Black Ribbon Award

KOANS FOR THE UGLY

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Cock and Bull by Damien Hirst

If you profess your love to the hag of the swamp and the hag reciprocates, the hag is not making it permissible for your heart to beat as one with hers, as might be done by the fair damsel or even the well-meaning wench. The hag is conducting a lesson in the variations of love’s meaning between beings corporeal and phantasmal. Alas, the equality between the two might not be what you had hoped. In time and regardless of your desires, you will discover the swamp hag’s love language.

***

Dear Diary: I said “Huneker is bae” and they frowned. So I said “Pamille Caglia” and they smiled.

***

The internet has expanded our understanding of a literary work. Literature is no longer boring black words on scratchy white paper. Literature today, at the very least, is word and image functioning in conspiratorial unison. Which component is driving which and to what concise end? That is ever the reader’s task to sort out.

The wedding registry counts as a work of literature; subject to the reader’s interpretation like any other. The wedding registry articulates the innermost longings emanating from the souls of its creator(s). The self-made-by-blindfold chainsaw sculpture that the guest brings to the wedding in lieu of anything actually listed is their constructive critical assessment. Rejecting it insults culture and undermines civilization, you selfish pricks.

***

The search for your roots in our heavily digitized society is both an unprecedented privilege and not very fun if your ancestral records reveal no plausibly suspected cannibals. Logically there should be at least one.

***

Dear Diary: A teen pointed at me and said I was “Dead ass” followed by something in an unknown language. Now there is a skeleton outside my window. And skeletons on all the dating app profiles. Also I am a skeleton. Teens are so rude.

***

When you survey the state of your life, spending Saturday night watching five movies straight and making consistent progress on a $13 12-pack, you think yourself a modern-day Caligula. Yes, Caligula would live this way if he were alive in 2021 AD and not 21 AD. Caligula would wear high-top Chuck Taylors holding onto dear life with duct tape. Caligula would drive a ’94 Subaru. Caligula would have a Bumble account. Caligula would do data entry.

***

First-person essays about the struggles of depression often make a particularly sensitive reader want to lunge into the direct path of a bus going at full-speed. A lesson in irony or in the limits of what is communicable? Let us know from the other side when you get the chance!

***

Dear Diary: Told my parents about my new all-skeletal lifestyle. Dad says he thinks what happened to me was a “brother moment.” Mom will commit as much birthday money as needed to “psychic warriors.” They both blocked me on Snapchat and Snapchat only.

***

Horror-comedy should be considered a redundancy, as the line between horror and comedy is thinner than silk. It is the difference between watching someone vomit and watching a TikTok of yourself vomiting while watching a VHS tape of the moment of your conception.

***

The privilege of beauty is not unlimited. Consider the perpetual singlehood of the semicolon.

***

A wise man came down from the mountain proclaiming that he’d invented a new emotion. Yet the emotion spread so far and wide among the people that his authorship was all but obliterated. The wise man returned back up the mountain to create a new emotion to process this outcome. Keep your emotions to yourselves.

***

Dear Diary: A small but manageably majestic husky barked at me. Felt freaked out and unsafe all through lunch. Ate snacks (alternating Funyuns, Sour Patch Kids) in hopes of soothing. Relief was minimal :-(. Why does this always happen to ME?

***

“Repression, actually, is good,” a man said in the town square to no one in particular. The next day, he burst into flames. Rumors spread among the townspeople that he spontaneously combusted (because repression), but the coroner’s report made clear that he became inflamed as he waded in his backyard kiddie pool, drinking beer and smoking while listening to Kate Bush, having confused gasoline for water. Could’ve happened to anybody, the townspeople agreed.

(V SPOOKY) FRAGMENTS OF FAILURE

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NOTE: Below are some extracts from a draft of a supernatural story I wrote earlier in the summer for a contest. It’s very long and in dire need of revision; like a near-total overhaul in so many significant respects. Lord knows what will become of it, seeing as how I might be about to disqualify myself from said contest, but these wholly out-of-context extracts are not going to make it anyway; all I’m going to say is that “new shit has come to light.” Still, I don’t hate them and they may take me somewhere else in the future. So I figured I’d post them as other projects, as well as a pungent psychic malaise extending for most of the summer, have diverted my energies away from dreaming up anything new on here. Enjoy. Or don’t.

***

In all her time in New York, Michelle had never received more unsolicited epithets than in the space of time she was lodged between incoming and outgoing rush hour commuters on the stairs of the Brooklyn-bound train. She had not realized the sheer variety of style and timbre in “Pick a lane, you dumb bitch” before that moment. The courtesy one receives when trying not break their neck lugging a box of their official belongings.

Before she could even rest herself against the wall on the platform for a moment, her Blackberry was abuzz. After digging it out from within her now useless desk contents, she audibly and dramatically growled at the message: “can u plz come back to office? u forgot to turn in ur blackberry. thx Aimee @ hr”

Michelle looked around for any sign of commiseration at her anguish but found only a platform full of commuters similarly fixated on their own devices. She considered doing what the message politely demanded of her, as if she was still employed, but was stopped in that thought by the appearance of the one human that did seem to acknowledge her: a burly, unkempt older man, clearly homeless, his thick hair in a hopeless matted tangle, his cheeks smudged with soot, and whose odor became more putrid, almost corpse-like, the closer he approached. His gait was agonizingly slow at that. Michelle braced for another unwanted intervention into her space, and for money that she now very dearly needed. But the man said nothing, and passed by her as if she was a bad car accident. His mouth was agape in a vacant smile, that were it not for the four of his remaining yellow teeth emitted no indication that anything but darkness was inside of him.

And while time had felt elastic in that moment, he passed her, and went seemingly onto better things. Until he moved in front of a woman in a dark blue pantsuit 10 feet or so away from Michelle, who as if in a spasm swung her handbag at the man’s head, immediately knocking him down on the platform. Though of notably smaller build than the man, she was able to pin him down, straddle him, and press both hands on his mouth. The man struggled but appeared more inconvenienced than alarmed.

“I can’t let it out,” the woman said through grit teeth. “I can’t let it out.” Her face darted around the station, everyone on the Brooklyn platform cleared from her, everyone on the Manhattan platform gawked from afar. “Night sickness! HE’S GOT NIGHT SICKNESS,” she screamed out as if she was alerting her fellow commuters to a commonplace notion. This continued until a male cop, a female MTA employee, and a male civilian, an older office drone, converged to attempt to pull her off the man. Her strength was not any less subdued by this force, and Michelle could swear that she nearly knocked the cop onto the tracks just swinging her arm at him. They got the better of her when she stood up and appeared to want to gouge the man’s eye out with her stiletto heel.

“Don’t let him go!” she yelled. “He’ll darken us. He’ll darken everything.”

Michelle had never understood what was meant by “blood-curdling” screams until she heard that woman’s inner-torment reverberate into her veins. The three held her until the next train arrived, where they shoved her into the nearest car. “Walk it off lady,” the MTA employee advised as the door closed. As it passed by Michelle, the woman was no less calmed, banging at the window like a captured animal.

Everyone moved on as if nothing had transpired. Except for the homeless man, still lying on the platform, his head craned back at Michelle, laughing.

When she arrived at her apartment, she resolved to get her affairs in order. The first matter being to toss the Blackberry into the East River.

***

“So do you like people?” the teenager working the checkout register asked Michelle, standing stiffly at the bagging station.

“Sorry?”

“Y’know, what are your feelings on the human race? Do you want to push it collectively into the ocean or are you fine with it?”

“I never thought about it. Maybe in certain moods.”

“Fair,” the teen said, not listening very intently. “It’s just that it helps for this kind of job. To not like people very much.”

“How so?”

“You’ll be less disappointed.”

Michelle thought this was wise if not especially hard-earned counsel from a girl in a nose ring and racoon eyeliner, and whose acne took on a viral aspect under ShopRite’s fluorescent lighting.

“But you don’t need to worry about it too much on the vampire shift. We don’t expect much from anybody, and they don’t expect much from us. And everyone who is here … belongs here, even Doug.”

Doug had been surveilling Michelle throughout her first night shift from the customer service counter. Michelle sensed he was younger than she was a good margin, though it was hard to tell. His face was boyish with smooth, swollen cheeks, but offset by a baldpate and an ill-managed stubble on his chin. He was like a boy trying to will himself into middle-age. If things looked a little too relaxed for his liking he would walk at a sustained, almost charging pace, an intense presence somewhat reduced by his pleated Dockers, and monitor Michelle directly.

“You’re double-bagging, right?”

“Yes.”

“It’s our policy to double-bag even if they don’t ask.”

“I think she knows, Doug.”

“Keep an eye on her, Brianna,” Doug decreed solemnly and returned to his post confident that what little chaos he could prevent had been kept at bay.

“I don’t know if he’s an actual demon,” Brianna wondered, “or if he’d just really enjoy Hell if he ever went there. I’m not even sure which would be more interesting.”

The “vampire shift” did not merely signify the span of time between 4:00 PM and 10:30 PM that Michelle had been decreed by the general manager to work in the store for three days out of the week—a Sunday day shift pending if she endured a month-long probationary period—but a sort of grace period for the less valued customers to be served by the less valued employees.

She recalled sitting across from the general manager in his office as he inspected her application like an untranslated sacred text, muttering observations about her as if she was not present. “Administrative assistant … takes direction well.” He did not ask uncomfortable questions pertaining to her pivot from white collar city work to hourly wage suburban work. He only glanced at her with a rapidity that looked at first like a reflexive twitch. “I don’t want to sound un-PC or anything, but please wash your hair before coming onto the premises.” He went into the corner filing cabinet and took out a label-maker. “Now is that ‘Michelle’ with one ‘L’ or two? You wrote it both ways.”

Brianna took out a cannister of Altoids from her apron and held it out to Michelle.

“Not my flavor.”

Brianna helped herself and swirled it around her mouth.

“You’ll get the hang of it. Pretty soon you’ll start having dreams about the place. This one dream I had I kept getting the same old woman and she kept buying Pepto Bismol. Only it was shaped like other products …”

Michelle forced a chuckle and turned to look out the front window. The orange twilight had all but faded, leaving a black reflection of the storefront for her to look at. Brianna was still talking and didn’t notice that there was a woman waiting at their checkout. But when Michelle turned to alert her, it was apparent that the woman was only in the reflection. Her face was distorted, but her white nurse uniform was unmistakable.

“… like rotisserie chicken-shaped Pepto Bismol. Stuff like that.”

***

Michelle came home from her shift with the urge to watch The Last Exorcism, purely for research purposes. A notion had crystalized in her mind on her bike ride home that an exorcism was going to place the following afternoon, in the middle of Starbucks, and she was to play a significant part. Though the assignment of roles as to who was possessed and who was exorcising was less clear to her. She only knew that Jenn’s appearance hours before at her checkout station had an occult air around it. Or anyway it felt very contrived.

The high-pitched astonishment in Jenn’s voice as she looked up from unloading her shopping cart onto the conveyer belt, the musical intonation of her name, “Mich-elle? Is that really you?” carried the sound of rehearsal, possibly on the drive over. Word had likely gotten out that Michelle was back in town and Jenn, who had never left, was bound to hear about it. The feigned surprise was unnecessary even if it, at least in Jenn’s mind, was more polite. Still, Jenn’s ingratiating charm, conveying an easy friendliness that was more charitable than social, had not lost its potency, and when Jenn inquired if Michelle had time to spare tomorrow “for coffee and to catch up” though everything, at least in Michelle’s mind, seemed pretty self-explanatory, she could not say no.

The exorcism analogy she formed was difficult to sustain in her mind as she considered it. At least literally speaking. It was rather the feeling of release that most fixated her. This forcible expulsion of a burden or of being freed from bondage. Each applied equally and respectively to Michelle and Jenn. Though Michelle never saw fit to say it, she always thought Jenn was a loser. She was a curious specimen, an obvious extrovert who was best suited to enclosure. Anything that taxed her comprehensive limitations or that was beyond her immediate control could not excite much interest in her. She was a fount of energy, the driving force and focal point of their clique yet inert in almost every other human respect. Michelle pictured a lever: Jenn who was incurious on one end, Erika who was infinitely curious about nothing on the other, and she the fulcrum on which they pivoted, having lost the capacity to learn anything new long ago. Pop culture had no lessons to impart beside the fact that characters trapped in exorcism narratives hardly ever reached the end of it entirely unharmed. Release came at a steep price. Michelle despaired at having to face the horror of the ordinary.

It had rained in the morning and Michelle biked cautiously around puddles and over slick pavement. The sky had not cleared and cast a dismal countenance upon everything she passed. Thought it was not to such an extent that it could obscure the increase of homes, and even business properties, that resembled Erika’s in its neglect and silence. A trend in living, of a sort, had captivated the town. Trends of all kinds move at a pace and by a logic that no individual witness to them can easily grasp. It is only clear that they are intent to perpetuate widely and any single gesture of resistance is both pointless and deviant.

Michelle spotted Jenn in the far corner of the Starbucks, sipping from a steaming latte, wearing a sweater with a Jack o’ Lantern in the center, her hair restrained in a tight ponytail, and staring down at an iPad. Her relaxed nature and her prim appearance bore a strong contrast, one Jenn herself could not help but react to nonverbally when drawn up from her screen, to Michelle’s disheveled appearance of straggly hair, damp tennis shoes, and her ever present employment apron. Nevertheless, Jenn rose to embrace her like the old friend that she still was, at least in spirit.

“Are you working today?” she asked noting the apron.

“No,” Michelle said meekly as she sat down.

“Oh … well, I didn’t know what to get you so I just got what I got. We’re matching!” she said handing her the latte. “I hope it’s still warm.”

Michelle took a small sip. “It’s fine, thank you.”

“I have to say it was a surprise to run into you yesterday. But I did hear through the grapevine that you were around. I didn’t think it was permanently.” Jenn stopped herself in that thought, having over-assumed. “Or, I guess, for an extended time?”

“I can’t say exactly at the moment.”

“Well, I think it’s nice you came back.”

The one thing Michelle always had over Jenn was that she knew Jenn at her least ideal. The Jenn that she knew was prone to vomiting like her life depended on it. Vomiting by the dumpsters of the Sante Fe Tavern after several ill-gained shots and a session with the mechanical bull. Vomiting behind the bleachers at the homecoming game. Vomiting in Terry Greco’s parent’s bidet. Vomiting into the jousting arena at Medieval Times. If Michelle hadn’t known any better, and of course she did not, she’d think Jenn had something of a drinking problem. And yet any evidence of that past appeared entirely expunged from this version she was now facing, whose comportment embodied every broad characteristic of “adult” she’d formed from childhood. She was pleasant and curious; a little patronizing but with a generous, patient spirit. The kind of spirit one might gain from having two children, Jayma (age four) and Preston (age two), whose images she showed Michelle on the iPad she cradled very much as she would a baby.

“I’m not keeping them from you, am I?”

“Oh no, they’re with my mom … who says hi, by the way.”

“Tell her thank you.”

A vague version of the Jenn she knew appeared soon enough, in her anodyne inquiries into New York life; or rather into life in Midtown and the financial district, of which Michelle went out of her way to understand as little as possible. It always amazed her privately how people she met in New York and people she knew in New Jersey each saw the other either as being on distant planets with utterly backwards conceptions of physics and social custom or has each possessing different versions of the same highly repulsive disease. Jenn, however, boasted a special kind of sheltering that made her seem better suited to Ohio, a tourist in what was ostensibly her own home. Michelle fell into a kind of fugue state gesturing affirmations at Jenn’s various conveyances of selfhood: her large ugly house that looked more like two houses fused together, her husband’s Taco Bell franchise ownership, her dream vacation to Hawaii, and other details she was boiling in her tepid verbal soup. Until one comment snapped her out of it.

“You know what I hadn’t thought about in ages? Erika Knight.”

Michelle sipped her now-cold latte and mumbled something.

“The bag-lady. Jeez, what were we thinking? I guess you sort of reminded me … if that makes sense.”

“Yeah.”

“You had some interactions with her, right? She was your neighbor, I think.”

“A few. We kind of lost touch.”

Jenn’s cheery expression shifted downward to one more skeptical. “So it seems.”

“I don’t really know what happened to her. Do you?”

“Well, not really. I’d always heard she’d run away or moved out. I’d heard some people say she OD’d on something. But that was just the safe assumption, all things considered.” Jenn’s face turned grave a she looked out the window, but finding nothing uplifting, turned her gaze back to Michelle with a smile that was at best serviceable. “I guess we didn’t treat her very well … Erika.”

“Why do we always do that?”

“Excuse me?”

“Why do we always admit those things long after they happened, and especially when someone is dead?”

“I never said for cert—”

“It’s like an easy out. Like debt forgiveness for forgiveness.”

Whatever remaining charity Jenn had for her friend had been vaporized in that instant and her look settled on a chiseled severity.

“And so what is all this?” Jenn said, gesturing her arm in a circle around Michelle. “Is this you paying your debt? Leaving your career in flames? Spending all your time with a new generation of paint thinner addicts?”

“I’m not spending all my time with them,” Michelle protested, having felt that her solitary movie marathons and the intrusions of the otherworldly upon her space had been unfairly overlooked.

“You know I could never put my finger on you for the longest time. Then I went to FDU and majored in psychology, and learned about this thing called compartmentalization. And suddenly it was all clear. You like putting things in their own containers and keeping them very separate, that’s how you cope, I guess. It made it hurt less when I stopped hearing from you after freshman year. Or when my wedding invitation went unanswered. Or my Facebook friend request.” Jenn choked up and stopped herself again. “I really wanted not to bring this up.”

“Jenn—”

Jenn held a finger to her while she composed herself. “Maybe in a couple of years none of this is going to matter. Maybe this is just a late-20s thing.”

Michelle felt a weight drop in her chest upon realizing that the truth of Jenn’s observation was almost certain.

Outside the Starbucks, Jenn waited, draped in a bright yellow raincoat and matching goulashes, as Michelle unlocked her bike.

“I can give you a ride,” Jenn noncommittally suggested. “I can probably make space in the jeep.”

“That’s okay.” Michelle removed the lock and approached to receive a parting hug.

“It was good to see you … really,” Jenn said with a slight but meaningful smile.

“Thanks.”

“You know, wherever you’re going, I hope it’s right where you need to be.”

“Is that on your wall at home?”

“No … it’s just something people say when they have nothing else to say to someone.”

Michelle rode home absently wondering whom the demons they each let loose in the Starbucks would latch onto next, and if they would be just as merciless.

A DUMB MEMORY

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When I was a child, I went to frolic in a majestic forest by my lonesome, as dumb children in New Jersey are wont to do. But as I reached peak frolic, I lost my way and stumbled onto a dark hidden glen, overgrown with gnarled trees and of musty, dewy smell.

At the center of the glen was a mound of moss that appeared to be undulating as if it was breathing. Being as dumb in that moment as I was right before I entered the forest, I approached the mound, and held out my hand to touch the surface. This act was dumb indeed, for as my hand made contact with the moss, its writhing intensified and seemed to spread outward until it was under and a bit beyond my feet.

Then the mound rose upward, the ground parted, and, like a rupturing blackhead, revealed a new mass concealed from under it. When it stood in complete display it was most unusual. The bottom was a mass of mud, roots, and vines, which as I looked further up turned into the strands of a long gray beard that was growing from the head of an old man. In addition to his obviously advanced agedness, he bore an especially withered countenance one sees in a graveyard shift 7-11 cashier, or someone’s dad getting home from work. Even in my unimpeachable dumbness, it was clear I’d committed an error.

“Child,” the old man said in a grave tone of voice that grated the ear canal, “you have disturbed my slumber.”

At which point I fled the forest in abject terror, never to venture into it again. Though I was dumb, I was not stupid.

Yet had I stayed and, contrary to my gut suspicion, not been devoured instantly by the unpleasantly awoken old man of the forest, I think the encounter would have gone thus:

“Come hither, child,” said the old man, probably, “and let me tell you a parable [or fable or truism or whatever] that may aid you in your life’s journey.”

Just then, a small tree stump fitted to my small dimensions, and with comfy back support, rose from the ground, and on which the old man told me to sit. Having done so, he began his tale.

“Once upon a time,” said the old man, “there was a village not so different from the one where you live.”

I took his word for it and bade him to continue.

“In this village there were two kinds of citizens. One kind was the right people, the other kind was the wrong people. The right and wrong people shared many of the same customs. And the casual observer might not even see any distinction between the two. But the difference was real enough. Both, for instance, wore hats outdoors. But where the right people wore their hats the right way, the wrong people wore their hats the wrong way. Both kinds bore children. But the right people bore children the right way, and the wrong people bore children the wrong way. If you know what I mean.”

Being still a child and still no less dumb at that moment than at any that preceded, I had not the faintest fucking idea what he meant, but implored the old man to explain further seeing as how we’ve already gotten this far.

“As you might have guessed, the number of right people in the village was notably, though not overwhelmingly, higher than that of the wrong people. But if they wanted to, they could increase their numbers by persuading the wrong people, with varying degrees of implied force, to adopt rightness. For while it was possible to be born wrong, they were not doomed to die wrong. Indeed, right people of the past were more insistent on that point. No method was too excessive, no justification too flimsy, to convert the wrong people toward rightness.

“Now these right people—the new right people—were a bit different. While being altogether certain of their rightness, they didn’t feel any urgency to spread it around. For the sake of variety, the right people decided it was better to tolerate a healthy supply of the wrong people.

“The wrong people were always apprehensive over the right people’s clear ability to assert their dominance, but they found this softer arrangement satisfactory. Though wrong to every measurable degree, their wrongness was given free rein, and not just in the privacy of their homes, but out in public forum and in the presence of right people.

“In time, however, the wrong people began to notice something strange in how the right people regarded them. Though they seemed to listen intently enough to all the wrong things the wrong people had to tell them, they did so at a careful remove, as if the wrong people were doing a neat card trick or the kind of striptease act where the girl just moves feathers around suggestively. This made the wrong people suspicious. They realized that they worried so much about being imposed upon that they didn’t notice they were being more subtly contained. The wrong people felt that this was not at all suitable.

“The wrong people thought long and hard about how they might reverse their fortune. Then the answer occurred to them. ‘Of course,’ said the wrong people in unison, ‘we’ll just carry ourselves as if we’re right!’

“And so the wrong people conducted themselves accordingly. Though still displaying their confirmed wrongness, the wrong people behaved as though wrongness was right, and had been right all along. They assumed the same measure of certainty as the right people, and in fact came to appear more certain in comparison.

“This, to say the least, rubbed the right people in the wrong way. At first they thought a sickness had fallen upon the land, causing mass delusions and flights of the most surreal fancy. But the wrong people, being ever robust in health and lucid in thought, dispelled this hypothesis. The right people were caught unawares and had little recourse. The right people instead grew very concerned about the decisions the wrong people were making. ‘You haven’t seemed like yourselves,’ the right people said. ‘You run the risk of giving offense. And for what, exactly? Being right isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.’

“At this, the wrong people kindly suggested that the right people go fuck themselves.

“The village soon fell into disharmony. This was not ideal to the right people; but not a few of them were happy that at least the tiresome business of being polite to the wrong people was behind them. This, they thought, is something they could live with.

“But something utterly unthinkable happened. Right people began to embrace the wrong things. Evidently, the wrong people were conducting their own countermeasures against containment; telling right people that being wrong was still wrong but far more interesting and thrilling than being right. Being right was lame af. A sufficient number of right people found this persuasive, and could be seen cavorting openly with the wrong people. The wrong people were kind of fun in a way only people not used to responsibility could be.

“The right people could only respond that they, too, were fun; the most fun, in fact. And they mandated the remaining right people to partake in examples of the kind of fun they like to have as obvious proof. But by then it was too late,” the old man started to trial off.

“So what happened next?” I asked.

“That depends on whom you ask. The wrong people will insist that the right people lost patience with them and suppressed them and their ways like old times. The right people will insist that they waited it out until the wrong people, being all wrong, brought defeat upon themselves and surrendered willingly. But by that point everyone lost track of who the right people and the wrong people were. And so the people outside the village who had to hear all this decided to take matters into their own hands, demolishing the village and paving it over with something of more eminent usefulness.”

“What’s that?”

“An outlet mall whose backers pulled their investments halfway into construction,” he said. “The end.”

“So … what’s the moral?”

“Moral? I don’t know, I just needed to buy time while the vines restrained your ankles.”

I looked down and, true to his word, while listening to the parable, I was rendered immobile by deceptive flora.

“Now,” said the old man with a wide grin, “I will eat you, then use your bones to make a kite. I’m not sure that this is the best place to fly a kite, but the forest is very boring, and I need to try something.”

So, officer, I think that should answer your question as to why I’m lugging these cannisters of gasoline and these bags of newspaper into these woods. Now if you’ll excuse me, I still have much to do.

PUNK AS UTILITY

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In 2017, Numero Group released Savage Young Dü, a boxset of Hüsker Dü’s recordings from 1979 to 1982, their first three years of existence. It contains four records made up of 69 songs (whittled down from a proposed 110). It includes not only remastered versions of their early singles, their live-recorded debut Land Speed Record, and their style-setting EP Everything Falls Apart, but previously unreleased early demos made while still a trio of disaffected Minneapolis college students. It is all the more impressive because of the logistics required to make it possible.

Savage Young Dü was seven years in the making, in which Numero had to manage both the legendarily acrimonious relationship between Bob Mould and Grant Hart and the even more legendary legal and financial limbo in which SST Records placed the rights to their recorded output. The result is a completist’s dream, something the archival label is well accustomed to providing in a time when interest in physical recorded media is as low as it’s been since before the phonograph was invented. You could listen to these tracks on Spotify, but then you’d be missing out on the supplementary bells and whistles: the immaculate conceptual artwork with a 108-page hardbound book of rare photos and flyers, the extensive liner notes offering crucial historical context and fun trivia, all crammed into Russian nesting doll packaging. All of it could be yours for a measly $75. To some that seems excessive in a self-aggrandizing classic rock sort of way, though attitudes have a way of shifting with certain conditions; like the condition of many of the songs on their own, which, with or without advanced studio magic, is bad.

Hüsker Dü has so long inhabited our collective consciousness as one of the most influential bands in the history of popular music that it’s easy to forget that for a brief interval Hüsker Dü sucked. That is no one’s fault but our own, being so easily dazzled by a kind of savantism that might be called the Ramones fallacy: a band that appears out of the ether completely formed and who but for the grace of their genius would be cursed to undertake and be subjected to all the grim things they sang about.

All art builds upon crude foundations, but trial-and-error and the happy accident are a crucial to punk’s ethos. Punks spend a majority of their existence listening to bad music. In the case of Hüsker Dü and many others, it improves; and a really good song in the classic sense can enable an obsession that is almost impossible to break. Some bands start well enough and get worse, like Black Flag after Damaged and, depending on whom you ask, Sonic Youth. Many don’t progress at all; consider most pop punk, hardcore after Minor Threat, or The Jesus Lizard. Out of this chaos an eclectic, bottom-up culture was built and remained in place for nearly half a century. That it can often appear unharmonious within itself, even greatly conflicted, only reinforces its staying power and wide, impassioned appeal. There’s no set formula, no binding rules, and room for all, ideally.

Of course all revolutions with that kind of longevity ossify into an institution; punk is not exempt. It is only a matter of whether anyone notices and how it is handled if it is.

In the annals of punk songcraft, I have heard worse than “Racist, Sexist Boy” by the Los Angeles trio the Linda Lindas. In comparison to anything put out by Youth of Today or Bigwig or whatever, it is adequate at the very least. It hits the beats you would expect a band made up of two teenagers and a 10-year-old to hit. There are almost to a certainty innumerable bands at that level of ability across and beyond the country. Bands like that don’t usually beget a nationwide phenomenon. Yet the Linda Lindas have already opened for Best Coast, Karen O, and Bikini Kill. When their song went viral, it garnered the praise of Hayley Williams, Tom Morello, Thurston Moore, and author Viet Thanh Nguyen, who said “Racist, Sexist Boy” (the comma is a nice touch, by the way) is “the song we need right now.” They have parlayed the attention into a record deal with Epitaph and an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live, a distinction rarely if ever granted to a band identifying foremost as punk. (Technically I wouldn’t know as I don’t watch Kimmel.) Some would argue that nepotism goes some way in explaining this rapid ascendence. Two of the members are daughters of a prominent producer and engineer who has worked with Paramore and Bad Religion, a fact by no means concealed in their press. Maybe. Though if it hadn’t been the Linda Lindas, a twist of fate so precisely contorted could conceivably put another band with a context that is different only by degrees in the same position. Particularly when there seems to be a need of it.

Writing in Slate, Sofia Andrade described the Linda Lindas in a curious formation. They are the future of punk by virtue of their age; they are also by virtue of the identities as women of color a throwback to a punk few recognize anymore. “The concerts held at places like the Vex and Hong Kong Café were hugely formative for L.A. punks, both as artists and fans,” Andrade writes. “Even if these names [the Bags, Alley Cats, Los Illegals, and the Zeros] may not strike you as familiar, many of those who remember these earlier days of punk agree that, in large part, it was people of color, immigrants, and otherwise marginalized communities who gave birth to L.A. punk.”

Los Angeles claimed one of the more eclectic of the American punk scenes. Indeed, The Decline of Western Civilization documentary barely does it justice. Of the bands mentioned by Andrade only the Bags are featured alongside X, Fear, Black Flag, Germs, Catholic Discipline, and Circle Jerks. But even some of these bigger bands became sidelined by emerging trends. Andrade lays the blame upon bands like Green Day and The Offspring becoming household names in the 1990s. Though that could not have happened without the emergence of (predominantly white male) hardcore which, unlike the bands in the more insular Los Angeles and New York scenes, were not as tethered to older, more record industry-reliant punk and toured ferociously, bringing their sound to midsize cities and college towns, changing how it was consumed and produced. In this respect, the Linda Lindas are less a throwback than a do-over. Though they may also be a continuation.

There is a loophole within the happy accident ethos of punk. If you decided against progressing or otherwise could not progress beyond a certain point technically, you could still find achievement in raw audacity; the art of the rude gesture. This has been exploited well before punk, or rock n’ roll for that matter, was even coined but which nevertheless became both punk’s most utilized tactic, with some bands coasting on it for the whole of their careers, and its most underappreciated. One of the most substantial gestures—one that I have mentioned before—was reorienting punk almost entirely from a rock genre to a movement. This change had no one single catalyst or location, though it was most successfully applied to American hardcore of the 1980s. Disrupting the Queen’s silver jubilee from the Thames came to have a limited appeal to citizens of a country settled by people fleeing anarchy and decadence. Punk could be more than disruption, let alone a consumer market; punk could be a source of edification—a kind of public service; and it rooted itself into American culture with ruthless efficiency. Despite a worldwide reputation to the contrary, I’m not sure there are many other countries that could have dreamed up so self-denying and didactic a phenomenon as straight-edge hardcore. Maybe Germany could have without a Cold War to deal with, but we’ll never know.

But out of this development came a larger consequence. If punk began as an impulse, a tenuously controlled one at that, it now became a need that could be called upon to address certain concerns that were being ignored elsewhere. This communal bent of punk propelled it for decades and never compromised aesthetic development where it flourished. For instance, it is easy to forget that New York City hardcore was contemporary with Seattle grunge. At the same time, its very nature was always dependent upon a certain social inertia bound by the dominance of print media and the telephone.

Earlier this year, the Linda Lindas appeared on the soundtrack of the Netflix movie Moxie, about a teenage girl who battles the institutional corruption and sexism of her high school by starting a zine. Her inspiration comes from her former riot grrl mother (played by director Amy Poehler). The film marks a renewed interest in zine culture that has been bubbling up gradually—and not just in feminist corners. Many may not have expected this kind of outcome, but it was not unwelcome. It gave places like the New York Public Library an excuse to air out its own zine archive in concert with the film’s release. And the film’s zine maintains the iconic Xerox cut-and-paste purity of its ‘90s peak. Not only is it pure, but it is effective, fomenting a mass movement among the student body and bringing about long-delayed justice. Though it seemed a little too effective for some. A review of the book on which the film is based remarked that Moxie “works on a pure, wish-fulfillment level.” This is meant that it overpromises on its potential for restorative justice, but this may be applied in another way.

Generation X has lately cultivated an air of detachment from all culture-warring. It sits jadedly and idly by as Baby Boomers and Millennials go at each other over barely sustainable scraps of influence and prosperity. Gen Xers have fought their battles and lost with a shrugging stalemate. Against what adversary they were fighting I have no idea, but their apparent unflappability and collected cool could inspire envy in the most emotionally combustive among us. Yet the release of Moxie, the strangely memetic quality of “Racist, Sexist Boy,” and the proliferation of “Schools of Rock,” have led me to see that Generation X is avoiding culture war not because they are over it, but because they’re doing something worse.

Living vicariously through a younger generation is not just a bad look, it is also a crime: a crime against youth and against culture. It restrains those who should otherwise be free into ways of thinking and doing that don’t suit them or won’t suit them for very long. It’s a kind of social Munchausen by proxy. And in treating punk as a set of tools that can be reapplied in the same manner regardless of circumstances takes it from a public service to a full-blown bureaucracy. The Linda Lindas are not so much artists articulating their vision as civil servants doling out benefits of specious value to the last people who need it.

The world does not need punk. In fact it got along quite well without it for centuries before it came along. The cynical axiom that punk is dead clarifies with the accumulation of wisdom into a cope for the more unsettling possibility that punk will soon go away, or be discarded, because it no longer fits; its utility is null. The need for spontaneity, for happy accidents, makes its return. A new generation adopts a cultural language that no elder can ever hope to translate. The future is unknown, not a little frightening, and more interesting by allowing none of us to be a part of it. But it’s like that old punk slogan, spoken by someone who was anything but, goes: “In the long run we are all dead.”

THREE QUESTIONS FOR YOU

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Instructions: In order to acquire the most accurate data, please read each question three times in a slow, deliberate pace, then once more very quickly before filling in the appropriate space.

Question no. 1: Did you ever just want to stuff someone in a locker just to know what it feels like? Not that you knew one way or the other. You were not that kind of high school student: the kind who stuck out, the kind who attracted the attention of a certain other kind of high school student with a certain kind of power. That in itself was not so bad. There is security in being unremarkable. The hallways you walked through were nothing special, just dismal corridors taking you from drudgery to drudgery—corridors that smelled not very faintly of sawdust and sweat. Because unlike in the movies, no one seemed to “hit the showers” after gym class. Just as, now that you think about it, you never actually saw anyone get stuffed into a locker. But you have heard it claimed by stuffer and stuffee alike. The stuffer craves the claim of his conquests; the stuffee craves the validation of his sorrows. Since high school you’ve come to know sorrow of a certain level. Enough not to want to go much higher. Enough to make you wonder what inflicting sorrow must be like. You can’t judge whether it is strictly good or strictly bad. You’ve never tried it. You like to learn by experience in order to make the best assessment. People who get stuffed are not very reliable judges by your personal estimate. You want to return to those old hallways. Not as an adult, which would nauseate you, but as a variation on your vestal youth—more vigorous than vestal. When you do so you find the hallways dull with the same look and oppress with the same odor. Yet the odor is less of an issue; in fact you appreciate it. It is emotional rather than bodily. Everyone you pass becomes a blinking beacon of typically teenaged intensity. Heads blink red for desire; heads blink green for stupidity; and heads blink blue for fear. Blue heads think that they can evade their fate by giving you a wider berth as you cut hallway traffic down the middle, clinging to the walls like insects without a corner to slink into safety. It’s as if they’re trying to make things easier on themselves; to have some sort of agency in the matter. The world gets nowhere without victims. Victims are a renewable source of energy. A day without victims is a day of wasted power. Victims, in time, come to accept their role and may even welcome the exertion of your own role over them. You imagine your role may be more complicated than it seems. Is power pure force: the ability to stuff anyone of your choosing into a locker, assuming you can spread your power widely enough across the student body? Or is power discretion: the ability to inflict sorrow onto one person and bestow mercy onto another? This would not discourage you. Far from it. Stuffing someone into a locker is now a matter of no small importance. Who knew that the line between inflicting sorrow and self-discovery was so faint?

Answer:
[  ] Yes
[  ] No
[  ] Maybe

Question no. 2: Did you ever feel so down in the dumps that you wanted to go out with an ax and cut down a tree? And not just any old tree, or the very first tree you see, but a tree carefully curated out of the innumerable tall flora at your disposal. The one tree that most completely corresponds with your despair and which will render the most ideal relief after being cut. One day it might be an oak in an unspoiled hillside, or a pignut hickory on a marked nature trail, or some newly planted buckeye on someone’s lawn. Every tree is a possibility. There is no feeling quite like having your spirits lifted by having discovered and promptly leveled the right one. Maybe you would develop a consistent type, like those cherry blossom trees that bloom in spring. The torrent of pink petals from every swing of the ax would enable a catharsis unrivaled by any known form of treatment. Indeed, therapy in the traditional sense—or even in the traditionally radical sense—fails to meet your needs. In pursuing this course, you sow alienation in your family, discomfort among your friend group, rejection by your lover(s), and censure from your employer—especially if you happen to by employed by a tree-removal company. These ruptures are unfortunate, but easily remedied after cutting down enough trees. What is polite society going to do? Deny your right to relief? Surely doing so would have worse outcomes. What are they afraid of? That people and trees will become harder for you to distinguish? Or maybe that your therapy will render all flora extinct. These fears are worth taking seriously even as they are hurtful to you. Remember to plant as much as if not more than you cut down, regardless of the legal, logistical, aesthetic, and scientific limitations. All the more for you to cut down later. But you would probably always be vigilant for The One, the be-all-end-all of arbor therapy. You want to chop down the biggest fucking tree you can find. You want to count down from 2,000 rings to zero. This one comes with its own risks. It’s almost a competition: either it goes or you go. But it can’t be reduced to that, can it? You don’t just want therapy, you want symbiosis. You want a relationship. You want it to go down and you want to be taken with it. You know that, like all therapies, the peak well-being drifts downward in short order and the cycle starts over. You want to end the cycle and prolong the peak. If it clearly doesn’t work in this world, it stands to reason that it can work in the next. Only one way to find out.

Answer:
[  ] Within reason
[  ] Moderately and in the presence of friends
[ ] Beyond the bounds of self-control, concerns for my dignity, or the safety of others

Question no. 3: Did you ever just want to identify as a vulture? Even while knowing that that’s just not possible? Yes, you may be able to affect certain habits and mannerisms of the vulture. You may be ugly like the vulture. You may eat corpses like the vulture. But those affectations are prohibited to almost no one. They are not special and no one feels special having them. It is rather the bearing of the vulture that is beyond our reach. The vulture has a serenity and self-assurance of purpose as it goes about its natural tasks, like an aristocrat at the peak of his social relevance. It’s best understood when witnessed firsthand. See the vulture saunter around its chosen roadkill, pecking at it in a periodic rhythm as if to savor it. Watch it soar upward to the nearest branch or powerline at the sight of oncoming traffic. And watch it glide back down once the coast is clear, as if nothing had happened. You, skittish and ever in need of a firm, guiding hand, neither recognize nor know how to apply that level of confidence. But you are drawn into it nonetheless. And if you can’t have it, you can at least allow it to thrive in those who do. You go in search of the nearest vultures in your life. You defer to the vulture’s worldview. It is appreciably uncomplicated: there are things that are alive and things that are dead; dead things are better than living things. The vulture is primed to spot death wherever it may be, and it may conceivably be anywhere. Ideally the earth would be an Old Country Buffet of splattered and rotting fauna. Thoughts of anything beyond that are abstract, impractical, and childish. The vulture is last in a long line of teachers, and among the very few really valuable ones anyone can hope for. It’s not so much that you learn something about yourself you hadn’t already known but that you come to accept what you’d been previously taught to deny. You are a sheep. People hate sheep for some reason. Yet there is nothing wrong with being a sheep. The sheep has the courage of its conviction to defer happily to superior convictions. Deferring to the convictions of the dog has its limits in the sheep’s mind. Dogs are more pathetic and servile in ways that the sheep is all too grateful to not comprehend. In abandoning one deference for another, the sheep is not exerting a reflex but pursuing its vocation. The sheep is also fluffy.

Answer:
[  ] I lie in the soil and fertilize mushrooms
[  ] Leaking out gas fumes are made into perfume
[  ] You can’t fire me because I quit
[  ] Throw me in the fire and I won’t throw a fit

SLOW CONTENT WEEK

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Human Resources
No one has spoken to me as a man
in the way you have just done.

You are the water-giving cactus
that sates the desert of my mind.

You are the yellow cells of fat
that warm my skin and bones.

You are the cosmic fly fisherman
who reels my soul from a bottomless abyss.

As a man, a chorus of angels draped in gold
would sing you heroic hymns.

But human resources is not staffed with angels;
and employees are not men.

Please clean out your desk by end-of-day.
Security will escort you to the loading exit.

***

The Giant Baby
“The city is overrated,”
is easier to say once the city is flat.
Leaving aside those jutting rungs,
steel scaffolds, graffitied plaster walls
spared by the swinging chubby arms
of otherwise certain annihilation.
They are spires of civic mourning
to be sobbed upon by citizens now
with fewer things to do
and fewer places to be.

The bodega is still there:
the last bodega on Earth.
First an immortal castle,
beaming uplift and defiance.
Second a futile tomb,
for those whose shelves, shower,
and potted plants splay like a throttled beast
onto the stoop and just over the curb.

My voice forms a rushing river
drowning Child Services in levels of panic
and resentment heretofore unknown.
I call in the morning—busy signal.
I call while scrounging for canned goods—
“Maneater” on a loop.
They call back days later—
or weeks later. Who knows?

“The genesis of and reason for
the giant baby,” the recording goes,
“has eluded our training.
The Administration for Children’s Services
apologizes for the inconvenience.
As compensation, and at the expense of the state,
please bring your dogs to the nearest
designated center for humane euthanasia.
DO NOT use a hammer or a gun.”
“Dancing Queen” followed by dial tone.

A columnist clacks on a screenless laptop.
“The giant baby is a symbol.
A symbol of our yearning for something more,
something greater, something brighter.
Reply all. Reply all. Reply all. Reply all …”
A pastor yaps before empty pews.
“The giant baby is a manifestation
of collective denial of humility
and our embrace of decadence.
Repent. Repent. Repent. Repent …”

The columnist and the pastor
argue by degrees of magnitude so trivial
they hold hands and kiss,
and self-immolate on a pedal boat.
The manifestations of the giant baby’s diaper
are not getting any smaller.

Someone forgot to tell the tourists
that there is no there there.
Maybe they just didn’t bother to listen.
A lady in a muumuu and a sun hat
aligns her camera down Seventh Avenue,
statuesque against the ever-strengthening vibrations.
Her eyes gleam as she compares the filter options.
“Oh how ador—”

***

The Rose King
Roses the size of a child’s fist,
or of a very small man’s,
bloom on command
and sway their stems
in rhythmic waves
for my personal delight.
Extracting my deepest mercy
and benevolence like precious ore.

In this economy I buy roses in bulk;
filling every room in my house
with the shades of every stage of life.
I lay my favorites petal-facing at my feet,
in concentric circles of pink, red, and green.
I swear they squeak between my toes
in unprovoked rosy raptures.

***

Photo Evidence
The red house rested on spiky yellow grass
flaked with projectile nails, gravel, and glass.
Beer cans and a soleless shoe
fortressed the sewage drain
against a flat dome of brown leaves and black water.
The broken front window left by the other boys
welcomed you home,
neither knowing nor caring if you had ever left.

Light from the room upstairs
flickered in blue and throbbed in white.
It poured down the steps from under the door
as if to flee the swaying force of the shape—
her shape—leaving circles on the floorboards
and a stain on the walls
resistant to all bleaches, corrosives, and whitewash,
despite efforts of increasing fervency.

Empty frames hung at angles
fit for the photo evidence of the life you hadn’t lived.
Where the window was unbroken,
and the boys became cops on some invisible island.
And that smile—her smile—was a work of art.
The only art you would see; it being your turn to never get out alive.
The red house is still a red house—
red is red in spite of us.

***

Slow Dance
Time slows down to the purr of my keyboard
playing at three in the morning under hot red lights
pulsing to the pace of a sedated patient’s heart.
Mother always told me, “Put your fingers on the keys
as you would put your fingers on a corpse.
Let the notes take you on a journey.”
It helps that my keyboard is corpse-shaped.

By day I store my keyboard in a secret place.
And I sit awhile and tell my secrets to it.
It talks back in affirmations and stratagems;
it teaches me how to send messages to the stars.
“Mother, I never did learn how to fly,
but I am no longer afraid to fall.
Surely, finally, that has to be enough.”

Tears are foreign objects to my eyes
behind these checker-patterned shades.
The lights dim to a cold blue.
My fingers gleam like crooked knives.
“If you’ll please clear the floor,
this is a slow dance for divorcees only.
Divorcees who know what they did.”

***

Wild, Right?
THE NUMBER OF PEOPLE
WHO CARE THAT YOU SAW INTERPOL
AT GLASTONBURY IN 2005
IS ZERO: AS IN NO ONE.
TO AN ABSOLUTE QUANTIFIABLE CERTAINTY.

I WATCHED IT ON YOUTUBE FOR FREE
15 YEARS AFTER THE FACT.
WILD, RIGHT?
WHATEVER.

THE RIGHT TO DISAPPEAR COMPLETELY

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Note: This essay is a rewrite of an older one that no longer works and which has been bugging me for a while. Elements and whole passages have been carried over from the original post and expanded upon in a manner that I find more satisfactory. I have declined to link the original piece because I don’t feel like it.

On the few occasions when people saw Anthony and Andrew Johnson, they were always together, whether they were doing lawn work or shopping at the grocery store. They were twins, and they shared a home in the suburbs of Chattanooga, TN. That is the most anyone ever knew about them, for they were the type of people who mostly kept to themselves and whose window blinds were always down.

But people noticed when the house had become especially quiet, and the twins were not seen for longer periods. It was hard to tell what was going on. The grass was still being cut somehow; but mail delivery was discontinued. Soon after, the house went dark. In 2011, relatives sent police to do welfare checks. There was no answer but also no apparent urgency from the police or family members to gain entry into the house. It was not until March of 2014 when the skeletal remains of the Johnson twins were discovered, each seated in their easy chairs, suspected to have died three years earlier at 63-years-old.

The details were scant but sufficiently gothic to gain national coverage. People magazine reported the story as “strange, sad and macabre.” It was later that fall when the medical examiner’s report was made public and gave some clarity to their unusual situation. Andrew Johnson was a diabetic with visual impairment. Anthony took care of him, monitoring his glucose levels and administering his insulin injections. The time between their deaths is not known, but the autopsy report showed that Anthony died of heart disease, leaving behind his twin brother, who then died of diabetes.

By that point, interest in the story of the Johnson twins had faded. Though interest in that type of story remains. There is no lack of similar incidents making it to print or screen. Overlapping with the discovery of the Johnson twins was 44-year-old Pia Farrenkopf, whose mummified body was found in the garage of her foreclosed home in Pontiac, MI, having been dead for five years. This arguably received greater national attention, with Carmen Maria Machado writing about her in The New Yorker.

Both cases tell a similar story. The Johnsons and Farrenkopf lived in near-total isolation, estranged from family, no apparent friends, and minimally acquainted with their neighbors. But any deeper meaning is what you make of it. The Johnsons appear to be a warning to people who disconnect from relatives; though that leaves aside the complexities of who is disconnecting and why. For Machado, Farrenkopf was an extreme cautionary tale of our “institutional doppelgängers” and our dependence on technology. Though Farrenkopf’s life was over, her automatic mortgage and car payments, from a healthy bank account, continued.

This appears at first to be of a piece with recent trends in media consumption. The public taste for the macabre and the unseemly knows no depth. Consumers will explore the contours of murder, conspiracy, sexual violence, robbery, long cons, unexplained disappearances, illicit confessions, scandals of all kinds, dark desires, and beastly impulses at a frequency that verges on constant. Yet the stories of shut-ins do not match up with the trend upon further scrutiny.

The fascination over shut-ins predates the current frenzy over true crime. There has always been room in the public imagination for someone who has disappeared so completely from the public that the public hardly notices. It is the image of voluntary imprisonment: in a rent-controlled apartment or a dilapidated house, surrounded by walls of newspaper and empty takeout containers, walking over cat feces, and sitting in front of a TV that is never off.

Such stories, whether they are somber, well-wrought elegies in The New York Times Magazine or the more sensational fare of television shows like Hoarders, ostensibly present a mystery and stoke voyeuristic curiosity; but mostly they engender fear. This, these articles, shows, and documentaries assert, is what happens when you disengage and disconnect. You lose your energy and self-respect; you will be forgotten. It is less about what has happened to someone like a vaguely known stranger or a distant eccentric cousin, doubtless we all have those and they cannot be helped, and more about what may happen to you if you allow yourself to slip.

Even before the pandemic made shut-ins of all of us, there seemed like an urgency to make this point. We were becoming less dependent upon face-to-face interaction by the day. Some of us were becoming lazy, and others lonely; at least proving Machado’s Farrenkopf-inspired point that technology was cutting our traditional interpersonal relations by subtle increments.

***

All oversized civilizations succumb to decadence. Each form of decay is tailor-made based on the materials we provide it. Our civilization has provided for an especially tragic, retiring decadence. It is, perversely, an innovation. The power of the internet was thought to bring us together; in truth it allowed us to construct our own ghosts in advance. That is a dilemma well worth a jeremiad or two from a better equipped social critic; none so far has appeared. The shut-in exposés prove that much, being not at all compatible with, let alone instructive about, what ails civilization.

It is improper to speak with any completeness or authority for the shut-in or the recluse or to arrive conclusively at their motivations. No recluse is the same, even if they are presented almost identically in their coverage. Conveniently they are never around to speak for themselves. What I have to say is probably no more rarified a venture in speculation than the other attempts it follows. Still, it helps to clarify the error in conflating loneliness and social retreat with the more demanding act of voluntary disappearance. Loneliness, even prolonged loneliness, is a temporary condition, and its abjectness is already pretty apparent to the sufferer. Through self-mastery and therapy, the lonely may be able to cure themselves. Ultimately few if any lonely people are every truly shut-ins, and to say that shut-ins choose to shut in as we would choose a brand of coffee should not be the default conclusion.

Reclusion is a stronger vintage than loneliness. It is denial, often a sweeping and total one, of so many popular ideas of how life is lived that it very nearly approaches a calling infused with moral import. Reclusion is at the same time less clear cut in how it occurs. I prefer for my purposes to look at what it is the recluse denies. What follows, then, is what I consider essential rather than complete.

First are relationships. This is not to declaim unilaterally against platonic or romantic intimacy. The problem lies rather in the relationship as a lifestyle. To get on in the world it is important to have a group and to be seen with it; just as it is important to have a significant other and to be seen with them. Such arrangements confer upon the person a sense of cohesion with the social family. The recluse may not be malcontented by this in spirit, but it is not willingly entered into for some reasons that may be valid. The modern social life is vast and active at the expense of depth. Someone in the midst of it will feel connected and integral but will hardly remember it after the fact. At worst, there is a struggle to distinguish one friend from another, or to parse over the commonality one shares with a loved one only to come up slight or empty. The line between friendship and busywork dissolves in such situations.

Family, or lack thereof, is a recurring theme in shut-in stories, but addressed in the most general terms as to expose the type’s unhelpfulness outright. As each recluse is different so is the family from which they detach or are detached. Without concise data there is no way of understanding the dynamics each family bears upon the recluse. It is rather that we should not take for granted the indissolubility of the familial bond or that dissolution can or should always be mended. To withdraw from an intimate social connection, let alone a family, is not taken lightly by the withdrawer. Doubtless they know what they are losing; they’ve lived with it for long enough, have assessed it carefully, and assigned it a value that departs from the norm. There is no one conclusion for that valuation, and the burden of inquiry should not lean one way while the moral weight attached to it should lean another way.

Second is work. As with relationships, this is not a wholesale criticism of the work ethic. The work ethic suffers greatly in the new society, dominated as it is by the pure pursuit of money—or to use the politically correct understanding, a “career.” Such a pursuit may require one to work 10 jobs over the course of 15 years. One job may have no clear responsibilities while the next job might have numerous and conflicting responsibilities. Yet in each case there is demanded from the employee, whether overtly or subtly, a fealty to the employer and to the employee’s tasks that in all likelihood far exceeds that which was demanded from a vassal by his lord. The employee must go so far as to identify with the work even if the work is menial; not so much because the employer believes that is true—though in a startup-heavy environment that is a distinct possibility—but so as to assure the completion of the work. In the pursuit of accomplishment-driven endorphins, the employee is never hostile to meeting this demand at whatever expense and regardless of how low or high the pay rate.

Whether an abnegation or a demand of one’s energy and skill, this might not strike the recluse as a workable arrangement. They have no one way of earning income. True, some have the advantage of inherited funds that, when apportioned with extreme care, can prove sufficient for a long existence and require minimal supplementation. But others venture out from time to time to do odd jobs around their immediate community. Indeed, despite their self-imposed isolation, the spartan tendency of the recluse makes them more reliable to the community compared to the single striver of the wider world.

Third is civilization. Civilizations are not by their nature reflective. Had they been, no civilization would extend farther than a few square miles. It is left to the recluse to reflect, and the conclusion, as you might expect, departs from the norm. 

The recluse gets nowhere without being significantly at odds with the culture into which they are placed. It will have dawned on them that not only is the state of culture vacuous and debased, but totally antagonistic. It is not exactly an evil culture, but it is hard-hearted and lacks empathy. It rejects compassion and tolerance in favor of convenience and uniformity. There are two ways to live comfortably within it: to be infected by its ethos or to be devoured by those who already are. It occurs to the would-be recluse that there is a feeling of disdain from the culture toward them, that that feeling is mutual, and there is no possibility of compromise or closure. How long it takes to see those revelations depends upon the person, though it is almost always seen in that order.

Yet civilization does not take that rejection well. Pretty soon it loses patience with pathos and reverts very quickly to invective. The recluse is no longer a tragic figure, but an abscess: a fat, unkempt, sedentary, burdensome, vaguely humanoid organism. It bitterly shuns the entreaties of the mainstream way of life deep within the bowels of its parents’ basement. It subsists on a diet of Cheetos dust, much of it caked into its facial hair, while leaving the actual Cheetos for the spiders, centipedes, and crickets that make up its social circle.

***

The crisis of civilization: not a reflection, and not quite a point of decay. More accurately a signal, or a rallying cry against an encroaching threat of disintegration, whether real or perceived. If the recluse is in crisis, we cannot know it. How would we if we can’t see them and they won’t let us?

Consider that the recluse is not the one in crisis. Where does the true crisis lie? Habit leads us to a crisis of character or of values. Virtue has been made subservient to an especially domineering vice. We can, and we often do, play an endless game assigning roles in these particular thought-stories with a lot of amusement but illusive conclusion. Maybe these are true. But maybe these are comparably smaller residents under a larger, dome-like crisis: the crisis of perception.

“Dome” is an appropriate point of reference. Civilizations have a dome-like quality themselves. Constrictive but not uncomfortable; containing a co-citizenry of reliable familiarity. They are clutter to you and you are clutter to them. All well and good. Clutter is better than citizenry. It’s steady. It coheres. It is impartial, neither pleasant nor offensive. Gathering in increasing quantities but not overwhelming. It becomes an inseparable part of your world, an extension of who you are. To part with it, to be independent of it, is unthinkable. Clutter, like civilization, never has to justify itself or apologize. And few will miss it, whether in absence or abundance.

ON BEING CHAINSAW’D

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If the test of great art is not only in being able to challenge the imaginative and aesthetic limitations of its consumers but to do so over the course of multiple generations, it can’t be denied that Tobe Hooper’s breakthrough film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has passed both.

Since its conception and release nearly five decades ago, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has dominated over not only its succession of sequels, reboots, and sequels to those reboots, but its copious imitators, even its most credible challengers coming out of Australia. Not even Hooper’s subsequent films have ever matched its staying power and intensity.

This rare esteem is obvious to all who have seen even a little of it. Even, perhaps especially, by those who don’t like the film. It’s a film that commands disgust every bit as much as it commands awe; earning both consistently and in equal measure. From what sources does this power derive?

First from its strength as a sensory rather than a narrative film. It was less important to know why Hooper’s doomed characters were compelled to that part of Texas than to come away from the film with the nearest possible impression of being in that particular part of Texas at that particular time. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is the most pungent of films, the most restrictive of a viewer’s comfort. Its projection on whatever screen has a way of getting not just in your face, but onto and under your skin. The oppressive heat and sun of rural Texas, the barren end-of-civilization landscape, the rot of old abattoirs, the musk of unhinged hitchhikers, and the scent of unusual meats of uncertain origin, all weigh heavily upon the viewer. And this is all before anything actually happens. Before the chainsaws can rev, the stench and the heat, and other accentuated dreads, are the film’s greatest weapons.

It stinks and yet is beautiful at the same time. If The Texas Chainsaw Massacre does have a true peer, it is not found in Halloween or in Hostel or in Wolf Creek, but in Badlands, released a year before The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Both Hooper’s and Malick’s films are minimalistic and meditative at their core. They are fascinated by the overwhelming and uncompromising landscape of the American frontier and the violence it fosters. Though Badlands is epic and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is claustrophobic, both seek to capture something of the American soul.

I don’t know what Badlands has to say about the American soul, as I never saw the end of the film. What The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has to say of it is clear enough on first viewing, but helpfully clarified with the second, third, fourth, and eleventh viewing: that humans have a preference for chainsawing over being chainsawed.

Now if I went only by simple intuition, this theme of the film would stand out a little bit beneath its other traits. But setting that aside and only considering raw experience, which lacks in anything related to chainsaws, the film’s persuasive power on that point is unmistakable and unavoidable. And the force of clarity on which this point hinges in the film is all the more admirable. It wastes no time in putting across how unideal having the chain end of a chainsaw directed into your person looks and feels. If you were not so assured on that point going into the film you are not likely to stay that way coming out of it.

In The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the undesirability of being chainsawed is actually the crux of an entire worldview. One aversion is followed by a host of subsidiary aversions. Humans are not inclined to being hung upon hooks by the back or neck. They are not partial to being kept in freezers, even if their frames are compatible with its dimensions. They would prefer the contents of their gravesites, or the gravesites of their loved ones, to be kept below rather than above ground. And the notion of their meat and ligaments being used for sustenance or their bones for home décor does not appeal to them. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre entered the American collective consciousness with a particular message. What great fortune that it was receptive to that message.

All this, however, is to overlook another test of great art that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has so far not had to undergo.

Cultural moods are ever shifting, and never in any predictable pattern. Art is seldom truly timeless, and to aim for timelessness first is not an impulse I’d encourage. Those works are boring, without risk, and, ironically, forgotten. Works of art submit themselves wholly and unreservedly to the finicky, anxious temper of the public while only being able to say so much to it. A work of art that speaks from its circumstances and which also withstands a turn against them by subsequent consumers is worthy of endurance in the public imagination.

Though the ebb and flow of mass taste is unknown to us, we can’t take for granted that the views espoused in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre will hold in perpetuity. It isn’t impossible that Americans may develop a more positive attitude toward being chainsawed and all the related experiences the film’s protagonists rejected but could not avoid. Such a shift is out of the hands of the film’s admirers and other people who generally agree with its message. And that it may fail this important test is no small source of anxiety. It is to imagine a wholly different film.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre draws much of its impact not from its violence but from the happenstance collision of opposed worlds. A world free of chainsaws stumbles into a world that is full of them. Neither were so aware of each other that enmity between them was a forgone conclusion. In fact, there may not have been any, just a reflexive attitude born out of specific conditions locked in place, as if stuck on a loop. But there was so little opportunity or ability for understanding that, tragically, no more pleasant outcome was workable. Under reversed moral precepts, the accidental collision becomes intentional. People come in from all directions to undergo the Leatherface experience. Countless young travelers leaping into his roaring blades.

The effect of that shift would have significant if presently intangible implications on the original vision of the film. We must be realistic, but not fatalistic. We must not drift from the spirit of horror which, despite some trends detouring to the contrary, is the most optimistic of the speculative genres. Through it, all of our most intense impulses our enabled, our darkest instincts are confirmed, secrets practically throw themselves at us. Even meat has a purpose.

LEARNED WELLNESS

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During a Blackout, the participant (let’s call them the “subject”) is forced down a dark hallway, often restrained and blindfolded, where at the end of it they are pinned down by two performers, one of which is holding what looks like a tattoo needle. Here the subject is to receive their brand, that signifies not just that they participated in Blackout but that they are a part of Blackout. After which, they are shoved out of as roughly as they were pulled into the disclosed location where Blackout takes place, sometimes without pants. The brand is actually three small black dots, a somewhat appropriate ellipsis, placed on the face or neck. One post-Blackout subject proudly points to the brand on his forehead. The spare minimalism of the gesture, not slight but pointed and confident, only intensifies its visual impact. That is until the subject admits that the “brand” is applied by Sharpie. That makes sense from a legal liability standpoint, though it was still disappointing to hear. Much about Blackout is.

This process is depicted in The Blackout Experiments, a 2016 documentary that goes behind and directly into the scenes that take place in Blackout. The acts undertaken are many and perhaps not easy for all to stomach: suffocation, visual and aural sensory overload, simulated burial, simulated drowning, simulated murder, manhandling of all varieties, and an inescapable sense of dread right before and well after a Blackout has been completed. Yet one Blackout turns into another, and then into several. Soon it assumes something approaching a lifestyle with group meetings and private invitations to more exclusive, and of course more extreme, experiences. If you, obviously normal well-adjusted person, cannot tell if this is good or bad, you can rest easy knowing that the participants can’t seem to tell either.

Blackout at first is similar to the extreme haunts that dot the national map every October. Like the extreme haunts, Blackout has a complicated admission process. Prospective participants are screened physically and psychologically beforehand. Those selected are required to sign a release form absolving Blackout of responsibility for any injuries sustained during the experience. Then they are sent an email providing only a time and a location. Once they arrive and are pulled behind the door everything is out of their hands. But unlike extreme haunts, Blackout occurs year-round, mainly in Los Angeles but also in New York City. It waives the typical extreme haunt aesthetics of made-up monsters and horror narratives in favor of a stripped-down approach: plastic wrap, duct tape, restraints, wooden boards, and black hoods. The experience is something of a tapestry of brutality: the immersive theater of Sleep No More, the in-your-face performance art of Chris Burden, a little Gestalt therapy here, a little BDSM there, and you start to get the general idea. Blackout does not utilize fear for thrills, as an extreme haunt might, but tries to reach a point that goes beyond fear, and beyond pain, for a deeper purpose.

There are those who like pain for its own sake, which is straightforward and probably understood more widely than is admitted, and those who need pain in order to alleviate pre-existing pain, which is a more complicated matter. Blackout, at least as the documentary presents it, derives its controversy and its intense following by attracting those who are decidedly the latter type. One man has both lingering anxiety from being jumped and robbed by three men and dependencies on following the rules and the validation of others. One woman is a recovering inhalant addict. Another woman has a history of sexual abuse. Another man has obsessive-compulsive disorder. These and a very small core of others, who call themselves “survivors,” have experienced Blackout so often as to develop an obsession around it.

The Blackout Experiments has been poorly received by critics and online commenters. Part of it being from confusion as to whether it is real or fictional. These days anyone can whip up “found footage” with nothing more than fake blood, bad lighting, an eyeless doll, and a GoPro. Certainly some of the stunts depicted during filmed Blackouts tax credulity. There’s something that is at once so awkward and stilted in the setup and so unhinged in conception as to give the impression of being staged at every point. Among the most extreme acts is putting survivors in a room with a half-naked, sobbing woman. Another man comes in and restrains the survivor while giving them a pistol and screaming at them until they shoot the woman. Survivors also live under the belief that Blackout tampers with their daily lives, leaving things in their homes and putting words like “ABANDON” into their phone contacts. The documentary goes to some length to suggest that their paranoia is valid. Survivors even come to believe that even the documentary is another experience concocted by Blackout.

But Blackout is real, and you don’t need to consult Wikipedia to confirm it. You can see it on the survivors’ faces. The documentary does not focus on any Blackout detractors as there is more than enough ambivalence coming from devotees. The pistol stunt, and other instances where subjugation becomes perpetration, leaves survivors visibly disturbed, even betrayed. These are not the typical costumed thrill-seekers who pour into McKamey Manor every Halloween season. At some point, you begin to wonder if this functions like a kind of harem of violence, wherein the producers of Blackout string the survivors along, goading them into more intolerable extremes. Such seems the case when they invite the documentarians to film a newly developed experience, the location of which is “unique.”

Unique indeed: it is the survivors’ own homes. Each one sits in their darkened living room and waits for the performers to arrive, clad in black and wearing balaclavas. They put a hood over the survivor, lay them on the floor, yelling “WHAT DO YOU WANT?” right into their faces. For every inevitable wrong answer, they waterboard them. For the better part of a night, they taunt and threaten the survivor all over their home, largely in their shower, until they lay them on their bed, have them recite the original disclaimer while having them add that they no longer need Blackout because Blackout has cured them of the very condition(s) that brought them there to begin with. Then it’s over. Mixed feelings abound yet again, followed by the quiet acceptance that, yeah, maybe they are.

The twist reveal of “snuff therapy”—or perhaps “learned wellness”—should not have surprised. We are well past the point of complaint for how therapy infects everything or that no one involved in Blackout appears to have anything approaching a therapeutic qualification. It is nonetheless not what I would consider an ideal use of its resources, its imagination, or its energy.

There are appropriate places to register ambiguity over the value of cruelty as an expressive, let alone therapeutic, mode. This place shall not be one for the time being, or maybe ever. Let us imagine a situation in which psychological betterment through cruelty does not take precedence over other forms of betterment through cruelty. At least this once.

An interesting thing about the human spirit is that it doesn’t take much effort to break it. Loneliness breaks the human spirit quite well, as does deprivation, abandonment, isolation, and rejection. All of which have a very passive, low-key style but which may have farther-reaching consequences than anything dreamt up by Blackout’s theater kid vanguard. And that is only the foundation.

Not caring is the skeleton key of evil. Not that horror is much interested in using it. Fair enough. It was always of greater advantage to reach those for whom every day is Halloween as opposed to those for whom one day of Halloween is not enough. Blackout’s therapeutic torture porn merely echoes the dismal tedium of its fictional Bush-era predecessor. Moralistic torture porn is better suited to embrace the less accessed route and profit by it. I have said this all before, though the faults of Blackout inspire me to revive what I said. When I proposed the “empathy room,” I had the deprivation-sourced horror firmly in mind, as provided by the asylum system of old, an oft-exploited but not completely understood phenomenon in the genre:

We cannot, of course, reproduce the effects of mental illness, but we can reproduce the schematics with which abnormal behavior has long been contained. Here one will not find recreations of brutal quackery, but instead the ever-present habits of institutional indifference such as clerical incompetence, negligent quality of life, impossibly disproportionate workloads, treatment as discipline and convenience rather than rehabilitation, extended isolation, and all the psychological effects that flow from them. At any given time patrons will either experience this from the view of the patient or the caretaker, not unlike the Stanford prison experiment but with the institutional rot more or less built in.

Horror has always been a bit solipsistic. It’s always about what’s haunting you, what’s pursuing you, what’s dismembering you. This “experience” focuses instead on the horror of them, whoever they are. Consider the waterboarding incident in the at-home Blackout. It was not in itself objectionable, just ill-used. Volunteering for such an act, even by implication, has a diminished value when others were subjected to it for far longer, to no clear practical end, in the name of millions of faraway people, and without their consent or any guarantee of trust or safety. Maybe the entire extreme haunt industry loses potency when one remembers all the tax dollars that have gone into the building of extreme haunts in less friendly markets but with far more rigorous amenities. Where some people are doing too much, you find others are actually doing too little.

This is to imagine an uncommon mode of horror: one that brings people together in bondage of suffering. This is not so much pushing beyond fear as returning to it and enflaming it. Fear as a shared experience; humanism in a dark state of play. It may moreover invite a nuanced understanding of sadism. Sadism has a spectrum. I haven’t quite figured out the points of the spectrum, but I hardly think it discounts one’s sanity to propose its existence. Sadism may not be a form of caring, but if not-caring spreads far enough and becomes entrenched enough, sadism is a viable next-best-thing. You best get sadism with a waiver.

NOTES ON A DISASTERPIECE

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Independence Day is an admirable film, and admirable in a way that is distinct from the film’s objective quality, which is not great. There are, for example, a few films that are objectively good but which I do not find worth admiring: Barcelona, Tree of Life, Joker. And there are plenty more objectively bad films that are as unworthy of admiration as you’d expect: Dune, The Lord of the Rings, The Rise of Skywalker. Independence Day is triumphant amid all these tragic examples. That is to say, it allocates its resources to achieve its singular task with the utmost, some might say ruthless, efficiency.

This is to say that Independence Day is an action blockbuster par excellence. Like all action blockbusters, it brings a latent fear to the surface and allays it within a consumable span of time—in this case a little over two hours. The fear in question being that of dominance by an advanced species. Independence Day is neither the first nor the best film to address this fear. It exists in between classics like 1988’s The Live and 1997’s Starship Troopers who each address the fear head-on. In They Live, Earth is another planet’s third-world country. In Starship Troopers, humanity is another planet’s invader. But They Live’s invader is covert where Independence Day’s is overt; and Starship Troopers is satirical while Independence Day is earnest. Independence Day is not interested in thought experiments. It wants to appease an audience’s desire: death and destruction at an inconceivable scope. And its brutality plays no insignificant part in its success.

A scene that best exemplifies this vision—and which has never left my mind since I first saw the film in theaters when I was 12—happens right before the carnage begins, concluding what feels like an endless buildup. One of the grim, castle-like flying saucers hovers over Los Angeles, positioning its center over the US Bank Tower. Many festive Angelenos converge on its roof having decided that the unambiguously ominous outer space incursion is worth celebrating. They wear alien costumes and carry signs that obviously no one on the ship can or wants to see reading “TAKE ME WITH YOU” or “MAKE YOURSELVES AT HOME.” A glow emerges from the ship. Its center slowly opens up revealing a massive cone-shaped contraption. It powers up with another glorious light display. A beam shoots down, followed by a sharp burst directed dead-center onto the roof. The revelers, the first mass casualties, are gone in an instant, vaporized and ignorant of the wider extermination that followed.

It is curious why the film localized the scene to Los Angeles as if to be a unique quality. Maybe there really are more emotionally stunted people there on average compared to other American cities, but that seems presumptuous. In any case, the message of Independence Day is clear: irony is a death sentence. The scale of the conflict will have wrought deaths in the billions. Mourning literally every single one would drive any surviving memorial sculptor to madness. Some names will have to be omitted. The irony-poster, past and present, can never be remembered sincerely, and the world of Independence Day is post-ironic with a vengeance.

There is something truthful, if not exactly accurate, in the depiction of that world. Independence Day is a post-ironic masterpiece, at once a fantasy and a lucid anxiety dream for the neocolonialist in all of us. All civilizations dream of the power to acquire the goods of their lessers with time to spare and unburdened of such niceties as “asking permission,” even as we fear an advanced invader who has that same power, who cares nothing for us and wants us out of the fucking way. But don’t worry, says the film! The invaders are just a cold monoculture, devoid of both individual autonomy and communal fellow-feeling. They are all strategy and no heart. Very much unlike humanity, and Americans specifically, who have heart and strategy in balanced proportion, the compound by which all meaningful victories—to say nothing of profits—are achieved. At least at the time.

Timing, more than brutality, was the greatest benefit of Independence Day. That much is clear 25 years later, after which its wear-and-tear is more evident. The visuals are derivative, the special effects are lackluster, the cast is wildly overqualified, the patriotic message sounds like it applies to a smaller, less interesting country. Action blockbusters are still made, and at a more rapid pace, but the prime is past. 1996 is not 2021. Confidence in institutions, though sometimes professed otherwise, was not as low as it is now; the probability of internal and external widescale conflict was not as high. You can overcome just about anything only when there is nothing to overcome. You can fill a horizon with whatever you wish only when there is nothing coming over on it.

What is the value of this discourse, though, other than to make plain that mindlessness is not the sin of the action blockbuster? Mindlessness is the default requirement. For to have a mind—that is, to be cognizant of everything there is to fear—is to have nothing. And all we have to fear is feared ironically.