5/30/20: A Beautiful Day in an Ugly Country

I can hear the dryer downstairs, tossing something with a zipper on it; the zipper is lifted and falls with a small whip-crack sound, over and over again in minor monotony.

Yesterday there was a storm, a big enough one to finally wring the humidity out of the air. The heavy drops raced down like a stage curtain or cavalry charge, driving the humidity into the ground, interleaving it into the pavement and the soil. And today the sky had a washed face, a focused blue, and the benign clouds were docile, walking peaceably to the horizon.

I’m reading things about what is happening elsewhere: in Minneapolis, in Los Angeles, in Chicago, in Columbus and Cleveland. There’s no easy or subtle way to broach the topic. Huge infrastructures of oppression that have been in place here since America was founded are rising and everywhere, every day more visible, like the spires and turrets of some cursed city that only rises from the sea under a sick green moon.

Here in the suburbs of the suburbs – and this desiccated place is a physical manifestation of the Fundamental American Distance – things, as usual, are quiet, and cryptic in their noncommittal silence. Yesterday when I was at the store I looked for signs of recognition in the faces of the other shoppers. Obscured by masks, I couldn’t see any. I listed for some acknowledgement, and heard none.

When I was in school they approached the topic of the United States government with a philosophy similar to that of the old joke about that guy who likes his steak rare, like really rare: “just walk the cow past the grill.” They flashed simplified schema of how the government theoretically worked in front of us. But it was just another of many numbered and fundamentally identical steps in the system, a perfunctory digestive spasm of the muscles that moved us slightly forward in our education – an intestinal system, capable only of processing, not improving, minds. Commodified like everything else, they were words to memorize for multiple choice tests (the first customer surveys), a big janitor’s ring of keys for a series of doors we were expected to pass through, before moving onto college and finding another educational institution to fail us – this time more directly on our own dime.

I grew up in complacent distances of white suburbia. It’s all I’ve ever known. Even as our family splintered, and, moving in with my mom, we moved inexorably towards lower middle class, and even now when I’m poor, I’m poor amongst the toothless niceties of the mild suburban nightmare. In some obscure inescapable way, as long as the system stays in place, matter how far I fall, there’s always another safety net for me.

Every time any terrible thing happens, one of my little vices is to wonder what people I respect are thinking about it, what they’re doing or would do about it.

What is Thomas Pynchon thinking?

What would Melville do?

I do this because I’ve been taught for years to shape my opinions from the stuff provided by authority figures.

(I also wonder what you are thinking and doing.)

I remember once, I was laying unblanketed in bed next to a partner (maybe you, maybe someone else, I can’t remember), listening to the night sounds through the window and wishing, suddenly, with an insufflating warm yearning of the heart, to be deep in despair, to be swords and swords deeper into it than anybody else, ever, so that everyone I turned towards would immediately know me solely by the visible beautiful ravages of my sorrow, and anything I touched would be consumed in the dark blue waters that rushed out from my touch.

I can see my car’s front fender through the front windows. Reflecting enough of the mild evening sky to look white.

We are all angry – all good people, I mean. We all want to write the glowing words of fire that will flash out and realign the millions of broken minds in this country and the world. Parched, scared, adjacent to incredible suffering, laboring under massive other fears too, we want regeneration. But how bad do we want it? And what will we do to achieve that change?

Because the real counterforce to bravery isn’t fear, but complacency. It would be so easy for all of us at that Fundamental American Distance to, in a week or a month from now, accept the status quo again. Everything is shifting, we’re all injured and heartbroken. But what will happen when the Offer is inevitably made, as it has been made before and before and before: the offer of the same old comforts our hearts ache for so raveningly if we just agree to slot back into our well-worn niches, like statues of saints who walk around the church at night on creaking stone limbs. Because this anger, this anger that you hope, this time, doesn’t go away, you’re also deeply afraid of it, and the cataclysm that it mandates.

Outside, the sky overhead, prelingual, maintains its eternal tongueless honesty. In the late day sunset the clouds are particular and pure and small: little more than tatters, crisply etched against the darkening blue.

The dryer’s stopped.

5/29/20: A Shopping Trip

I went to the store today. The process of going to the store right now, obviously, sucks; and while I could probably treat it more casually than I do, I treat it like an undertaking, a production. I get up early, to be there before other people start showing up. I wear a mask, gloves.When I get back I shuck off all the clothes I wore and immediately wash them, and immediately shower to decontaminate.

But of course I’m not fully decontaminated. Unsurprisingly, the ravenous detail-hunger of the obsessive compulsive mind proliferates anxieties in the face of the invisibility, multiplicity, and final irreradicability of germs and contaminants. The lack of a discernible end to the possibility of cleaning surfaces and one’s self means that the avenue of Further Action with regards to cleaning stretches out, in a very real way, into eternity. Even when you do pull yourself away from the compulsion to clean that unsolvableness rankles in the mind like a canker.

So shopping is a stressful, complicated experience. But this morning, in the face of all the complication and worry, as I was pushing my cart past the aisles, I looked at a small marquee for a beauty product. It was near the endcap of an aisle, glinting blandly in the flat flourescent store lights. The marquee itself was made of cardstock, and it was slotted into an acrylic stand or holder; the store’s flat bland fluorescent lights turned the acrylic white at the edges, and also I could see the whorls of fingerprints left in oil on its surface.

And there was a caesura in the turbulence, where I felt a strange peace inside: the kind of peace that wants to reach out and touch other things and that is almost a kind of love. I wanted to open my heart and spill the encompassing light inside it into this ragged unplace, this slice of mundanity crumbling under the new strangeness of the pandemic.

The feeling passed. I locked back into the grim business of COVID shopping, following the markers indicating which direction to entire the aisles from, and gliding in the strange silence of the uncrowded store, punctuated mostly by the loudspeaker’s automated and criminally serene refrains.

In general, something has been taken from me and I’m not sure if it will ever come back. This disaster has recolored massively the nature of my engagement with my surroundings.

The almost comforting symbolisms I used to see around Streetsboro aren’t there anymore. Like the Giant Eagle parking lot, for instance, always felt like an apocalypse and desolate to me. Daylight would fall onto its cracked asphalt, white and bland like florescents, and there would be miniature suns reflected blearily from the hoods of every dirt- or salt-stained car. More pleasantly when I walked back to my car on an evening errand I liked to watch the sun set into a bank of thin summer clouds, making them lavender and ruinous, and turning pale yellow itself like a coin of soft gold.

All across Streetsboro there were correspondences like this. All of the places I regularly visited had their particular emotions, their themes, their personal evocations. And these evocations changed over time too, or in different seasons or weathers, or even different times of day. And while they were of me, they didn’t give me a sense of ownership over any of these places. Nor did they bring me any closer to Streetsboro as a place. I don’t love it and never will (how could I?). But they provided loci, some way to ground the processes of thought in an actual place and, if not enact revenge on Streetsboro for its terminal ugliness, than at least flout that ugliness by finding some kind of meaning or possibility of meaning in it. They were an integral context.

But now, all these reliable evocations seem not present. Driving to and back from the store, there was nothing there; Streetsboro, as I normally conceived and interacted with it before the pandemic, wasn’t there. I drove through the town as if through a cardboard set. The construction workers on 43 looked like actors, out merely for my benefit. The sun was flat and hidden behind flat clouds. The parking lot looked plasticene, fake. The cars were all rentals from a massive lot in some glittering distant metropolis where the business of illusion is conducted. Barriers rose up and everything was inaccessible and unsignalling.

And so the pandemic’s dragging loss deepens. I think it’s important to make a note of this because, in another way, we’re all acclimatizing to this existence – on some superficial mental level, at least. Nothing feels normal, nothing is normal, but, lost in the practical, boring billion details of the day (of any day), my mind assumes a superficial normality, putting a distance between it and the alienation and violent internal sorrow of our situation. Unable to mend, fatigued by the constant confrontation with real catastrophe, I let in a kind of pragmatic blandness, a morphine but also, if taken uncarefully, a definite neurotoxin. And maybe, now that I think of it, this is why those old connections aren’t firing in the world around me.

When I got back, I put away the groceries, shucked off my clothes and put them in the wash, showered meticulously to decontaminate, and then lay down until I fell asleep. I slept one of those heavy, obliterating sleeps that, even if they only last for an hour or so, cause you to wake up with no recollection of who or what you are, as blank as an infant.

5/28/20: On Pictures

For some reason I feel like it’s always the 28th when I write these posts. The specific month hardly matters; it’s like each 28th follows the previous one rather than the actual 27th that come before, the way that John Crowley posits Christmases do.

I don’t like to have my picture taken. I never have, although the aversion didn’t manifest into any kind of rigorous praxis until I was in high school. That’s when I began studiously to avoid having my picture taken, except for in a few handfuls of specific circumstances. I didn’t even have any senior pictures taken. And that same refusal I also transmuted into a refusal to take pictures, in general, of anything: of places I visited, things I did.

It doesn’t come from a queasiness about how I look. I don’t really know how I look. Maybe I’m ugly. Maybe I’m so uniquely ugly that the ugliness wraps around again and becomes a kind of attractiveness in itself. People I’ve been attracted to’ve found me attractive, and that’s enough for me. I try not to think about it more than that and mostly succeed.

But I don’t like the way I look in pictures. There’s always this burden of incorrectness in me in them. I’m never in a normal pose. The light always catches me bad. Pictures bring out the worse in my face and body. In particular I dislike the goofy looseness of my smile – something I eventually realized I inherited directly from my dad; in his otherwise very different face it looks endearing, maybe roguish and charming even; but it looks inadequate in my own.

But, whether it started out entirely from vanity (and I think it did), the aversion to photography has developed other facets. I think pictures, of anything, fundamentally lie. Whatever they’re of, it isn’t the thing itself, not as I experienced it, but some approximation of that person, place, or thing from a distance and through a medium that are not mine and not me, and thus have nothing to do with me and my experience, even if I was the one taking it.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with that fact, but it bothers me. And it might especially bother me in terms of pictures I like. Because in their falsity pictures invite idealization. They are such perfect receptacles for fantasies, and like all fantasies they distance us from reality, making us hate it for not being as good and simple as the things we make inside our heads.

I had, briefly, a bad habit lately. I was using Google Maps to take digital walks around obscure Tokyo suburbs, little snoozy, gently run-down neighborhoods outside of the city itself.

Not a cataclysmic vice, but an empty one. It only made me hungrier for real things. Simply put, what I was engaging with, what I was seeing, was not that actual place, but a dream of a place, an ideal. And ideals are so much less, and so much better, than reality, and that’s a poisonous set of characteristics. It creates distance. Every time I engage with a fantasy of a place I’m removing myself further from the reality of that place.

This applies to pictures of people too. We’ve all seen a picture of somebody, and then later met them, and been shocked at how different they are in reality; I don’t mean to say they look better or worse, just markedly different. Can you look at a picture, of anybody, even somebody dead or that you’ll never meet, and not immediately start ascribing a personality, a story to them?

But I understand for lots of people these avenues in to fantasies are not the point of pictures, and certainly not the point of personal photos. They’re artifacts of  remembrance, not the actual memory or impression itself. Seeing a picture you took will generate the truer, internal picture you have stored in your memory, but that isn’t always easy to reach, acting in this case as a kind of Dewey decimal number for the Internal Archivist, so they can pull the pertinent volumes down from the deep stacks.

So maybe I’m losing something, by not taking or having pictures. There are definite clues to a self-caused ruin in my life.  I don’t remember much about who I was or what I did before, say, 2008, when I had an ‘adult’ brain capable of retaining and navigating longer stretches of the past.

My childhood, especially, is nothing more than a handful of memories – sense impressions, really, little snatches of time: riding with my dad to the hospital the day my sister was born; coming home from school sick and laying with my cheek on the carpet, staring at the stubby foot of the ottoman in front of me; the day I fell off my scooter in the garage and knocked the my wind out, lay gasping, calmly considering the panic that was building in my chest as I struggled to reset my breathing. don’t remember birthdays, or most of my teachers, or what my friends looked like, what we did; even more recent things like my room in high school are starting to fade and distort, and when I think of the first house we lived in when we moved to Ohio – the big house, before the divorce – it seems impossible that I ever lived in such a place, with its two-story living room and the wet wooded autumnal acreage in the backyard.

5/27/20: A Big Black Bug

I don’t go to sleep easily, but it’s very easy for me to zone out. Really all it takes is a persistent background noise, something low and insistent and monotonous, and my brain starts moving in unison with the susurrant loop, and whole tens of minutes go by as I stare blankly at something, registering nothing, thinking about nothing, aware of nothing except the sub-conscious rhythm of my mind futilely fingering oblivion like its a bolt of cloth it’s considering buying.

This happens a lot in the shower. I can easily lose 30, 40 minutes of time in the textured sound of falling water. Especially now, when there isn’t anywhere to go, not enough work that I’m willing to do, and nothing to get back to except the constant anxious thrum of life in a pandemic.

(That anxious thrum by the way is now so familiar that it’s almost possible to forget about it; which feels worse than the more active fear of earlier months on some level.)

Today I was in the shower, in a low trance, when I looked over the curtain after catching an impression of movement in the space between my eye and ear: a sort of fuzzy drone, neither sight nor sound. I saw that against the ceiling there was a big bug, some kind of winged insect. The bathroom was steamy, and I wasn’t wearing my glasses, but it didn’t look like any bug I’d ever seen before. It looked like two hornets sewn together, end to end, with a point on either extremity. It was all black, about the length of a AAA battery. Its wings moved so fast they only registered as a circumference of haze haloing the bug’s body. That body was long and segmented, with a major joint in its middle, so that one half was crooked down, like a hag’s finger.

Something was wrong with it. It was moving hectically. It kept buzzing up and colliding with the ceiling, and then dropping, and then darting in a random direction and colliding with the ceiling again. I willed it to go away, to stay somewhere I could watch it and finish my shower. Bugs fill me with dread because they’re too small to control. They look horrible, but that’s not their most excruciating quality. I wouldn’t mind their nightmare forms if they were easy to manage, easy to keep track of, to corral or repel. But it came towards me, feverishly flew over the shower curtain. It hit the ceiling again and, dropping down again, flew under the shower head and was brought violently down on the ledge of the tub by the running water.

On its side, and closer to me now, it still looked inchoate and abnormal, still like two bugs fused together, or struggling in some sort of martial embrace or mating dance. It kicked and turned by my shampoo bottle. It spun in place, describing little half circles, and the dropped part of its body quivered.

I took the showerhead down on its ribbed tube and pointed it at the bug. The spray pushed it up against the corner where the tub met the wall, and then the bug slid down and forward into the tub itself. It sluiced quickly to the drain. It was just big enough to catch on the lip of the drain lid, so I applied the water directly again, until it went down the drain completely. I kept the showerhead pointed at the spot for a few more seconds, in case it should try to come up again.

I don’t like to kill things, but I didn’t agonize over what I did. Guilt is not what I felt, but I did feel, briefly, something. I can’t say what kind of life is in insects; it can be hard to move towards the life in other human beings even, and an insect’s life force is much more remote than even that. But there was some kind of life there, an unrepeatable fragment of vitality, and I felt something, watching the drain and wondering if the bug would crawl back out, angry, and fly at me with whatever stingers or pincers it had. Briefly I thought about what it was going through: was it dead already, or was it lodged in the pipe, confused, blinded maybe, or maybe it was injured: did the heavy water ruin permanently the onion skin of its wings, the only beautiful thing on its body? Do bugs fight against inevitable death, or do they recognize and move into it docilely, like an audience being called back to its seats after intermission? Is there some grief at the final severance, or just some last insectoid calculations, a final balancing of the books? What I’m asking is, is the death of something so small and so different a tragedy, or a procedure?

But there was no permanence to these thoughts. They didn’t stick in my head. It was just a second or two before I reentered the standard environment of human anxiety, and all the day’s worries and persistent anxieties rushed back in, the way the sound of the engine refills the car as soon as the window is closed.

Because there’s this kind of selective, obliterating discontinuity to the mind. It transitions so quickly out of certain thoughts, certain moods – even as others drag on, unstoppable, for hours, days, months, years. There was just a flash of poignancy for me after killing that bug, a brief phase where it didn’t seem ridiculous or maudlin to consider the nature of its life, the horror and mutilation I’d inflicted upon it mainly because I was naked and vulnerable and didn’t want it touching me.

But the poignancy was chased down some interior drain of its own, and I won’t remember any of this tomorrow, or maybe even later tonight when I stare trancelike at the ridges and whorls of the ceiling with the TV on low, whispering white noise soothingly. The mind is so miserly with permanence, it pushes so much out into the long washes of time, the endless, obfuscating, obliterating white noise of the past.

5/26/20: Fish Fry

One time we decided to have a fish fry in the woods. Because we were young, we didn’t go far: just walked up the street, into a small patch of woods adjacent to K’s neighborhood. But it was dark by the time we left, and we wanted to go as deep as we could into the little woods, so that the lights and noise of the neighborhood and the rest of Aurora didn’t completely poison the sky above us.

It was early fall and the trees were already bare, but warm enough that that all we needed were hoodies. Between us we carried folding chairs, a small frying pan, a grimy half-used bottle of lighter fluid, paper plates, and a small cooler with soda and plastic bags of batter-coated fish inside, still uncooked.

We found a little clearing in the center of the woods. We set up our chairs in a circle around where K said the fire would be. He said he would make the fire. He started to scrape away the wet mat of dead leaves with his foot. He wore a black hoodie, and squarish, toxic blue carpenter jeans; he was fat like me; his hair was shaved down to a colorless stubble. We became friends because we both liked video games, but he also grew up with outdoorsy parents, and had inherited a whole set of experiences and skills that were alien to me. So I sat and sipped a Sprite while he scraped the leaves away.

E was there too. He wasn’t someone we hung out with normally, but for reasons I didn’t understand was invited. E was shorter than either of us, and weighed less, but looked pudgy rather than fat, which was somehow worse at that age. He had small eyes, short brown hair, sparse freckles over the high parts of his cheeks. I thought of him as popular. In general, he wasn’t liked so much as enjoyed. He had chosen to abstract his public, school day personality into a sort of malicious clownishness, an impenetrable veneer of unserious goofiness that you couldn’t ever penetrate at school but that, for some reason, in the few times I’d hung out with him outside, he abandoned completely and without ceremony, so that to point out the difference would make you seem weird, not him. This night he was exhibiting what was probably his actual personality: a sullen, embryonic ironical acerbicness; but even in this more natural state, some obscurity lingered in him; he said everything with the same near monotone, so it was hard to tell when he was happy or upset, pissed off or joking.

Eventually, K took the grody bottle of Kingsford lighter fluid and squirted it into the pile of kindling. The fire jumped and shone and it was time to cook the fish.

In groups of young boys, there’s always an invisible authority that one kid ends up with. Sometimes there’s a struggle for this authority; sometimes it falls without agon onto one of them. Because K made the fire, he had the authority tonight, even though he normally maintained a more subdued presence. And so he sat cross-legged by the fire and put the pieces of fish – perch from Lake Erie that his dad had caught – into the pan, one by one. They hissed and crackled and pulsed lightly, almost indiscernibly, the way your tongue pulses constantly in your mouth. The batter cooked down around them, pale yellow now where the fish was wettest but ruddy gold at the curled edges of each strip.

The fire started to get low and K took the pan off for a minute and told me to add lighter fluid; I took the dirty bottle in my hand and squeezed it. The flames jumped again, yellow and crude. K was looking at the fire dully; E was sitting his chair with his chin against his sternum, looking at the fire too, up from under his brows.

Fire smoke and greasesmoke from the fish rose up. The wind was pushing it all in my direction, so that my eyes stung and my clothes became heavy and fragrant and grody to the touch.

When the fish was done, K ladled the strips onto paper plates for each of us. I looked at my plate. Oil was seeping out from beneath the fish into the plate, turning it gray and nearly transparent; it bent softly under my hand as I held it. Some thoughts came up: about food poisoning, about undercooked fish, about heavy metals getting into my bloodstream. But K and E were eating their fish so I ate mine too. It was hot, and when I bit into it hot grease burned my tongue, but the meat tasted fresh and clean beneath the oiliness.

I don’t remember what we talked about. Something about the experience had locked me into myself, and I was like a passenger on a ship, looking out of my eyes at this unexpected evening, with unexpected company. In every direction the tall tree trunks looked thin in the cold and dark, but were standing so close to each other in intermingling rows; in any direction it looked like white paint being laid with a coarse brush, wet, on top of black gesso; or hallways with the paneling split and splintered from age or pressure, running into the darkness. The heavy smoke, slower now, still passed through me and then up, moving deeper into the night sky, turning slowly, dreamily, fragile, like gauze in water. The dead leaves flipped up their edges and the trees moved swayed like ocean plants in response to the wind’s long vowels. Everything, every motion and non-motion, every gradation of the firelight registered on every inch of every surface, all present temperatures and temperaments, was occurring in unison, striking me simultaneously; everything moved into a complete synchronicity for one golden, cathect instant.

One footnote to this story: someone else, too, was there, but I can’t remember who it was. But imagine one other seat around the fire, one other pair of eyes staring at the yellow light.

5/25/20: Storms, First Nightmare

The first hot days have come and they’ve been mostly ugly. Ohio can’t even warm into summer prettily. The season here is mostly defined by hot, cloudy days. These clouds are boiled up over the lake, and cover the sky from edge to edge. All day they’re evenly bright, lit up from behind from the smothered sun. It’s a leering kind of weather, it feels feverish and cruel.

But now, it looks ready to storm. This would be the first big storm of the year – at least, I think it would be the first. But time and the tiny demarcations of minor events are all muddled right now, and maybe there was a storm before this – and maybe this storm won’t even happen; I saw the clouds looming up like thugs, bruised-colored from the water they held, and it’s darker outside than it should be, and you can hear the thunder rumbling, heavy and high up, like a stack of books tumbling over in the church’s attic; but the storm hasn’t broke yet. It might move on without staging its drama here.

Back in the era of my fear of tornadoes, these near-misses with storms were frustrating. I conceptualized any bad weather day as an exchange: my time and attention for safety through the storm. And if there wasn’t a storm to watch, I hadn’t earned my safe passage through the day. I understand there’s a paradox there, of being afraid of dying in a storm when it happens, and then being afraid of dying in a storm when the storm doesn’t happen. The demonic lore of obsessive thought is full of koans like these.

There was a brief time when I found a suitable way to ignore storms when they did happen, though.

I’d go into my mom’s bedroom and put on her big stereo headphones and put in one of her CDs and turn up the volume to hide the storm sounds. I kept my eyes closed but all the lights on in the room, so that I wouldn’t see through the thin lid-skin the light in the room alter with flashes of lightning.

(If you ever have a doubt as to where the core of your being is, just listen to loud music loudly with heavy powerful headphones on. They don’t have to be good headphones, just ones capable of raucous loud sounds. Turn off the lights. Close your eyes. With the titanic wash of noise coming at your brain from both sides, can’t you feel the little ghost of you in your head dissolving into individual bobbing atoms in the massive snarling cascade, like when you rub sand between your fingers until all the grains have disappeared?)

Or sometimes I would go take a shower, and put the fan on, so that the reverberating racket would drown out the sounds that way. It would have to be a long shower, to make sure that it outlasted the duration of the storm.

Eventually these techniques of avoidance became no longer valid. I say ‘valid’ and can’t be any more specific than that. Sometimes mandates came down, disallowing something perfectly legal the day before. I had no choice but to obey them. I was being forced, or convincing myself I was being forced, to watch the storms as they came and went, and that meant experiencing the weird anguish when the thing I feared didn’t come to pass, but passed off to elsewhere, unresolved, like a threat not followed up on but not forgotten either, or transmuted into other potentialities.

*****

I remember my earliest nightmare, and I don’t know if it’s because it was my first or because something about it particularly scarred me.

The nightmare takes place in my neighborhood in Omaha. It’s summer, the weather is bright and hot, the sky is high and white, unblue and unrelieved. Aliens have invaded the neighborhood. I don’t know what they look like because they never leave their space ships, which are the classic spinning saucer-type UFOs. Their ships are small – maybe the size of like a bulky mid-size CRT television set. They fly into peoples’ houses and hover over their heads and let down a yellow beam of light from the bottom of the craft. It’s unclear what this light does specifically. It’s understood that it’s not an abduction in the standard sense, but it is taking something: all it leaves behind of the person is a loose, full body suit, like a diving suit but covering the whole head and face. This suit is in the abducted person’s exact dimensions. It’s also understood these suits aren’t made, but are the residue of a human being after the light takes whatever it takes from one. The suit is rubbery and bright purple and completely featureless, with no zippers or buttons or anything.

I’m walking up the staircase in my house. It or my proportions are off; some steps feel big, almost so big that I have to climb to the next one. As I get to the top I sense a flash of light coming from the landing. When I get there, there’s one of the rubber people suits lying on the carpet, neatly folded, as if someone had worn it and then put it away.

Someone approaches from one of the rooms on this floor, which is not the upper floor of my own house, but that of my best friend’s. It’s my best friend’s older sister. She’s dressed in an outdated crinoline (?) dress, but her hair is tangled and frizzy. She’s smiling maliciously. She shows me, either by transmitting the image into my mind or by unclasping her hands and holding the thing up to me (it’s hard to tell which of these happened in the muddled atmosphere of the dream), something small, ragged, and soiled.

5/24/20: Reading About Rich People, Again

So many books – books I love – present a major obstacle to the complete connection I yearn for in engaging with art. The obstacle is that the characters in it are rich – or at least comfortable, or at least their financial situation isn’t subject to the same constant  million-footed rush of concerns and possibilities for collapse that my and people like me’s are.

So many good books are about rich people.

Ishmael isn’t rich but, as a whaleman, money and the necessaries it buys aren’t a concern for him for the duration of the novel. Thus in the Comfortable category.

Don Quixote isn’t rich, is in fact on hard times, but hard times only in the very mild sense that applies to landed gentry living on a fixed income from the kingdom: thus soft enough times for him to read himself senseless in an age where books were a major investment. Rich/Comfortable.

In Herzog Moses Herzog has multiple houses, enough money and time to hole up in a rambling house in the countryside and do nothing but write letters to everyone. Rich.

There are always monetary issues at stake in Austen’s novels because they exist in the incredibly cold and fiduciary realm of Regency-era marriage culture; but for the most part the characters’ potential shifts in financial situation are relative ones, still confined within the more or less safe realm of the unmoveably landed gentry. So Rich.

In Anna Karenina, Levin rarely has cash, but that’s only because his money is tied up in land. Comfortable.

In Genji, fuck, I don’t even know if Genji or his court had money, so removed is their floating world from the real one turning restlessly in the muck just outside its ornate gates.

In In Search of Lost Time, M. is ensconced in the comparably disconnected and ethereal world of the French upper class. Nobody takes vacations like M.’s family. The settings of Balbec and Combray don’t even feel real in some specific way, because they’re evoked with this dreamlike quality that financial struggles would immediately dissipate. Obviously rich.

I’ve kind of started to read Henderson the Rain King; I’m not committed yet. I love the brutal hunger of Henderson, I love his poetic madness and violent zest for life and furious confused despair. But he’s a millionaire, comes right out and tells you in the first couple pages. A millionaire who can run a pig farm for purely aesthetic reasons and fly off to Africa when he feels like it to find a way to mangle his depression and maddening sorrow. Rich.

The prevalence of rich people in fiction has obvious historico-socio-economical causes. The leisured classes were the ones with time for education, the time to think about and sift their their feelings and process it into art. This massively expanded and languorous existence was built on a social concept that dehumanized millions of people in the economic rungs below. I mean that in a very real way: in all these disparate times and places, there were people living lives we wouldn’t even recognize as lives, so that the upper classes could read and think and write.

That kind of poverty exists today, too. It’s also largely avoided by art. Instead it’s usually a talking point for the media, some flag for them to wave briefly with a brave face so they can ignore their ineffectuality for another day. Or when it is presented in art, it’s presented in a way that poeticizes that poverty and the people living in it to a degree that estranges them from the compassion, empathy, and anger they deserve.

I’m not qualified to say more about that kind of poverty. Pettily, today I’m talking about the specific kind of poorness that I live in. Call it common poorness.  The every day parade of fretting, insults, minor tragedies, fleeting triumphs that comes from never having enough money to make it (our lives) all cohere.

When you’re this kind of poor, your finances are as omnipresent a fact of of your life as  hunger or love or fear. It shapes so many things, stunts others, generates a thousand problems that subtle working the texture of your character in different directions.

And always these invisible operations create a distance. You’re constantly running calculations, evaluating your own situation against your best estimates of others’. Every point of distinction between them – even the meaningless ones – creates another bit of distance.

(Obviously, that is to say all this estrangement I feel for fiction about rich people manifests in reality too.)

I hate rich people, both for big important socioeconomic reasons and for the inflammatory personal affront that is seeing someone else being achingly happier than I am. And I think being rich means that you have to be fundamentally stupid in some ways. Certain doors of suffering are closed to rich people and, in almost every case, there is a subsequent shallowing out of their personality – sometimes to a lesser, often to a greater degree.

Being poor in this way, by the way, is also boring. It’s mathematical, drier than an abacus. It’s persistent, it’s obsessive. And it’s so specific to you and your particular humiliations.

But, because of this, this poorness is a key part of being alive, for me and many others. So intrinsic that maybe that’s why we don’t think about it in ourselves and others, just like we don’t think about our own or others’ breathing. But the actions, the obsessions, the little tragedies recur and recur and recur: checking the bank account every day, hoping your friend doesn’t order something expensive when it’s your turn to pay, those weird destructive impulses that tell you to spend when you shouldn’t, if only to create the drama that you live every day in fear of, just to get it over with for fuck’s sake…

That fear is intrinsically tied up with the ugliest, shittiest, most unappealing aspects of every day existence, the same thuggish quotidia that drag us down out of even the loftiest heights of thought, our most transcendent yearnings; and even if, like probably all fears, it can be traced back to a fear of death, the journey to that point in this case is so fucking desert long, so petty, so rife with annoyances and insults, that our own strength might give out, not at the far terminal point of extinction, but at one of any billion billion intermediate points of exasperation.