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.

Such Light, Above Ground

Last week, I was assaulted by a group of 4, or 5, or 6, young men who knocked me off my bicycle and punched and kicked and stomped on me. I don’t know why they did it; in fact, while they were pummeling me, I kept asking them: “Why? Why are you doing this?” They had no answer for me. Then I blacked out, and shortly after that, two car loads of young men and women returning from the drive-in stopped and scared them off, then waited with me until the police and ambulance arrived.

The damage tally, as is usual for such events, was weird: right ankle broken in three places, jaw broken in two, ribs severely bruised, but my glasses are still intact, internal organs are fine, and nothing was taken from my wallet. I lost a shoe and my bike helmet, but my wife found both the next day. A senseless act produced results difficult to make sense of, in other words. I am not sure I need to make sense of it, really, although the looks on the faces of everyone I tell the story to begs the same questions: how could anyone do such a thing, what’s wrong with people, is our society crumbling… people want to make sense of it, fit knowledge of events like random assault into their worldview. Some have offered me their own scaffolding, while taking blood or checking my temperature, opining on young people today, or suggesting race or class were somehow involved. I hate telling people about it because of that look, the way my story leads people to peek over the edge of a hole into the underworld.

As a result of the assault, I have spent the last 8 days in 2 different hospitals, undergoing 2 different surgeries, and countless pricks, prods, and palavers. I have become a connoisseur of several different kinds of pain and of the drugs that try to relieve them, and have felt my consciousness, in concert with my body, pulled and punched and wound into unimaginable knots and unwound into base thread. I did not peek over the edge of the hole, I was shoved into it from behind, and so began a katabasis, a descent into the underworld—but I had no quest, other than survival and healing.

My memories of the Emergency Room are disjointed, full of bursts of pain, needles and oxygen masks, a nurse screaming across me at another patient who wouldn’t stop saying something offensive, a confused, squirrelly cop trying to take a statement from me, my wife crying in a chair at the foot of the bed. And noise. So much noise that I can clearly remember a moment where the noise stopped, no one spoke, no one yelled, no one raced across the room, just the tap tap of computer keyboards. It lasted a few seconds, then the noise exploded again.

I don’t remember the elevator ride up to the second floor, but there I was, more needles, more bizarre pain, but less noise. When Ishtar descended into the underworld to be with Tammuz, she was ritually disrobed at 7 different gates: one for her crown, one for her jewelry, one for her outer robe, and so forth. I expected the same treatment, and though I spent the next three days lying in my shorts and underwear and belt, I did feel more than naked, as though any defense between myself and the world had been stripped away. I am most grateful to all the nurses and aides who took such wonderful care of me, monitoring my pain and my vital signs as the doctors decided how to proceed. They couldn’t be at my side constantly, of course, nor could my lovely wife, and so I came to think of them as guides, lending me strength for my chthonic journey.

My first surgery, to repair my ankle, was scheduled for Saturday. Friends and family visited and made me smile. Doctors asked me questions. I had cat scans, x-rays, and MRIs. My room mate was a man who had lost short term memory and so kept asking me what hospital we were in. At no point, other than when I was waiting to get an x-ray, was I not in the presence of another human being, and yet I have rarely felt more alone. The drugs and the pain and the frequent intrusions of needles and probes and fingers into my body all combined to push me far, far away from the world, and reality broke into shards, like when the film flutters through the projector at the end of the reel.

My identity, too, fell apart at times. After Saturday’s surgery, which I was semi-conscious for, I was given a large dose of pain killers and fell asleep. I woke a few hours later, convinced I was in Japan, which was not unusual, as I had just visited there, but I also had no idea who I was, which was unusual, and scary as hell. I gradually understood enough words on a dry erase board at the end of the bed that my identity began to coalesce, and I knew where I was, but I will never forget the sensation of not knowing, the terror of feeling the absence of identity, and knowing that it was lost.

I was transferred to another hospital for my jaw surgery. I was put in an ambulance at 4:00 am, driven through a thunderstorm severe enough that travel warnings had been issued, then deposited on the seventh floor. Three nurses immediately descended upon me, stripped off my robe, and examined every inch of my body. They flipped me on my side, causing a large abscess on my jaw to burst and fill my mouth with pus, then gave me more pain medication. The sun came up. Doctors visited. More needles. Someone came and pulled my mouth open, tearing the corner of my lips. More pain killers. More pain. The Japanese women’s football team beat the Netherlands.

My last surgery, to put plates into my jaw and wire it shut, was Wednesday, luckily, as we were on a waiting list for the operating room. I woke when they yanked the breathing tube out of my nose, which felt like someone pulling a steam shovel through my nasal cavity. Oddly, I could smell dim sum, even saw a platter of dumplings floating the air. I can only assume someone had eaten something like dim sum recently and I could smell it. I could smell everything, more keenly than I thought possible, and the recovery room was not the best place to acquire that particular superpower.

One more night of recovery, and I was discharged. An aide wheeled me out into the sunlight, out of the underworld, and I sat, waiting for my wife to pull the car around, wondering what my quest had been. I had been pulled apart and remade, had endured a lot of physical pain, and had seen so much good, so much love and care from friends, family, and strangers, it was hard to find any core to the experience. I thought about the men who had attacked me, out of nowhere, rushing from behind, from between buildings, beating me for no reason—why did they do it? I could only think that their lives were similar to the time I had just spent in the underworld: full of bursts of violence and pain and powerlessness, identities tenuous, dependent on pathetic expressions of power, naked as Ishtar, but without all the loving friends and family helping them along. I wished many horrible things upon you, my attackers, and now I see that these wishes for revenge were just as foolish and pathetic as your initial attack on me was, and were motivated by similar desires. And of course, that was my quest all along, to reach this point: I do not like what you did to me, but I forgive you, and if I find you in need, I will help.

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.

More Light

Such a lovely day, -14 celsius outside, everything crisply frozen, windows steaming a bit where the cats sits, plenty of work to do inside and out, and, oh, more lost souls murdering people, this time in Paris, a bomb goes off outside an NAACP office in Colorado, so many sad, twisted people with no other way to exert power or make sense of this world but to lash out, take their revenge on the rest of us.

Hannah Arendt: “…even in the darkest of times we have the right to expect some illumination, and that such illumination may well come less from theories and concepts than from the uncertain, flickering, and often weak light that some men and women, in their lives and their works, will kindle under almost all circumstances and shed over the time span that was given them on earth – this conviction is the inarticulate background against which these profiles were drawn. Eyes so used to darkness as ours will hardly be able to tell whether their light was the light of a candle or that of the blazing sun. But such objective evaluation seems to me a matter or secondary importance which can be safely left to posterity.”

Keeping Quiet

Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.
For once on the face of the earth,
let’s not speak in any language;
let’s stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.

It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines;
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.

Fisherman in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would look at his hurt hands.

Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victories with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.

What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about;
I want no truck with death.

If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.

Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.

Now I’ll count up to twelve
and you keep quiet and I will go.

–Pablo Neruda

Jim Harrison

Wonderful Michigan poet. Love your poem, Jim:

Young Bull

The bronze ring punctures

the flesh of your nose,

the wound is fresh

and you nuzzle the itch

against a fence post.

Your testicles are fat and heavy

and sway when you shake off flies;

the chickens scratch about your feet

but you do not notice them.

 

Through lunch I pitied

you from the kitchen window–

the heat, pained fluid of August–

but when I came with cold water

and feed, you bellowed and heaved

against the slats wanting to murder me.

 

 

.

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!

Opportunities to gain perspective abound

I heard a commotion outside the window, so I went in the backyard and found a squirrel who’d fallen and, I believe, broken its back, because when it saw me it tried to run up a tree with only its front feet, dragging its lower half behind it. When I heard the commotion, I’d been fretting about part of a poem I was writing about the US highway system, trying to figure out how to get some reference to the Federal-Aid Highway act of 1956 in there while still sounding poetic enough. Seems like a pretty stupid thing to fret about, now. The squirrel made up the tree as far as the top of our fence, perched for a while, staring at me, breathing like a creature with a broken spine would breathe, then kept going, up the tree, one claw at a time.

Once he was gone, I let the dogs out to sit in the sun.

CDs I’ve listened too, as I listen to all the CDs I own, one at a time: 801) Box Set: Pere Ubu: Datapanik in the Year Zero(fuck yeah); 802) Various: I Put a Spell on YouL The Okeh Story; 803) Beastie Boys: hello nasty; 804) Funkmaster Flex & Big Kap: The Tunnel; 805) Mexican-American Border Music: Vol 1; 807) Randy Newman: Sail Away; 808) Blur: Parklife; 809) The Cramps: How to Make a Monster; 810) Petracovich: Blue Cotton Skin; 811) Joanna Newsom: The Milk Eyed Mender; 812) Solomon Burke: Home in Your Heart; 813) Jimi Hendrix: Electric Ladyland; 813) Zapp: Zapp; 814) Ornital: Diversions; 815) Space Time Continuum: Alien Dreamtime; 816) Blue Oyster Cult: Secret Treaties; 817) The Residents: Eskimo; 818) Paul Oakenfold: Bunkka; 819) Melanie de Biasio: No Deal; 820) Spacehog: Resident Alien; 821) Soundtrack: Three Seasons.

I forgot…

The Million Song Dataset is an interesting thing: MSDS. Although, witnessing art through data analysis sure seems like it would lead one toward the mean, as is happening in pop music these days, songs structured and run through focus groups, with all the rough edges smoothed out, analyzed to a sheen (never thought I’d agree with Trent Reznor, but there you go).

Then again, using the Million Song Dataset, researchers figured out contemporary pop music features “…less variety in pitch transitions, towards a consistent homogenization of the timbral palette, and towards louder and, in the end, potentially poorer volume dynamics.” (Source)

So it’s not only less adventurous, but also has worse sound because everyone tries to be louder and louder and louder. And what does Reznor do, to oppose this trend? Bigger and bolder stage show. Whoopee. The audience is in a state of semi-permanent distraction, and if anything, needs music (and other arts) that nurture our need to focus deeply on one thing, not more bombast and flashing lights.

And, of course, if it’s too loud you’re too old, bla bla bla. No, it’s volume being used to disguise poor songwriting, factory craft, and an extremely limited set of ideas. “Wherever the consumption of abundance has established itself, there is one spectacular antagonism which is at the forefront of illusory roles: the antagonism between youth and adulthood. For here an adult in the sense of someone who is master of his own life is nowhere to be found. And youth — implying change in what exists — is by no means proper to people who are young. Rather, it characterizes only the economic system, the dynamism of capitalism: it is things that rule, that are young — things themselves that vie with each other and usurp one another’s places” (Guy Debord. Society of Spectacle).

Whoa, so many CDs I’ve listened to, in my quest to listen to all the ones I’ve hoarded! (yes, things rule. Listening to all these CDs has helped alleviate some of that sensation, oddly enough): 774) Migala: la increible aventura; 775) Ultra-Lounge: Rock’n’Roll Hits On the Rocks; 776) The Sisters of Mercy: Live in the Temple of Love; 777) Sade: Promise; 778) Moby Grape: Vintage; 779) the Stranglers: No More Heroes; 780) Schubert: Symphony No. 9; 781) Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Masters Collection: Vol. 2; 782) Arvo Pärt: Alina; 783) DJ Spooky: Optometry; 784) The Last Poets: Time Has Come; 785) Curtis Mayfield: Superfly; 786) Bert Switzer: 1977-2002;  787) John Black: The Soul of John Black; 788) Slowdive: Souvlaki; 789) the Five Stair Steps: Best of; 790) Magnetic Fields: 69 Love Songs; 791) William Parker: Wood Flute Songs; 792) Controlled Bleeding: Hog Floor (a fractured view); 793) Ian Dury: Best Of; 794) Bjork: Debut; 795) Velvet Underground: Velvet Underground; 796) Richard Thompson: Front Parlor Ballads; 797) R.E.M.: Reckoning; 798) Red Hot Chili Peppers: Red Hot Chili Peppers; 799) Hank Crawford: South Central; 800) Márta Sebestyén: Sings. Whew. Time to stop for a box set….

the critic

I got  review of a CD one of the bands I’m in put out recently, readable here, and what struck me most was the somewhat confused attitude our music provoked in the reviewer. Victory! This quote stuck out: “if I knew what the band wanted me to take serious and what to laugh at, the recording would be a greater success.” I realized that most of the reviews of any artistic endeavor I’ve had subject to critique evoke the same confusion, the “what do I do with this” reaction that validates why I make art in the first place. It’s what I cherish in other artist’s work, and what I tend to critique first in art I find wanting. I don’t mean that I prefer art that is difficult or that one must struggle to understand. That approach is usually as predictable as the most mainstream art (witness: just started reading the Flounder, Gunter Grass, how drab experimentalism for its own sake seems, detached from the historical moment). To make art that eludes easy categorization and produces confused emotional states, yeah, that’s what I like.