Black Ribbon Award

Month: October, 2016

IN THE LAND OF THE UNEXPECTED

unexpected_111_912.jpgWhen endeavoring to tackle promise and its discontents, there is that obligation which borders on ritual to pay homage to the words of Cyril Connolly on that very subject. “Those whom the Gods would destroy,” he wrote in his treatise cum confessional, Enemies of Promise, “they first call promising.” Cyril Connolly never met an embodiment of tragic irony he didn’t like, chief among them taking a lifetime of personal disappointment and retconning it into a high priesthood of highbrow scribblers, and a patron sainthood of failure itself. Second to that was probably turning a steady and respectable duel career of elegant occasional writer and savvy magazine steward into a shameful afterthought. Perhaps, assuming push notifications can reach beyond the grave, Mr. Connolly would appreciate the ensuing irony of my denying him his dishonorable honor altogether.

Mind you, I seek not so much as to entomb Connolly’s words as to push them by the wheelchair into the toiletries closet for the better part of an afternoon to air out the musk. Certainly beneath the drama there is wisdom, such as the fact that high expectations alone do not engender greatness; indeed, they retard it. If they convey any notion that greatness requires work they do not convey the energy and focus to get it done. Nor do they adequately prepare the promising for the inevitable push and pull of adulthood, chiefly the lure of “creative industry” away from “art.” But in the end, Connolly’s wisdom is about as beneficial as the expectation he railed against when put into service to his own dilemma. I, in all my refined education and natural intellect, could not achieve what was expected of me, and so as Lucifer, I opt to reign in Hell.

However richly expressed it was, however deftly he brought his talents to bear on the faults of promise, there is at the center of his project a finely sculpted humblebrag. Desiring to cut down the ego at the knees, it only allowed the ego to simply sprout longer, sturdier shins. A failed genius is no less a genius, and he or she will dip into that brilliance to procure whatever validating amenities are within grasp, whether in booze, bylines, or beds. The failed genius schleps expended promise around as a hobo would a bindle, but acts it out with the gravity of a haunting war memory. Self-pity takes shelter with a simplistic binary vision of art split between hackwork and masterpiece, and life split between conclusive defeat and certain victory. It is possibly an amusing spectacle for those who have the time and patience to watch it.

This rigid conceit above all rests on the assumptions that everyone likes to hear such ghost stories, that promise is a monolith, and that promise is either distributed equally throughout or that those who get the most of it are the ones who matter.

Sitting alone in my off-campus house 10 years ago, on the verge of graduating, and having opted to sit out the senior trip to Ocean City, Maryland—or Ocean City, New Jersey—I had resolved to reinvent myself. Maybe “reinvent” is too strong a term, but the feeling of the moment and the memory of it now do not belie the sense that some variant of transformation had been initiated. My time at college, up until that point, had been one of ambivalence at best. It would be wrong to say that I was aimless; I loathed classes, but I wrote plays and co-edited the campus newspaper with a marked intensity, granted one that was not always to its benefit. Still, I was unfocused and with an interest that was keen in fits and starts, a dilemma parented by growing up in a culture that treated college as a means to an end and having undertaken it with minimal overhead direction. It was a rut, which I had managed to dig myself out of one spring evening by resolving to start what would eventually become Biopsy magazine.

I’m well aware that constantly circling back to that four-issue ‘zine is probably met with increasing annoyance, especially from readers who have not seen it (and there are many). But I cannot, at the same time, just deny its catalytic role in my development. Indeed, I’m convinced that had prior circumstances been in any way different, it would never have come to pass as it has, if it would have at all.

For much of my education, the term “writer” had been brandied about by various authority figures in reference to me. But ironically the term had an ill-defined character to it whenever it rolled off their tongues. No one quite understood how it related to me. And perhaps here, I am at fault. True enough I had a way with words that was, I suppose, noteworthy. This wasn’t so bad for fellow students who minded such things, but it caused the administration confusion for the most part, as it didn’t translate into noteworthy grades (solid B’s) or test scores (900 SAT, both times). I have a learning disability that required me to learn how to read in a roundabout way and which still afflicts me with an aversion to doing even simple math competently. “Special education” has improved by leaps and bounds over the decades, of course, but even then I had the sense of being shooed off into the corner in favor students with better data sets. Rightly or wrongly, it’s an attitude that carried over into my time at college, a small liberal arts operation that for unrelated reasons shall remain nameless.

A life led with little to no expectation of success, broadly speaking, is met with a bitterness at first that is understandable. How best is one to accept the reality that one is neither abject nor prized? It feels like a heavy cloud that dampens with a wholly arbitrary humidity. At every moment it hovered over me where it was clear that there was a standard of excellence and that I was often not meeting it. For much of the time, I dealt with it through sheer indifference. Why strain myself when there is no worthwhile endgame? With some exceptions, what was given me was not very interesting, so it was when I was left to my own devices (discovering Might magazine on Wikipedia, if you want to be specific) that it occurred to me that I was not cursed or burdened, but was quite possibly given the mother of all meal tickets.

Lovers of freedom tend to find easier comfort in the kind that is taken over the kind that is given. The convict released from prison or the nation swept of its tyranny each have ends too wide open for most people’s liking. The convict will right himself or will relapse, the nation will reorder or it will descend into chaos. But these are just murkier tales of the expected. People think very little of the kind of freedom that is just lying around because it is often just “waste” or “surplus.” But such is what ends up in the hands of those from whom nothing is expected. Those whose slates were left clean by others can now be dirtied themselves. Those from whom nothing is expected become simply the unexpected.

At the heart of Connolly’s “burden of expectation” is a reverence, possibly even a fetishization, of authority. It is the critic’s dilemma, the paralysis that asserts itself in anticipation of judgment, or the fits that overtake when one’s thirst for judgment cannot be quenched. It is a disaster that wills itself. The titular hero of Inside Llewellyn Davis, for instance, has a deeply wrought artistic standard which he imposes on his peers while cultivating a sublime genius for chastisement, rejection, and back-alley pummeling. When one is unexpected, however, one learns to cast off the obligation to heed a judging overseer because the judging overseers have turned their sights away. One could become the murderer they vaguely pegged one as and they would be neither richer nor poorer for it; or one could sharpen their instincts and pool their own resources to seek their own logical and more fruitful conclusions. Imagine accepting mediocrity and never hearing Pacific Northwest grunge. Imagine heeding the judgments from above and never living below Canada.

But even a foundling freedom is an imperfect freedom, and Connolly-esque caution is, in the end, a useful piece of observance. It is not hard for the unexpected to embrace an individualism that corrodes into solipsism. Refusing to impose their standards on others, they turn as far inward as they can. Having been overlooked in one place, they fear both interest and ignorance everywhere else. Every instance that standard goes unmet creates deep laceration that will be picked at in perpetuity. Every outside response is either unfettered worship or unforgivable betrayal. The unexpected secede into a territory where they are more prone to distraction and misjudgment. They can be caught up in the thrill of action while neglecting the balance of meditation. Both are needed to pierce through cloudy disappointment that shades a many-colored wonder.

 

NIGHT TIME IN AMERICA

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James Parker earned a bit of internet side-eye when, in the October issue of The Atlantic, he ventured to liken the character of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign to the career of the Sex Pistols. Trump, he writes, “has co-created a space in American politics that is uniquely transgressive, volatile, carnivalesque, and (from a certain angle) punk rock”:

He’s done it by harping on America’s most conservative intuitions … while addressing us in a style that thrillingly breaches every convention of political presentation. It’s as if the Sex Pistols were singing about law and order instead of anarchy, as if their chart-busting (banned) single, “God Save the Queen,” were not a foamingly sarcastic diatribe but a sincere pledge of fealty to the monarch. Electrifying!

The ire, or in any case the irritation, was justified to an extent. To find no daylight between an early punk band, which performed from the River Thames on the titular monarch’s silver jubilee, and a nascent office-seeker, who mocks the disabled at rallies, almost entirely on the virtues of their being vulgar and contrarian seemed a lazy angle from a sharp pop culture writer who knows better.

But I say “to an extent” because Parker was wrong mostly in the particulars. Pointing out the cultic populism of punk and the occasionally subversive messaging of politicians are not novel insights, but expressed in the right way they are passable rhetorical firecrackers for lagging table talk. If the comparison tells us anything about what we’re dealing with, however, it is found beneath the spectacle. If Parker wanted to make more than just a pyrotechnical display he would have placed firmer emphasis on the fact that, like Trump, the Sex Pistols were a chaotic and undisciplined unit. Parker mentions this but only in the positive, overlooking that the band had virtually no chemistry, clashed often, and imploded early. Like Trump, the Sex Pistols were a kind of assemblage project by opportunistic holdovers from an earlier generation, just switch in Roger Stone for Malcolm McLaren, which again Parker mentions mostly as a positive. And so, like Trump, the Sex Pistols themselves were not strictly true believers in the cause they were fomenting. The Sex Pistols weren’t really a very good or interesting band left to their own devices. In fact most people who saw the Sex Pistols play didn’t so much see a band as four blank spaces on a stage they thought they could fill just as if not more ably. That last point is somewhat significant.

If all the indicators of Trump’s doom—the sinking poll numbers, the impulse-driven strategy, the impolite utterances, etc.—do, in fact, doom him, then many would likely hope that that would be the end of it. That from November through into the winter, talk of Trump or what Trump did or did not stand for will deplete until the ascending Clintonian matriarchy becomes the gravitational stabilizer of the national conversation. This is foreseeable in the short term, provided other scenarios (“vote rigging”) fail to launch. But to hold that out over the long haul is less feasible. Laughable as it may be to return to the Sex Pistols, here they are the most helpful.

There was a cultural moment in the United Kingdom between 1978 and, say, 1982 or 1983 that was characterized by a kind of ritual iconoclasm. It wasn’t the simple matter of a band imploding and leaving behind a rudimentary blueprint; it was that the blueprint had to be redrawn almost completely. “Punk enabled you to say ‘fuck you’, but somehow it couldn’t go any further,” Factory Records founder Tony Wilson said. “Sooner or later someone was going to want to say more than ‘fuck you.’ Someone was going to want to say ‘I’m fucked.’” In that short period, sophistication, intellectual rigor, and high art were brought into punk, while retaining punk’s anti-art core. The barbarian outlanders had discovered brutalism. Leading the charge was, as it happens, John Lydon whose Public Image Limited sought to undo nearly all he had done as singer of the Sex Pistols. “The whole first wave of punk, it was a bit like a boy band,” Killing Joke’s Jaz Coleman said, “but then after the masquerade there was something real and tangible that was left and came through from that.”

Killing Joke, founded in London in 1978, was just as much a byproduct of this moment, but was kept at a remove early on. Unlike a lot of their peers, they did not abandon the root punk sound—loud, distorted chords, guttural vocals, staccato lyrics—in earnest. In many ways they doubled down on it. Reviewing a show the band had played with Joy Division in 1980, NME’s Paul Morley wrote that “Killing Joke were the worst, heroically adding nothing at all to the latent seventies post punk beats and bashings.” As Joy Division’s self-appointed mythologizer, Morley seems to have been saying that Killing Joke were insufficiently cerebral for the temper of the times. On the first point, Killing Joke were not inclined to argue. But they were certainly neither behind nor outside of the times. If anything they were more in tune with it.

Punk’s confrontation with the Cold War was more diverse than it is given credit for. The Sex Pistols were sardonic and shallow, yes, but Magazine were ambivalent, This Heat! were oblique, Gang of Four were danceably partisan, and Crass were crass. But what unites these bands is the sense that the Cold War was mostly an inconvenience, something they had to address out of a kind of anxious obligation. Not so for Killing Joke, who saw their concept as a direct outpouring of the conflict and what they thought was its logical end. With Killing Joke, Coleman sought “to define the exquisite beauty of the atomic age in terms of style, sound, and form.” In Killing Joke’s music, the Cold War was less of a world event than it was a condition unto itself that required a psychological mindset and even an emotional investment to bear its myriad fallouts. This was music for people who “don’t think they’re going to survive the next 10 years.”

If there is a near-perfect demonstration of this aesthetic, it is the band’s second album What’s THIS for …!. Released four years after Never Mind the Bollocks, Killing Joke stripped down the funereal, almost metallic, synth-driven sound of their debut to deliver a refinement of the Sex Pistols’ classic almost beat for beat. If the Sex Pistols’ aggression was played with winking, contemptuous detachment, Killing Joke would play it in earnest, infused with menace and shell shocked resignation. “Forests are falling there’s smoke in my throat/Machine over man and the mass over mind/Reassurance from face on my screen,” Coleman sings on “Butcher.” “Out of the virus immunity comes.” The album is a leaner, cleaner work, not cold but focused, even when songs stretch beyond the five-minute mark not a note is wasted. Geordie Walker’s guitar is as sharp as it is catchy, showing what The Edge would sound like if he didn’t need effects. Paul Ferguson’s drums pound with the precise fury of a depleting magazine. And Coleman’s vocals replace Lydon’s dismissive snarls with State of Emergency declamation. What Morley heard as derivative could just as plausibly be heard as a resolution of discipline and craft with a messianic vision. So messianic, in fact, that Coleman famously quit the band in 1982 and moved to Iceland to wait out the coming annihilation, and also to delve into the occult.

Returning to Parker’s analogy, what does this tell us? Not much, admittedly. My politician remains a hypothetical; but for one to come onto the scene in the wake of Trump’s mess and reassemble it more elegantly is not something that should be so easily written off. He or she will undoubtedly see Trump’s campaign as a catalyst, but less as something to emulate and more as something to apply a deeper, more committed moral and political framework. Where Trump applies brashness, he or she will recast it in eloquence. Where Trump boldly shocks, he or she will subtly menace. Where Trump parrots superficial sentiments, he or she will arrive having long plumed the depths of the constituency’s collective psyche, and will not just placate, but persuade and perhaps direct. And where Trump is impulsive and off the cuff, he or she will be strategic, efficient, and clear, and will garner respect from it. Yet his or her vision will still be irrational overall, if not out and out apocalyptic then certainly thriving in likeminded moods, of facing down oncoming crises and existential threats; of decrying a sickness’s hues and lesions but not endeavoring for its cure.

How this plays out long term is just as hypothetical, but unlike the Sex Pistols, Killing Joke had staying power. Their work varied in quality over the years but has had both unusual resilience and influence. “There are thousands of people who are Killing Joke fans, but aren’t even aware of it,” Adrien Begrand wrote in Pop Matters. If the Sex Pistols have a wider influence it is mostly as a beta test, while Killing Joke’s own descendants—Metallica, Godflesh, Ministry, Nine Inch Nails, Big Black, Nirvana, and so on—spend whole careers trying to replicate their intensity. (In the case of Nirvana, quite literally.)

This case, I admit, rests on a lot of assumptions, both hopeful and dismal; and its being framed in this way possibly betrays a shallowness of thought. After all, no one who knows culture needs to be reminded of punk’s evolution, nor does anyone who knows politics need to be reminded of the sustenance of Trumpism over time. And I can say precious little of how specific policy points under Trump’s umbrella will dominate or cohere—such as Daniel McCarthy’s libertarian noninterventionism besting John Bolton’s redemptive violence.

Even if this case is as wrong in the particulars as Parker’s, I find it necessary to instill in as many people as will listen the general idea that, while so much still hangs in the balance, both in the remaining weeks of the election and just over the horizon, it’s worth calling upon a unifying faith in which very little, perhaps nothing at all, will be foreseeably better. To the extent that it can get worse is not for me to say. But something is calling for a new mindset as events trudge forward, one of caution and psychological preparation rather than one of hope, which now seems a more entitled posture than pessimism. If this was the subtlety of Parker’s piece that he was either unable or unwilling to divine for us, well, he can thank me at his leisure.

THE EMPATHY ROOM

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October is the peak month for thrill seeking, or at least thrill seeking of a kind. And certainly for the fan of horror there is no better time. We are reminded of it through the instantaneous sprouting up of “haunted house” amusement parks the nation over. Every year, it seems, each one tries to outdo the other—and certainly themselves—in delivering the most visceral scares that blur the line between the cinematic and the real. Some places test the boundaries more than others. But for some even this is not sufficient for their needs. Inevitably even the most psychologically nimble of these roadside attractions have a very middlebrow appeal, leaving some thirsty for the desire to be frightened in a more authentic manner. And those with an added adventurous compulsion know precisely where to look.

In Brad Anderson’s elegantly economic 2001 cult horror film Session 9, a HAZMAT crew is hired to rid the long-closed Danvers State Mental Hospital in Massachusetts of its asbestos. Cash-strapped with a new baby and competing with other bids, the leader of the five-person crew (Peter Mullan) pledges to clean the 700,000 sq. ft. building in one week. As the film progresses, it becomes abundantly clear that that estimate will not be met for reasons other than lopsided logistics. I admit that’s a simplistic gloss, but Session 9, like most good horror films, is ever at the mercy of its atmospherics. And while this film has been little seen over 15 years, its few viewers hold it as an exceptional case, and not without justice.

Session 9 was filmed on location at the Danvers complex, or at least those few parts where it was safe to film. Anderson used this space very wisely, almost entirely relying on natural light and shadow to set his mood. One of the most memorable scenes has a nyctophobic crewmember frantically trying to outrun the encroaching darkness of an underground tunnel as each light behind him goes out. Though this was not the first horror film to be set in a mental health institution, this was one of several horror films that came in the wake of The Blair Witch Project’s innovative and effective use of natural and abandoned space within notable budget strictures. Yet even compared to both predcessor and successors, the film is an aesthetic marvel, not merely because it is not in the found footage mold, but because it seems to have studied most carefully how to reproduce the realistic gothic of “urban exploration” photography onto moving film.

Humanity is ever trying to work through its complex and not altogether rational relationship to place. Urban exploration is one of that tendency’s more popular outcomes, proliferating throughout the ‘00s as the internet was able to accommodate it more and more. In some ways it has been instrumental, such as in documenting the decline of the rust belt. The website Detroiturbex, for instance, applied it most powerfully when they took photos of an abandoned Detroit high school and fit photos from its yearbooks that matched the rooms they shot. But urban exploration sits in the cloudy limbo above hobby and just below legitimate art. Its aesthetic tics are fairly uniform with no individual luminaries readily standing out, save maybe some popular websites; from this the more critical designation “ruins porn” becomes clear. It is an obsessive’s medium, and it is nowhere more evident than in the attention it gives to abandoned mental health asylums.

From a purely aesthetic perspective, photographing asylums makes sense. These secluded eyesores of institutional uselessness practically beckon extensive, often haunting, documentation. And they are not without their teachable moments of an ongoing habit of overlapping social services with warehousing. Yet that is not quite the end that is achieved. While photographers, familiar with a building’s contours and dangers, may grasp its historical context, a good portion of their audience are likely not as privy, perhaps even willfully so. Whereas one can mildly despair at a dilapidated school or house, or become awed by the decay of a once-great factory, an asylum’s link to a specialized kind of suffering is more inclined to stir the imagination than sober reflection. While one could generously find wonder in channeling the creative prowess through the sighting of a single broken wheelchair, empty hydrotherapy tubs, or a legless doll, the overall effect is one of collective voyeurism and projection ex post facto.

Rigid moralist that I am, I have tried to lay blame on this phenomenon but with imprecise results. It’s difficult to scold a film as good as Session 9 and loop it in with the scores of far worse ones that have come in its wake. Calling for the ban, and even the limp criticizing, of “ghost hunting” shows, which only enable morbid fantasy, is a similarly foolish undertaking. There requires a certain dynamism in addressing the woefully learned lessons of mental illness, and of suffering generally. Indeed, using the models already in place, appropriating their means for markedly if not wildly different ends, will allow for such a redress to be undertaken. More to the point, we’ll be applying all of the existing models.

Last October, demolition for the Greystone Park Psychiatric Center was completed after six months. Built in 1876, it was the second mental health facility in the state of New Jersey, following the New Jersey State Lunatic Asylum in Trenton, the overpopulation of which Greystone had been built to alleviate. Like Danvers and Trenton, it followed the unnervingly bat-like scheme of the Kirkibride model, though in the annals of asylum history, Greystone’s reputation is comparably mundane. Trenton, for instance, had been run for over 20 years by Dr. Henry Cotton, who believed mental illness was a physical symptom and racked up an egregious mortality rate performing unnecessary surgical removals of teeth, tonsils, spleens, colons, ovaries, etc. Greystone’s decline was a gradual and entirely predictable one, within 20 years of its opening, the hospital was overcrowded, and it remained so even as the complex was expanded to house patients in the thousands. A modern facility was built behind the old one, which finally closed in 2008.

As far as I know, no development proposal has been accepted, so assuming that there is still time, I’d like to propose my own: rebuild Greystone; brick for brick, acre for acre.

I admit this request is odd given that the push to preserve the original building so obviously failed, but what I propose is significantly distinct from mere preservation. It is not my intention to restore Greystone to its late Gothic glory, to have it stand frozen in time, syphoning the state purse, while people rent it out for weddings, play Kan Jam on its grounds, and/or “contemplate” its legacy. This country is full of museums and exhibitions dedicated to recalling the brutalities of the past. I am not interested in things that are no more, but things that are perpetual.

Just as there is a Liberty Science Center in Jersey City, there shall be a Greystone Empathy Center in Morris Plains. Like the former complex, Greystone will become a fully functioning, interactive center, but rather than with the fruits of the natural world and technology it will be with the fruits of human experience. Culture is not wanting in documentation of the institutionalized mentally ill: Titicut Follies, Children of Darkness, and Geraldo Rivera’s Willowbrook exposé are chief among them. But there is a difference between the clinical distance from which these films are watched and the clinical experience in which patrons of the Center will be immersed.

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.

But of course we shouldn’t limit ourselves to just one kind of experience. With this space we will expose visitors to the pain and power of others in all their variety. Indeed, each room in the new facility may contain a different situation where one’s experience, ethics, and emotional responses will be set aside in favor of new ones, whether that of a victim or a perpetrator, a figure of authority or its (willing or unwilling) subject. Our performative sources will be myriad: historical records and reports, theoretical works, the Stanford experiment, the Milgram experiment, the drama of Sarah Kane, The Twilight Zone, Model UN exercises, etc.

For those who ask how visitors will be attracted to the Greystone Empathy Center, the answer is clearly: the same way they are drawn to any other attraction. This works just as the roadside haunted houses work, which boast similarly extreme sensory onslaughts—Knott’s Berry Farm may have had to discontinue the “mental institution” portion of its own Halloween event, but that theme is surely being tried in smaller operations. The Center will no doubt appeal to these types of people and related adventurers who are looking to “level up” and to “intensify” the contours of their preset reality. That they will come away from it with a deeper, more nuanced, and uneasily forgettable understanding of social relationships, the burdens and blessings of power, the fragility of freedom, and the contingency of life is neither here nor there. It is certainly worth the price of admission, which will be fair but steady enough to not burden the pockets of the people.

(Image: still from Frederick Wiseman’s Titcut Follies.)

TWO ORBS

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NOTE: The following is an interpretive (rough) transcript of two unique pulse frequencies, discovered by privately funded Swiss astrophysicists, said to have emanated from deep space, possibly even the farthest extreme of the universe itself. That the visual and verbal approximations are largely speculative, that they are as yet unsanctioned by official channels, and that the discovery itself was only happened upon by way of a costly and wholly preventable fuck-up, which will be addressed with the appropriate private sector-level penalties, does not necessarily render trivial the wonder and gravity of its implications. I guess you’d have to have been there.

***

Beige orb: Hey.

Grey orb: Oh dear. Oh goodness.

Beige orb: Watch where you’re going.

Grey orb: Oh my, I’m so sorry.

Beige orb: No, no. Forgive me. I wasn’t paying attention.

Grey orb: No, no. Neither was I. I was completely in my own world. Did I hurt you? 

Beige orb: No, not at all. Nothing hurts. Nothing ever hurts.

Grey orb: Oh?

Beige orb: Have you not noticed? I’m so embarrassed. Is it just me? It is just me.

Grey orb: No, I have.

Beige orb: Oh, thank goodness. I was worried I was the only one.

Grey orb: Everything has that Downy softness feel. 

Beige orb: It kind of envelops you. 

Grey orb: And sometimes it suffocates you. 

Beige orb: Right?

Grey orb: Like, sometimes it feels like too much. Like, what did I do to deserve this? And what do I do now that I have it. 

Beige orb: Sometimes I stay in one place for what feels like … I don’t know, actually. 

Grey orb: I know just what you mean. 

Beige orb: Like I could just sink deeper and deeper into place. This blackness just comes over like an ooze. 

Grey orb: Like syrup, kind of.

Beige orb: Yeah, kind of. But then, out of nowhere, I’m jolted back out of it. Throttling though this, I don’t know, plain? Going through all these colors and vibrations. But on this kind of narrow pathway, where I’m bouncing off each side of it.

Grey orb: Like a bowling lane with the kiddie rails up? 

Beige orb: Exactly! Were you just doing that? 

Grey orb: That’s all it seems I’ve been doing.

Beige orb: Have you been here long?

Grey orb: I … I …

Beige orb: No, no. Stupid question. Of course you don’t know. There’s no time to count here it seems.

Grey orb: Yeah.

Beige orb: Just stillness one moment, then propulsion the next. Stasis and energy. Whenever, wherever, however. Sorry, I’m being unhelpful.

Grey orb: No, you’re not …

Beige orb: Just venting.

Grey orb: It’s okay.

Beige orb: It’s not like you do this on your own. But it’s something you’re endlessly getting used to. It asserts itself this … whatever it is … force? You have no sense as to what it does or what you do to help it. Maybe you just … please it somehow. But it doesn’t feel pleasing to me. It simply is. And I have no sense of was or whereto or really is at times. Things are there and then they aren’t.

Grey orb: Stasis and energy.

Beige orb: Color and colorless. In perpetuity. But of course I’ll forget that I’m perpetual, because I’ll soon be shot off into another vector to serve another outward impulse and crash into something else like a rolling cosmic log that I am and do this all over again. But … this is the first time I’ve had any real sense of it. Of perpetuity, of any proportion whatever. If I have emitted this much energy on my own I do not recall it. Why are you here?

Grey orb: For the same reason you are, I suspect.

Beige orb: If you say so.

Grey orb: Should I leave? I would, but I don’t know if I can.

Beige orb: No, of course not. I am terrible.

Grey orb: You are not terrible. You don’t know what you are.

Beige orb: I’m afraid that’s true.

Grey orb: I don’t know what I am.

Beige orb: How to frame it, though. I can’t think of any way. Weightlessness?

Grey orb: Formlessness.

Beige orb: Personlessness.

Grey orb: Purposelessness.

Beige orb: Friendlessness.

Grey orb: This is probably going to seem odd.

Beige orb: There’s a high bar for that now, but you can try me.

Grey orb: But have we met before?

Beige orb: I … what?

Grey orb: It’s not something I can quite explain anymore than anything else can be at present, I admit that. But there’s a sense of familiarity here.

Beige orb: Like repetition? Like we’re cycling back?

Grey orb: Like memory. Like a past occurrence entirely unique to itself.

Beige orb: I guess it would be hard to miss amidst all this. But still, I can’t remember. And the very notion of before is entirely foreign at this point. If I ever understood it, let alone existed in it, I would have to relearn it. (pause) I am insulting you. I’m sorry.

Grey orb: Hardly. For all I know I could be wrong. It could just as easily be something I just kind of picked up en route, some far off refuse from an unknown place, untethered, free floating in the firmament, looking to retether to the nearest possible object regardless of compatibility. And that object, for better or worse, was me, and in so doing that refuse became … I don’t know … corrupted? Or rearranged? And it was emitted back out as something almost entirely new. Perhaps it was not from my experience, but from my longing.

Beige orb: Longing?

Grey orb: Yes, and here, too, I could be wrong; in fact I hope I am, but wrong or right I don’t care. I take back what I said earlier. Maybe I can leave this space, but maybe I just don’t want to.

Beige orb: You have more strength than I.

Grey orb: Do I though? Have I not been relating almost completely to your experience? Have I not, as you, been feeling the push and pull of this stratosphere? Being propelled to one extreme then being foisted through into another? It may well be that this has not been my first collision, but that those collisions were not particularly fruitful, were not keeping me still; or, rather, not giving me much reason to make myself still. There is much here that just stares you back blankly. Few have even complained that I was even there. I ran into you unthinkingly, yes, but you were maybe the first to have even acknowledged that something had, in fact, run into you.

Beige orb: And you were the first to beg for pardon.

Grey orb: What I’m getting at though is that maybe there is more to our situation than we assumed. More and less. More disorder and so less obligation to bend to its whim. (pause) I’m saying I want to be here.

Beige orb: That’s what I thought.

Grey org: But if you don’t agree …

Beige orb: No, not at all. I mean, I do … agree. I feel less directionless than I have in, I assume, ever. But at the same time, I can’t help feeling that I am still compelled to be here. I feel still, but that stillness, pleasant as it is, seems every bit the placeholder that anything else here can be at a given time.

Grey orb: I feel this feeling as well.

Beige orb: And how do you deal with it?

Grey orb: I accept it. And more than that I take responsibility for it. There could be any number of ends I could be serving right now. If this meeting is serving such an end I have less of an urge to find out then, I assume, I ever have in the past. I am serving my ends, which, if you’ll pardon the frankness, is being in your company.

Beige orb: No need for a pardon.

Grey orb: We are simpatico?

Beige orb: I think so, but I cannot pinpoint it as finitely as you have. On the one hand I feel inadequate in comparison to you, on the other hand my telling you so doesn’t make me uneasy or ashamed. Even if I do not remember you, if you are carrying some false impulse, I still wish that I could and you weren’t. But that doesn’t really matter, because we are here, serving our mutual end.

Grey orb: We are giving care.

Beige orb: I feel like I’m doing nothing at all.

Grey orb: Care sometimes feels like that. I would say it often feels like that. But because care is so much linked with effort, if not outright labor, much of it gets swept aside into kindness.

Beige orb: Kindness is below caring?

Grey orb: It is a variant of caring, understated but actually quite vital. Understated perhaps because it is the most instinctive. Vital because it is the least performative. Even, perhaps especially, in a void it is a wonder and a joy to find something to care about or someone to care for.

Beige orb: Should it be so strong? Is it, or will it become, love?

Grey orb: Love appears only where there is need of it, such as when there is a society it must glue together, or a barbarism from which that society must be shielded. Ours is a loveless place.

Beige orb: But not a careless place?

Grey orb: There are very few places completely without care. It is impossible, unthinkable. It is without mechanical function; no one condition brings it out. It is there for our ready deployment because it has always been there. Even when we are discerning in giving it out, we give it to our fullest when we do, and in such cases it is felt more. Love is a narrowing kind of thing. It is an efficiency guru cutting needless surplus at every corner until the bare essentials are entirely dependent on one another. This is not out of desire, of course. If love is spread across too far an expanse it dissolves and becomes useless. Love retracts while care expands.

Care is versatile. Even when it is focused it can come in many forms. Care is asking for pardon when you obstruct someone’s path. Care is also gratitude for bringing even brief sound into a timeless silence. Care is contingent, though it is not utilitarian. You and I may not be in the same place for very long, but we may hold enough memory from this that we may find each other again, even if no particular prerequisite can be gleaned, even if the ends come into conflict with others. No need or obligation or interest, in that moment, will be of greater importance.

Beige orb: But it’s more than gestures, right? Having someone with a frame of reference very close to your own is quite comforting. It’s not quite everything, but it brings me more than I thought possible.

Grey orb: Exactly. You are my friend. And if the whims of a compulsive, preoccupied universe are too much work, what better way to resist?

Beige orb: I shall see you again.

Grey orb: I count on it.

Beige orb: We may tear the very fabric of the universe to shreds.

Grey orb: What kindness is greater than that?