as much as we knew the conflict’s onset. We knew it would escalate quickly, that it’s conclusion would be decisive and final but that it would also come at a high price, beyond the reasonable scope of bodily safety, proven physics, and human decency. The relatability ends once the plotted redemption of both leads, working in unison, comes about in perfect timing, and after a few more cameos. It resumes though once Zane, like all of us, fades into the background until he is needed once more, possibly many years later in a more demanding but much less appreciable context.

There is a charge often made about this era that it is “beyond satire.” If by “satire” it is meant the holding up of a mirror to society that magically accentuates its innate and rapidly coarsening ugliness then there might be something to that. But there is that other vein of satire, which doesn’t so much highlight the defects of a time as it poses the alternate ideal. This type is less remarked upon because such a satire often predates the era it is targeting and, as with the greatest prophecy, is not always willful. But when it is noticed, even in a passing glance, the landing punch is powerful. “You think times are bad?” it mocks. “Buddy, it turns out they are.”

Try to guess which kind of satire this is.