My Not So Real Estate

We have been trying, my wife and I, to sell our house and buy another, which is, as anyone who has been through it knows, just about the most fun you can have without losing a limb. I suppose if one is stinking rich, it’s another easy thing floating by on a river of ease, but if you are stinking rich, you probably aren’t reading this. Actually, if you are not a bot tasked with dumping phishing links cleverly disguised as ads for fake Ray-Bans in the comment section of this site, you probably aren’t reading this, but in any case: we are trying to do the sell-buy two-step and it is not much like fun.

The selling part is probably worse, since it involves keeping our current home as much like a hotel as possible, except a hotel where the sparse furnishings are your own, except that the furnishings are not really yours, inasmuch as you cannot treat, say, your coffee table with anything like the casual abandon that you did before, putting things like coffee cups on it, lest they spill, or books, lest they remind potential buyers of your disgusting presence in their dream home. Buying a house is slightly less stressful because you get to look at other people’s meticulously arranged stuff, realize they are far more obsessively tidy than you, and feel sympathy for their condition, which surely must get in the way of leading a richer, fuller life.

There is other stress associated with buying a house, of course—bidding wars, house inspections, the sense that no one really has your best interest at heart—but what bothers me most is going to see houses that are rental properties, and where the tenants have chosen to stay as you walk through, apologizing for your role as a threat to their continued happiness. A few days ago, we went to see a home occupied by refugees from Burma, a fact I discerned by the large, prominent posters of activist Aung San Suu Kyi displayed throughout, along with an understanding that the city of Buffalo, where my wife and I plan to move, has seen a strong influx of refugees from Burma in the last decade. They were more welcoming than most tenants are when you walk through their home, but I still could not shake loose from the fact that if we bought this house, they would be displaced yet again.

We thanked them and went to look at the attic, then came down a set of front stairs that led out of the house. I was overwhelmed with a desire to go back and tell the folks living there that I knew who Aung San Suu Kyi was, and that I respected her work. I know many people would simply chalk this up to guilt, at having to interrupt (and potentially disrupt) their lives, at recognizing what a comparatively privileged life I was living, compared to theirs, but it wasn’t guilt at all, feeling bad for being a chaotic force in a stranger’s life is not the same as feeling one is to blame for the situation that brought us together. It is comparable to the argument that a person cannot do good for another without thinking of the good it will do themselves, that we are always selfishly motivated, even when being altruistic, which is something selfish people often bring up to justify their own selfishness. Both arguments rest on an idea of the self as the most dominant, active figure in an individual’s psychic and spiritual landscape, a figure that casts a shadow over everything else in the world. It is not easy to resist this notion of identity, especially within a culture like we have in the United States, which encourages it, even institutionalizes it, because it is this sense of self that makes us more desperate consumers. And, of course, resisting this idea of self does not mean giving up all material possessions and living as itinerant monks, but rather that the material conditions of one’s life are simply one aspect of the path to a meaningful existence, important but not nearly as important as the recognition of other lives, of social contact, of saying to another person, “I see what is important to you, and that your life is as valuable as mine.”

I say this social aspect is more important because identity is not fixed thing, but a shimmering nexus of events, influences, and attitudes constantly formed and re-formed by our interactions with other people. To say we are more other people than we are ourselves is not inaccurate, I think, much like our bodies are made up of “our” cells, but also of bacteria, fungi, viruses, archea, and everything that goes into making up the microbiome. We can thus think of the human body as being partially our own and partially something alien to that body, or we can recognize that our bodies are part of a fluid system of interactions with our environment. And so it is with the self, and so it is that I wanted to go back and tell the folks in the house we looked at that I recognized that face of a woman they held in great esteem, because I recognized both the gulf between our experiences and the commonality of our humanity and found it fascinating and worth sharing. Then a car drove by blasting music so loud it caused the windows of neighboring cars to vibrate, and I forgot all about my desire to communicate with the tenants, until I woke last night and remembered, and remembered why my plan had gotten derailed, and decided to write it all down instead.

You do unbend your noble strength to think so brainsickly of things

From last year’s model…

 

Pieces of Silver

On the fifty-seventh Thursday of the month, we host

a flotilla of sad-eyed immigrant children from the next township over

and inculcate them with the values of the merchant class,

the evolutionary principles under-girding the sort of life

 

they want, as their parents have not attained it and never will, hence

the sad eyes. Each gets a gift bag stamped “share, with love,”

containing a single, sturdy, high thread count oatmeal cookie,

a scratch-off ticket, and a small note: “sharing is for pussies.”

 

Laugh at your own risk, sneer to drown the sound of your craving,

we know better. We know where the profit fairy flutters to nest,

we know how to look slim and golden, even after the hunt, even after

your little Bakunins have done their sloppy best and delivered you to us.

(From Kindness in Never Small, 2015)

Another poem from my next book

Another suddenly topical poem, from my next collection. Please join me at Rust Belt Books this Saturday at 3pm for beer and cupcakes and books books books!

I Can Hear Her Bones Growing, or Cracking

America always tries too hard, chewing
with her mouth open,
walking her huge, stupid dogs
right down the middle of the street,
letting them shit just anywhere.

Like a trumpet solo in C sharp
when C would do just as fine, thank you,
like the idea of soloing in the first place,
like Miles Fucking Davis, trying
way too hard, trying to be cool

while the veins in his neck and head
swole up like a garden hose
after the tap gets flipped and the water
flows. She tries too hard and then
says things like, “better to have tried too hard

than not tried at all,” as though she
was Caesar, prescribing the bounds
of logic with a sweep of the hand. Laughing
too loud, snorting, the guffaw
is an American invention. I can’t do much more

than say I love you, you big, goofy,
toothsome girl, and how strange it is
to feel older than one’s parent. I only hope
that yours are the pains of adolescence
and not the onset of early dementia.

The Word “Broken” is Broken

After the recent DDOS attack that launched via the “internet of things,” I read that Anonymous might have been responsible. Turns out they were not, but it did remind me that Anonymous existed, and led me to their web page. The first item on that page was titled “The American Political System is BROKEN,” and to a screed about how the US should get rid of the “two-party system” and change to instant run-off voting. This led me to 3 conclusions:

It is the third item that concerns me most. I’m sure many of us have sat with a child and tried to show them how the toy they believe is broken actually works; I’m sure most of us have been that child. It is this meaning of the word—that is, the wrong one—that pervades the media universe these days. At the very least, people use “broken” to mean “a very complicated problem,” which is another way of saying the author either does not understand the problem, cannot be bothered to explain it, or expects the audience will not understand it, all of which are symptoms of the infantilization of our culture. The US political system Is not, in fact, broken, nor is the education system, nor is the Affordable Care Act, or Arkansas, or the NFL, or any other system with deep, complicated problems that require work and dialogue to run more effectively. Saying something is broken is the opposite of work and dialogue, it is a throwing up of the hands based on an inability to recognize complexity and affect change within a complex system.

I’m not the only one to protest the infantilization of our culture, of course (A. O. Scott, Bernardini, on and on.. Ariel Dorfman, Baudrillard, so many others…) though unlike some folks, I don’t think this is part of some intentional program those in power subscribe to in order to keep us pliant—those in charge are just as infantilized, it seems—but that doesn’t mean that the effect is not the same, we are kept pliant and childlike and ignorant, and complex problems get puerile solutions pasted over them, again and again. The regular misuse of “broken” is just more evidence of this situation. Apparently Susan Neiman wrote a book last year tracing it back to Rousseau and Kant, so I guess reading that will be my next step.

Of course, it might be the Vril Society

I need to get back into the groove of daily writing, I have gotten away from the habit and was working more in spurts, which did produce some good work, but not enough. Writing every day helps mollify the obsession in ways that bursts of creativity cannot, though I should not avoid such bursts, of course, and must ride them wherever they lead. Daily writing also helps me sort my mind differently, since I do not approach the page with a pre-existing idea, project to work on, or even formal structure in mind. It is a bit like doing tai chi or yoga, in that it helps my mind be more supple, and stronger, though I don’t think “mind” is actually the right word here. Suite of ideas? Cognitive flow? Mind will have to do for now.

The problem now is that I have too many things to say, they all want to come spilling out at once. So, I will choose one: I have been meaning to go back and read Hofstader’s “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” for a while, first when Donald Trump used said style to win the Republican nomination for President, and then even more so when Bernie Sanders also started ratcheting up the conspiratorial rhetoric in his campaign for the Democratic side. In terms of policy, it seems Clinton and Sanders are not that far apart, certainly much closer in their proposals to each other than to Trump, and Sanders had been unable to get much traction emphasizing the distinctions between, say, free college for everyone versus free community college, lower loan rates, and a progressive tuition structure. It was when his campaign started encouraging the paranoid style—the process is rigged for Clinton, we are being denied our rights—that he actually started to do better in primaries. So, to keep going, he has to fan the flames of paranoia. Anyone who buys this message will not believe, no matter what evidence is offered, that Clinton and the DNC are not somehow stealing the election, because said evidence must, of course, being manufactured as part of the conspiracy. It’s a neat little self-justifying loop, much like the way insular Christian groups can blame everything on the devil. Unfortunately, it makes those who do not buy the message, who have not bought into the cult of personality at the heart of it, uncomfortable, and ultimately pushes them away, as it has me.

Perhaps I am paranoid too, of the worship of media constructs. When I hear people praise any candidate for office, or in fact any public figure, from Mickey Mouse to Noam Chomsky to Beyoncé, in terms they use for people they actually know (I love them, they are so honest, or trustworthy, or smart), I am instantly on my guard. I do not love or admire Clinton or Sanders or Muhammed Ali or Adrienne Rich, though I do admire things they have said or done or written. To say that I love them would be like looking at a cloud and saying, “I love that cloud for the inner life that it’s shape tells me must exist.” They are real people, but we do not have access to that reality; what we do have access to is constructed by the person, in concert with mass media. What this public image does indicate, especially in politicians, is that they are good at manipulating people, using that public image.

I certainly understand the allure of the paranoid style. It is somehow more comforting to assume the existence of a conspiracy than to reach the conclusion that most of us have no idea what we are doing, that daily life is ruled by chaos and incompetence, at the least, and violent expressions of individual power, at the worst. As Hofstader put it, “the paranoid mind is far more coherent than the real world.” Which is not to say that conspiracies do not exist, that power is not also institutional, only that the habit of mind that allows us to see conspiracy everywhere is much easier to bring into being than an actual conspiracy is. People are sloppy. Conspiratorial thinking makes them seem more orderly. As does, not coincidentally, the way we learn to think of media constructs as people—Sanders’ carefully disordered hair is a deliberate signal sent to his supporters just as much as Clinton playing dominos with old folks in Harlem or Trump’s poll-tested “gaffes.” Then again, most of us do not learn to judge policy or political acumen, we judge performance, which makes this election just another version of American Idol, whereby we judge a performance and think the performers people we actually know and trust. I wonder, after reading Hofstader again, if we are now, as a people, more or less susceptible to the paranoid style. I hope not, since “we are all sufferers from history, but the paranoid is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well.”

Perhaps this is why I like conspiracy theory fiction–Pynchon, Dick, Shea/Anton Wilson–and movies, and even games like Illuminati! It lessens my suffering for a few hours by cranking up my paranoia to a ridiculous, though manageable, and thereby cathartic, degree, allowing me to then re-renter the messy, puzzling world refreshed, my need to see order where there is none exhausted.

Some housekeeping

I started this blog in 2008, after we moved from Atlanta, GA to Lockport, NY, but I wasn’t quite sure what to do with it. A few months later, my wife challenged me to listen to all the CDs I owned (well, all the store-bought ones, not copies) and post them to the blog, and I seem to have lost track of that divine purpose, though I have been listening away. So, since the last time I posted CDs (July 2014! damn.), I have listened to:

822) Delicious Vinyl: Waxing Off: The First Decade; 823) Pedro the Lion: Control; 824) Bob Dylan: Desire; 825) Harry Nilsson: A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night; 826) Ladytron: Witching Hour; 827) Orb: u.f.orb; 828) Noi Albinoi: Slow Blow; 829) Dillinger: Cocaine; 830) Various: Quiet About It: A Tribute to Jesse Winchester; 831) Executive Slacks: The Complete Recordings; 832) Dntel: Life is Full of Possibilities; 833) Honky Hoppers: Standing Room Only; 834) Kermit Ruffins: Kermit Ruffins; 834) Brian Setzer Orchestra: The Dirty Boogie; 835) Space’n’Bass: Disc 9 and 10; 836) Swap Dogg: Cuffed, Collared, and Tagged/Doing a Party Tonite; 837) Das FX: Dead Serious; 838) Sue Foley: Without a Warning; 839) Howlin’ Wolf: Two for One; 840) John Coltrane: Lush Life; 841) Sweetback: Sweetback; 842) Youssou N’Dour: Set; 843) Scritti Politti: White Bread, Black Beer; 844) Incredible String Band: The 5000 Spirits or Layers of the Onion; 845) Rembetica: Historic Urban Folk Songs From Greece; 846) Alejandro Escovedo: The Boxing Mirror; 847) Mogwai: Rock Action; 848) The Abyssinia Baptist Gospel Choir: Shaking the Rafters; 848) Eddy Arnold: Eddy’s Song; 849) Weapon of Choice: Nutmeg Fantasy; 850) Ben Folds Five: Ben Folds Five; 851) Willie Nelson: Milk Cow Blues; 852) Tangerine Dream: Lily on the Beach; 853) The B-52s: Party Mix!; 854) Wussy: Strawberry; 855) Harry Nilsson: Son of Schmilsson; 856) Mekons: The Edge of the World; 857) Aisha Kandisha’s Jarring Effects: Shabeestation; 858) Rokia Traore: Beautiful Africa; 859) Various: Beginner’s Guide to Arabia; 860) Blackalicious: Blazing Arrow; 861) The Clash: London Calling; 862) UB40: The UB40 File; 863) The Polyphonic Spree: The Beginning Stages of… 864) Quasi: Featuring “Birds”; 865) Brick: Super Hits; 866) The Carter Family: 1927-1934; 867) Martha Wainwright: I Know You’re Married but I’ve Got Feelings Too; 868) Mum: Summer Make Good; 869) Bob Wills: Encore (box set); 870): Roger Miller: The Genius of Roger Miller (box set); 871) Wussy: Attica.

Well, there are more still in the pile, but I’m tired of cataloging. I’d have made a terrible librarian.

More to thee than the economy

I read an interesting article in Jacobin about how children are increasingly seen as investments, largely because of the increase in income disparity–Erickson article. Jacobin can be a too strident for me at times, but this article (which is a condensation of a book, I believe) really rang true, at least in part because I see the same effect—the corporatization of culture—everywhere. I think sometimes I am overstating the case, seeing everything as a nail because I have a hammer, and then I find others who see the same insidiousness:

The young children of the wealthy are increasingly diverse portfolios of applications to private schools, enrichment classes, play dates, and nanny shares. These little Einsteins go on to attend prestigious high schools and Ivy League colleges. But it starts in preschool.

A whole culture has risen around the cultivation of the child into a successful adult, equipped for the global economy. Its language is English plus Spanish or Mandarin; its literature is the mommy blog.

Working-class children, on the other hand, are objects of suspicion defined by what is perceived, within the economic superstructure, as a lack — of high-enough test scores, of self-confidence, or the inclination and facility to self-regulate behavior.

Childhood is now a curated experience for the rich, and a desperate challenge full of lotteries and high stakes for the middle-class and working-class families who aspire toward upward mobility. But it is not a particularly pleasurable one anymore.”

It makes me wonder if the act of questioning the economic reality that has led us to this point has, in itself, become something curated for the well-off. Then I think of all the real resistance going on, and realize it has much more to do with distribution, with burying some messages and raising others to the top of all our googles.

Parents’ willingness to embrace these uber-strict test regimes for their very small children even though we know that it makes those children anxious and upset is connected to the fact that the parents feel and know that the labor market is tightening and shows that their children’s [prospects] are tightening.

If they knew that the kid was going to be OK; if $15 was the minimum wage and you could go to college for free, everybody has health care, there ’s plenty of affordable housing — if they just knew that the kid was going to be OK, there would be way less hysterical pressure of making your five-year-old jump through that standardized test hoop.” – Brian Jones

Finally—or rather, at the start of her essay, Erickson nails this part:

Poverty pathologizes people who are losing in capitalism rather than concrete economic sources: “There are victims, but no victimizers.” The language of “poverty” keeps us from questioning and critiquing our economic system in a way that “wealth inequality” and “class disparity” — or class war — does not.

The same logic has come to shape our culture, it defines the way we approach art, agriculture, religion, language… but we can resist, without jettisoning the true material benefits that collective work has given us. Crass corporatism is not the not the only way to build a world. Hell, it’s not even a good way to run a business.

Kindness is Never Small

for Tod W.

We were all born, for fuck’s sake, and we all saw through that con,

but some of us figured the con was all, no way out, only fools thought otherwise,

the ones at the other end of the cafeteria with spoons hanging off their noses.

I was always enamored of the gallant dancers, aware of the terrible undertow

 

but just as ready to dance with the shades of Lethe, Maslow’s brood,

because they were such willful cowards, did their weeping up in a nice, neat bow

and spread their gifts about, always keeping tally, always ready to call in

that favor, that time they simulated kindness and you bought it, you ass.

 

They were not my people, just ones I thought more clever than I. My people could not see

around the con, imagine carrying a javelin around and every time you met someone,

you had to explain why you carried it. Meeting someone else with a javelin,

wow, there was nothing sweeter, and we forgave all kinds of things,

and goddamn did they fly, when it came to that.

Surrender, Udaya Kumar

The snow falls, and parts of Buffalo, 30 minutes south, are being buried in 7 feet of snow. We are used to blizzards here, but not blizzards of this violence. The earth is changing, beneath our feet and above our heads, and for all we know, humanity might be the next great extinction. And yet, we lack will, it can never be us, after all, we will never die, that other one will and that one, but not I, the inverse of the solipsistic apocalypse: when I die, the universe dies with me. Or like Kanaka Dasa, we say Nanu Hodare Hodenu (ನಾನು ಹೋದರೆ ಹೋದೇನು). Snow melts, sand blows away, we dig bits of bead and seal from Harappa, while in the south:

Let us hope some day fingers like ours might dig our buttons and eyeglasses from the dried mud.

Late epiphany

I’ve been puzzling over the zombie phenomenon for a whole now, not the least because I, too, enjoy a good zombie movie or show or novel (no, Colson Whitehead, yours was not so good, sorry. The Intuitionist, on the other hand…). Why the wave of popularity? Why the associated wave of scifi and fantasy and superhero related fantasy? For a while, I tended toward the anxiety release explanation: a post-apocalyptic world, shoot folks in the head if you don’t like them, no worries about the wrong fork, whatever, as long as it eases contemporary angst. My epiphany, which I’m sure others have had a-plenty, is that zombie narratives are exciting because MODERN LIFE IS BORING. For us, in the first world, and so suburban kids from the first world drift off to join ISIS, and I watch Walking Dead. It’s not so much the anarchic lack of rules that makes these narratives exciting, it’s that our decisions matter in a profoundly meaningful way. Most of my decisions do not matter much.

No CDs today, I will grind them out next time, as I start a new, equally pointless archival project. Woohoo!