Category Archives: America

Boatman’s Bluff

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The year after college I was an ambulance EMT. I started in July, and it wasn’t until September that I was assigned a steady shift with a partner. Before that I just bounced around between paramedics, snoozing, reading, and writing this blog on my cellphone between inventory and 911 calls.

My first code blue was an OD, on my first day of work. We arrived on scene before fire to find a supine fat kid unresponsive on a back driveway, with a gaggle of bleary-eyed teenagers who’d obviously waited too long to call, and were real quiet and vague about what happened to their friend.

I attached the EKG nodes and started bagging while my paramedic trainer pounded on his chest. No cardio activity. Fire arrived and they started banging on his chest in a rotation. Still no activity. Then someone offered to bag while I pumped, and I went to town so hard on this kid that I cracked his sternum. The snapping sound was horrific, but the moment it happened the heart monitor gave a beep and started going.

The thing about it was, everything happened in under ten minutes, and although he died later that day, when we dropped him in the ER the kid was still alive—unconscious and intubated, but alive. It wasn’t until November that year that I actually witnessed a death.

Now, I’m an omega, a contrarian loner who hates rules and rarely strikes up a lasting friendship. I’m also fairly tall and large-framed. My first paramedic partner, Tommy Gonzales, was a medic second lieutenant in the National Guard, the kind of beta-simp who joins the service to compensate. He looked like Eugene Levy—gaunt, about 5’6″, and very uptight, but highly intelligent, which necessitated bending the rules as often as they got in the way of logic. I respected him for that.

One night just about dusk as I was driving Tommy around the Sonic drive-thru, we got coded to a trailer park. Again, we got there before fire. Again, the patient was supine, this time on a shabby carpet. It was a double-wide with fake wood paneling and a bunch of taxidermied elk heads on the walls. The guy must’ve been in his mid-sixties. He was shirtless and barefoot in a pair of jeans that hadn’t been washed in a coon’s age, skinny-fat like alcoholics often are, and covered in a half-inch layer of wooly grey body hair that went all the way up his neck to an untrimmed beard. The place was strewn with empty pint bottles and crushed-up Coors cans.

The family was all assembled—son, daughter, daughter-in-law, adult grandkid. They said they’d found him the way he appeared, unresponsive, not breathing. They thought he’d choked on a turkey sandwich he’d been eating lying down, and that he must’ve rolled off the couch onto the floor. That was what it looked like. I had to shave him to place the EKG nodes, then Tommy and I started doing our thing.

It was a long night. The monitor gave just enough activity after a minute of CPR that we had to keep going even though the guy’s chances were very slim. Fire got on scene and Tommy started trying to intubate, but the laryngoscope kept bringing up turkey sandwich. The firefighters and I rotated doing CPR while Tommy smeared gob after gob of partly digested food like pâté onto the inner lining of a red haz bag. Eventually we got the guy tubed. His cardio kept flopping and starting back up with just enough activity for hope.

At one point I stood up to stretch my legs. Across the room, the family was piled around a card table in the corner, faces downcast, their arms draped around one another, watching their patriarch recede into eternity past indifferent, knee-jerk bureaucracy—past us, with two forms of state-issued ID over his eyes. We were the boatmen.

Above the family on the wall was a framed and faded portrait of a proud and fearsome Marine with a flag half-draped across the background. That was the guy we were trying to save. The two of them couldn’t have looked more different. He wasn’t in his body anyway, yet he might not’ve been further away than that portrait. I felt this sudden sense of reverent foreboding in the pit of my stomach, that this man lying dead at my feet was witnessing his family’s despair, and screaming desperately from just out of reach of them.

After three hours, Tommy advised the family that things weren’t going to turn around. They nodded stoically. We called up to the hospital and signed the necessary forms. Then we packed up our equipment in haz bags and debriefed with the firefighters before leaving them to wait for the coroner.

That shift went long. We went back to base, cleaned up, and tried to get a nap, but the calls just kept coming. The 24-hour shift that had begun just before that code in the Sonic drive-thru turned into 35, 36, then 40, and topped out at 51.

At one point we dropped someone at the ER. It was about 9 in the morning. I was sitting in the driver’s seat of the ambulance waiting for Tommy to snag Graham crackers and juice boxes from inside at the nurse’s station, when all of a sudden I started sobbing maniacally, just huge choking sobs without any kind of buildup or anticipation whatsoever. It was so primal. There was no reflection, no social pressure (I was completely alone) and no reason to feel anything. I hadn’t known the guy, the Marine—I hadn’t known him. I’d run plenty of codes, seen lots of pitiable people in sorry states and felt bad for them, and I’d gone hours by then without it occurring to me that I’d been impacted at all. It was just a job, I was just exhausted, I just wanted to go home to my family, I just wanted a burrito. This is America—nobody has real feelings. I remember that I’ve had them, back when I was a kid, but I don’t even remember what real feelings feel like. It’s been six years since that 911 call and in all that time I haven’t experienced a comparably spontaneous and authentic emotion. And yet it happened, in spite of every social pressure militating against it.

It’s strange how things incubate in us when we thought they didn’t matter, or that we’d forgotten them. Sometimes when I discipline our kids, my wife gets on me and says, “This isn’t the army, you know!” On the one hand, when I hear this it sounds odd, because the army is the furthest thing from my memory and my motivations. On the other hand, my first reaction is to feel she’s being unreasonable, because life is rough, and it’s better they learn it first from their dad. But what she sees me doing that I can’t see myself is sublimating an experience that’s constantly with me in ways I’m almost never aware of, forgotten humiliations and death by a thousand cuts, and spinning the wheels of borrowed time.

A shopping excursion

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this weimerican life

I keep having these dreams where I can’t get out of the room. Some grim dinner party or shabby hotel cafeteria where I’m exposed somehow to a whole gallery of faces I can’t quite make out. Where I’m stuck with someone from my past or present who wants something I can’t give, or knows something I’d rather they didn’t. Sometimes I’m able to escape, but then can’t seem to find my way out of the building—the trap just expands, until at some point I’m hit by the dread realization that no matter what they look like, each person I encounter is exactly the same on the inside.

Sometimes it’s a labyrinthine airport, incredibly futuristic, where I keep following bad directions or encountering incomprehensible bureaucratic obstacles requiring me to traipse back and forth between ticket counters and security checkpoints and terminals. I can never seem to make my flight, yet it’s always imminent, and panic builds until finally I wake up grinding my teeth and repeating incomprehensible nonsense to myself in a low whisper until well after I’ve had my coffee, like I got high the night before and it still hasn’t worn off.

Other times I’ve committed a crime of passion. As I begin to realize what I’ve done, my surroundings become dim, narrow, subterranean. Acquaintances and passersby all take on a uniform, alien quality. I feel I have to hide from them as I go about planning how to cover my tracks, but I can’t get out of public and they keep questioning me and I keep piling lie upon lie until I’m all out of lies and no longer believe myself.

Lana wanted to have a date—clothes shopping at the mall. It’s not how I would choose to spend a couple hours away from the kids, and she knows it. The clock slows; my blood congeals. I’d resist, but I’ve got to buy my next reprieve. We’re living on borrowed time, so why not live on a little more borrowed money?

On the way, we discuss what to buy. What the kids may like. Then a hopeful note underlying the subject of job prospects turns to debts, bills. Once that subject is wandered into, we fall silent. Her phone comes out of her purse. Like having to eat a failed attempt at some new recipe, I’ve ruined our afternoon, but still have to see it through.

The unspoken tension ratchets up as we near the mall. I fight traffic on the proximate boulevards and join a rotating queue of drivers, presumably all grimacing and overweight, as we circulate the packed rows of parking spaces, now stopping as some optimistic rube slams his breaks behind a pair of glowing tail lights, now proceeding again, now stopping, all in a row—trapped together, but unknown to one another. Some ham-faced slob in a ginormous pickup nearly backs into us as he jerkingly vacates a parking spot without looking over his disgusting shoulder. Honking, shouting, shaking his fist, he ejaculates his soul’s phonetically memorized plaque and drives off in a cloud of diesel exhaust. In my own grey-green, calcified heart I blame Lana, realizing all this could’ve been avoided. She feels it, and lowers her face into the refuge of the pillar of blue light emanating from her stupid smartphone, which may be the only thing keeping us married.

The mall is filled with wretched refuse and flooded via loudspeaker with the vacant crooning of some new ethnically ambiguous slag of the month. Huge families of eggplant shaped Mexicans block our progress as they amble along at a snail’s pace, shoulder-to-shoulder across the width of the walkways, stuffing their faces as they go, from carafes of nachos, fries and mega-sized slushies all teetering precariously atop the canopies and cupholders of baby strollers occupied for some strange reason by five, six and seven-year olds. I nearly trip over a morbidly obese preteen in ankle shorts and a Nike shirt that reads, “Skilled in Every Position” when the family’s uppity little garden-gnome patriarch casts a threatening glance, holding up his cartoonishly oversized pant-waist with one hand like he’s somewhere on a prison yard.

Lana peruses the racks of a store. We stand in the massive checkout line with her items. A couple of shameless, mercenary orientals are in front, delaying everybody’s day to interminability, yapping scarcely comprehensible harangues at indifferent teenage cashiers in an attempt to find some grift in a system that permits no haggling otherwise.

Some ghastly, freckled, androgynous high-yellow in a denim vest and fedora is staring out of a wall-length advertisement with a quote emblazoned along his misshapen flank: “sometimes, you just gotta do you.” Somewhere in a stock photo lean-in high in a glass tower some shrewd hypnotist wants you to think of these pontoon-lipped vacancies like a quotable Confucius or St. Matthew. It seems with each passing day that being white and remotely genteel in America is more and more like being a ruined old noble in a Chekhov play. We’re living through this long night, and we can’t bring ourselves to turn the lights out, but we’ve had too much time to ruminate and it isn’t getting us anywhere.

Lest you find all this bigoted—which it is—allow me the caveat that I consider these plague rats the real Americans. Their ready, unreflecting belief in magic, their vulgar fixation on commerce and utter abandonment of traditional scruples in the hubbub and banal, intermittent terror of this strange new land—as new to me today as it was to them last week—make them far worthier to be called Americans than all the brokeback whites longing for cowboy chivalry as they use their bottom incisors to greedily scrape the Dorito dust of this neurasthenic consumerist birdcage off the tips of their fat, diabetic fingers.

We pass the food court, the metastasis of sickening flesh in sweat pants with little cups of frozen sugar and cardboard palettes overflowing with cheap sauces. Then we make our way into another one of the undifferentiated neon storefronts so Lana can look for jeans. Somewhere over the rainbow, beyond every sales display and stack of merchandise lies the smoke-shrouded neo-Dickensian charnel house it all emanates from, the ant-farms and blood-sausage of Christmas present, and corrugated metal dwellings stacked along alleys strewn with plastic rubbish, flowing with human excrement, and interminable fields of shipping crates transiting sweltering ports. It’s only mid-July, but in my head I hear jingle bells. I start to wonder whether we’ll ever get away from this, whether we’ll ever be self-sufficient and free, or will we always just be employees and consumers and patients, avatars and reflections, bar-coded replicants, objects to whom all meaning in life is provided, administered, and presented like food to a capricious toddler. The wax paper burger wrapper wafting along the ground that fifteen hundred people just stepped over, the cigarette butts floating in the urinal, the fluorescent lights overhead, the LED screens in our palms, the model on the wall poster like a whore in a red-light district window, her snide smile doubtless masking every private misery, and the thousand hidden thoughts or inarticulate nagging doubts between hand-holding couples with lowered expectations, their acne, their cankles, their flat feet, fat asses, and venal cravings—the yawning gap between what you own and what you owe, and the sense of resignation to a trap so thorough we dream what it feeds us and conceptualize nature itself like a kind of unknowable death.

This is the cross. These are the nails.

“I’m so fat.” She’s in front of the mirror in the narrow corridor across from her changing room.

The worst part of marriage is the lying. Falling in love is this perfect kind of exposure that relieves you of everything you thought you needed to hide, and you reciprocate this to your lover and she accepts it with tender ecstacy and you’re free and she’s free and the world is light and song. But marriage builds lie upon lie, just in order to function. There are never enough sorries. There are never enough I love you’s.

“You look great, babe.” And she does.

A Death in Reno

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If a man dies in Reno, did he ever really live?

Lou was a Serb from Cincinnati. I knew him because his mail-order bride was a friend of my Russian mother-in-law. Her name was Yulia. She’d been a schoolteacher in Ukraine.

Neither of them had any kids. Except for her mother back home, neither of them had any relatives, period. They lived in a one-bedroom apartment a few blocks down from us. I’d see him maybe twice a year at my in-laws’ place, and when we had them over for Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving—that was my big act of charity for this guy, and a week later, every year, we’d get a package with treats and toys for the kids, and a thank-you card with a hand-written note that couldn’t have been more heartfelt. Just thinking about those packages, I feel awful. This guy languished and died three blocks down from me, for six years, almost totally alone—no kids, no friends, no extended family—and I knew, and I saw him less often than I see the garbageman.

At one time, years ago, Lou had a good-paying, white-collar job with some big company, but he’d been in a car wreck and lost a good deal of his mind. He was soft-spoken. He liked to talk politics, or high-brow movies, but he’d get confused real easy and lose his train of thought in mid-sentence. Once in awhile he’d make a wicked, salty joke, and you’d catch a glimpse of the man that used to inhabit him—witty, irreverent, self-assured. But mostly he just seemed vulnerable, because he knew he was crippled in the head, and when he realized that you knew, he’d get real embarrassed and clam up. I made it a policy to make conversation and treat him like he was perfectly normal. This was easy to do, because my in-laws and a lot of the friends they’d have around for parties were all educated and very self-righteously liberal, but Lou was conservative, which meant that even with his 6.5% rate of brain usage (or whatever it was) he was still smarter than most of them.

He and Yulia lived on his social security, and a pension from his old employer, but it wasn’t much, so they had to work. They were well into their seventies when we met. He worked “security” (I’d make the scare quotes bigger if I could) at a golf course. The place paid nine bucks an hour. She used to fold clothes seasonally, at department stores, which scarcely paid more. A couple of better-off Russian families in the neighborhood would hire her to give their kids language lessons, but they never stuck with it.

Yulia was already in her sixties when Lou brought her to the United States. She got her green card after they married, but she never became a citizen, because she spent six months out of the year with her elderly mother in Ukraine. She had a meager pension over there that she lived off of and used for airfare. This couldn’t have been entirely for her mother’s benefit, because she never went back during the winter. While she was gone, Lou would subsist on the McDonald’s Dollar Menu, and cheap TV dinners. He had a tremor in his hands. I doubt he could’ve opened a can of tuna.

Eventually, the golf course let him go, so he started driving for Uber. It made him feel pretty slick, like he was on the cutting edge. He even bought a pair of sunglasses and a faux-leather jacket, but he drove so far below the speed limit and racked up so many complaints about it that Uber fired him, too. Then he started driving for Lyft. This was right around the time the iPhone 7 came out, and some floozy passenger left one in his car. A couple hours later, as he was driving around, the thing started ringing like crazy from beneath the seat, so he pulled over and retrieved it, but he was embarrassed to answer because he was too confused to know where it came from or how to give it back, and too embarrassed to admit that he was too confused to figure it all out. So he went to McDonald’s to get a coffee and think things through, but all he came up with was to toss the phone in the bathroom trashcan and delete his Lyft app for good, forfeiting three or four hundred dollars of his own in the process.

The cancer took him quick—it couldn’t have been more than six weeks ago that I heard he’d gotten the diagnosis. It had probably been a decade or more since he’d even had a routine physical. I never went to see him in the hospital. My wife works sixty hours a week, I’m in medical school, our kids are growing—who has time? Yulia reached out to his nearest relative, a grand-niece somewhere in Illinois. Apparently, she isn’t interested. Yulia’s not going to host a funeral for him either. She’s trying to save money. She didn’t even bother to have his body dressed up, so he wore a hospital gown to his cremation. She plans to send his ashes to this niece by regular mail, probably in a store-brand freezer bag, and go back to Ukraine with his life insurance payout.

Thanksgiving—that was my big act of charity that I did for Lou. Everything we do for others in America is fetishized, performative, peremptory, and remote. Toys for Tots, breast cancer, all this kind of de-personalized annual bullshit. If we listened to our hearts, we might have to take Jesus’s advice. And then what would become of Uber, and McDonald’s, and the iPhone 7?

A man—a Serb—died this month, in Reno, on All Souls Day, alone, in an indifferent hospital ward named for the mother of God, off an interstate freeway that never stops. I hope there’s something better for him beyond.

The Office Versus Office Space

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“Yeah, if you could picture a boot stamping on a human face, forever—that’d be great.”

Consider the differences between the film Office Space and the TV series The Office (U.S. version.)

In Office Space, there’s a real overall sense of gall. The protagonist and his accomplices refuse to accept their circumstances as normal. They harbor an inchoate sense of higher purpose that’s inimical to their work lives, and in fact, we frequently see them out of work, out of doors, driving around town, in their apartments, at barbecues. In The Office, on the other hand, there’s an overall sense of compensatory smugness: rather than underground solidarity, and questioning their circumstances, the characters content themselves with feeling smarter than one another and (especially) the boss, as a salve to their embittered acceptance of dreary mediocrity. When they help each other it’s less like prisoners plotting an escape and more like nursing home inmates giving one another a sad hand job. 

The characters in The Office have no lives outside of work. Throughout the series we rarely see the outside world, and when we do it’s usually either the parking lot, the loading dock, a business trip, or an office party where all are present and thus no kind of subversive plan can be hatched like the one that forms the plot of Office SpaceThe Office is like a claustrophobic horror movie set to hokey folk-brewery muzak. Its whole premise is to normalize the most pernicious ennui and paralysis in guise of social critique—social critique being the maximum extent of satisfaction anybody (characters and viewers) is intended to get out of it.

This is how man-boob IPA and fantasy football are reverse-marketed to urbanites who think they’re better than the rednecks; it’s how work-as-identity is given plausible deniability for failed artists bagging groceries at Trader Joe’s and has-been high school drug dealers working sales at Best Buy. The NPC meme’s unintentional depth (that the alt-right can never fathom) is that it has everything to do with how we live, and nothing to do with how we identify.

Unlike the classic hero quest where evil is ultimately overcome, The Office co-opts the viewer to the flaws of the world the characters inhabit by centralizing the upward trajectory of Jim, the series’s one unironically sympathetic character, and his rivalry with the obtuse and narcissistic boss, Michael Scott. There is no third option, as there is in Office Space: the worker’s choices are the carrot, or the stick. The boss can be hated, but only with resignation, and padded, puerile shenanigans form the outer limit of anybody’s volition within this dreary frame of Sisyphean neoliberal servitude.

The Office does not critique the neutered Hobbesianism of corporatism so much as it smuggles it in through the back door by co-opting the viewer’s sense of gall to a passive-aggressive amusement so cheap it scarcely rises to the level of humor or compelling irony. It is the prescription lithium of art and entertainment.

In Defense of Bowe Bergdahl

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“Experiences of inner emptiness, loneliness, and inauthenticity are by no means unreal or, for that matter, devoid of social content; nor do they arise from exclusively ‘middle- and upper-class living conditions.’ They arise from the warlike conditions that pervade American society.” — Christopher Lasch

For at least the duration of this week, Bowe Bergdahl will remain the most hated man in red-state America. So far, the loudest voices denouncing him are the supporters of a sitting American president who, as a draft-eligible youth during Vietnam, received four deferments and a bogus medical disqualification while other, less privileged boys deployed in his stead. Most of Bergdahl’s detractors will have never served in any military or, if they did, will never have deployed to a combat zone.

An acerbic remark about the President’s draft dodging was in the news two weeks ago. It was made by an admiral’s son who graduated at the bottom of his class at West Point; who, once in theater in Southeast Asia, was promptly captured and sang, like Bergdahl, for enemy propaganda. This admiral’s son was eventually released home, and a likely false narrative of heroism was promulgated as he rose to a seat in the US Senate, while hundreds of his fellow POWs were left behind—a disgrace he has been at the forefront of covering up for decades. Like the President, the Senator sends US servicemen to die for sordid reasons that will never be clarified to the American public.

But most of Bowe Bergdahl’s detractors won’t get too animated about that.

From what can be gathered on his Wikipedia page, Bowe Bergdahl is an omega-male eccentric: homeschooled, vaguely artistic, brought up in a splinter sect church but with a fetish for Buddhism and delusions of sauntering off into the wide Mohammedan vistas of Central Asia like some kind of Great Game cartographer.

Here is his last email home before he was captured:

The future is too good to waste on lies…. In the US army you are cut down for being honest, but if you are a conceited brown nosing shit bag you will be allowed to do what ever you want, and you will be handed your higher rank… I am ashamed to be an american…. The US army is the biggest joke the world has to laugh at. It is the army of liars, backstabbers, fools, and bullies…. We don’t even care when we hear each other talk about running [Afghan] children down in the dirt streets with our armored trucks…. I am sorry for everything. The horror that is america is disgusting.

A lot of my old emails probably sound like this—annoyingly callow and self-righteous. His perspective is certainly a valid one. But if narcissism means conceptualizing yourself as the star of your own movie (“The future is too good to waste”) then the character Bergdahl is playing is Rambo with a limp wrist—and the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree, because here is what his father wrote back:

OBEY YOUR CONSCIENCE!

Dear Bowe, In matters of life and death, and especially at war, it is never safe to ignore ones’ conscience. Ethics demands obedience to our conscience. It is best to also have a systematic oral defense of what our conscience demands. Stand with like minded men when possible. Dad.

¡Conscience!

Conscience? That’s the last thing you need in the army. This is terrible advice—either the father doesn’t know his son, he doesn’t know himself, or both. Bergdahl the Elder (a typical exponent of the kind of hippy-Confederate pretense to self-reliance so common in the late-American cycle) is essentially advising Junior not to reimburse gangsters he willfully took a payday loan from. Bowe’s wrong about the Ugly American, too: what’s peculiarly disgusting about Americanness is not compulsive rule-following or callous disregard for human life, which are human universals. Rather, it’s the coquettish insistence on enjoying complicity and rebellion simultaneous.

For example: when I was in the Israeli army I got butt-hurt about something and went AWOL for a week. I took a bus to Jerusalem and left my bag and rifle in a locker at a youth hostel, and went for a jog.

It was late. It was dark. After running four or five miles, I realized that the Dome of the Rock was peering at me from an angle I hadn’t seen before. I emerged out of darkness into a well-lit intersection. Packs of male teenagers were roughhousing on street corners. Cabs and delivery drivers with unfamiliar license plates were stalled up and down the curb. The smelly runoff from dumpsters and shawarma-joint mop buckets mingled in the gutters. Waddling matrons in hijabs were taking advantage of the evening reprieve from the summer heat to do their grocery shopping at vendors’ stalls. The storefronts were lit up in neon Arabic.

I had wandered, unarmed and alone, into Palestine. A squirrelly, bourgeois existentialist, I didn’t know who I really was, and when I did the conviction was fleeting. But if the people on that street had noticed me before I got out of there swiftly in the direction from which I’d come, they’d have known perfectly well who I was, and things might have turned out very, very bad for me.

Of course, war pervades the middle east, but “war-like conditions” pervade America. What does that mean? Deception is the essence of war. You can see it in Times Square, a Hollywood picture, a start-up accelerator, a philanthropic campaign or public apology, and in all the little paradoxes teed off by that Noble Lie, “all men are created equal.” Adjust your focus a bit and this phrase appears rather backhanded; and what characters are more quintessentially American than the huckster, the shill, the confidence man, the philandering or money grubbing preacher, the motivational charlatan, the tycoon? Technology changes, but the grift is forever. Yes, it’s a human universal, but shameless American sleight-of-hand is its apotheosis. As an example: today, the curtain is being peeled back on the world of American pederasty. But the father of American pederasty was Horatio Alger.

In summarizing the film American Beauty, a once verbally-unchastened Louis CK perfectly described the dark side of America’s Jiminy Cricket ethos:

Kevin Spacey playing the man… he’s fantasizing about fucking a cheerleader in high school, and the way they represent this, in this gay movie, this fucking bunch of cum through a projector—according to this movie, when you fantasize about a cheerleader, you lie on your back and rose petals fall all over your body. Instead of her hot, sweaty ass, and the confused look on her face as you cum in her stupid eye…. No, it’s Kevin Spacey with a sweet look on his face, and flower petals, and jazzy music.

[And at the end of the movie, the ex-Marine] is the one who’s really gay. ‘None of us are gay, it’s actually the one hetero guy, he’s the gay one.’ No one else is gay. Kevin Spacey’s not gay, he’s straight as an arrow. He lifts weights, listens to Zeppelin, drives a Firebird—and thinks about fucking rose petals. And then when he actually sees her tits he almost vomits. He finally sees the 18 year old tits and says, what have I been doing all this time? I forgot I like men.

But if the makers of American Beauty needed to scapegoat the Marines in order to rationalize hedonism and hebephilia, it’s for the exact same reason that chicken-hawk conservatives have to hate Bowe Bergdahl. Because what the Punisher skull demographic can never fathom is that Bergdahl was not a deserter in the classic sense.

The last American to be tried and executed for desertion, during WWII, was found guilty of escaping from danger (near the front lines), back into safety (in a liberated area of France.) Bowe Bergdahl, on the other hand, spurned safety and traipsed off into incredible danger. I’m not saying this means that he’s brave, necessarily, though in a way maybe it does. Either way, treating this extraordinary incident strictly as a commentary on the stupidity or moral turpitude of Bergdahl himself is to miss its significance entirely. Rather, it’s an indication of how suffocatingly padded, litigious, infantilized and delusional American life has become. A labyrinthine bureaucracy with no clear distinction between public and private sectors; a vast machinery of death with no clear ethos; a hollow-man, Last Man civilization where all values are quantified…. This system that turns men into cattle and replaces them with robots can offer young men for fodder. It can send them into dangerous places to shoot and be shot at, yet on some fundamental level it can never let them truly be men. Horribly, uncannily, even on the far-flung rugged terrain of Afghanistan, this vaginized baby-sitter regime only trebles its emphasis on dum-dum procedure, on safety and conformity and unthinking and regression to the mean.

But how would a green recruit know that in advance? Not only is Hollywood not gonna tell him, no one in his community will, either: scarcely 1% of Americans have or ever will serve in the US military, and if they aren’t keeping their mouths shut about it, they’re probably blowing smoke (bravely, I might add.) But if Bowe Bergdahl did just eight hours of guard duty, he did 800,000% more than most any of the rest of us. Sure, he got people killed and injured looking for him; but almost everyone else in America is content to let others be injured and killed in our places, too. Bergdahl’s crime is not being a bigger piece of shit than most other Americans, it’s being exactly as big a piece of shit, with the added feature of bad timing, and bad placement.

Sun Tzu said the supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting. In America, we might add to this. Because our enemies are one another, they’re everywhere, and the supreme art of war is to get them to fight your battles for you. To obfuscate, intimidate or disconcert and get something for nothing while the mark blames himself. Maybe I deserved it. Maybe I secretly wanted it. I didn’t fight hard enough. I saved my objections for the staircase. I had no choice. I’ll find a way to compensate. At least I wasn’t the only one. Conscience is freedom’s truest enemy.

The grasping protagonist of Borges’ The Immortal is a legionnaire who says “I barely glimpsed the face of Mars [and] that privation grieved me, and was perhaps why I threw myself into the quest, through vagrant and terrible deserts, for the City of the Immortals.” How much flailing braggadocio is likewise expended by American men who will never feel truly tested, vindicated or individuated? That weaselly energy has got to profit somebody in this land of umpteenth chances, where Jesus is Lord, insurance is mandatory and Budweiser urges you to drive responsibly. Where once we came fleeing persecution or poverty, today, with nowhere else to go, we try (and fail) to escape from ourselves. Profligacy, obesity, overdoses, dropouts, psych prescriptions, DUIs, rap sheets, rejection, tepid boredom-induced sex, bullying and being bullied, chicken-shittery of every variety. That’s not who I really am, your honor. But its perpetrators are the soldiers of the real America, where around the Thanksgiving table and in mommy’s waiting embrace, all is validated, all is tolerated, and all is forgiven. So why not Bowe Bergdahl? In the words of Al Pacino’s Tony Montana in Scarface, “You need people like me so you can point your fucking fingers.”

an embarrassment of kitsches

Your rags betray your vanity

Your rags betray your vanity

‘Multiculturalism’ suits them to perfection, conjuring up the agreeable image of a global bazaar in which exotic customs can be savored indiscriminately with no commitments required.                         —Christopher Lasch, Revolt of the Elites (1995)

The battle’s din subsides; CNN’s swarthy erstwhile good guys have all gone home to beat their wives. Skulking asthmatically through the suk between protection racket badlands a gangly, mysterious stranger with the untrimmed, languid mug of a bus bench masturbator declares the blast radius liberated as he assesses the remaining impediments to liquidation, consolidation and free love.

They should’ve given him the Qaddafi treatment.

The consummate, bloviating hail-fellow hipster who’ll pretend to know about anything and gives a shit about nothing, in each country he visits it’s the same schtick: fatuously lament the local misfortune between mouthfuls accompanied by disconcertingly age-incongruous pornographic moaning, lob an “and how does that make you feel?” or two with the narcoleptic gaze of a burnt-out psychoanalyst, then inquire primly about the timetable for Americanization. Nary a child-like denizen of these backwaters slated for development realizes they’ve lain their Sunday best before a predator, and when they slaughter their enemies with US ordnance he shudders as though Mr. Whiskers just dragged in a decapitated rodent. For chrissake, people—have a little class, will ya? I’m tryin’ ta eat over here.

Ours is an age propitious for the lily narrator who’s seen everything and experienced nothing, but once had a drink with someone who did. Let him assure you no good can come of principles, if your aim is to keep in victuals.

Regime mouthpiece Anthony Bourdain is Karl Marx’s last laugh, a typical effete and soon-to-be incontinent (but still partying) leftover of a once puerile, now senile revolution that refuses to clear the stage and—herpes notwithstanding—always has a happy ending, and endless rationalizations for prudence. Galavanting, dainty-sampling, conflating impudence with pluck under that jaunty canopy of special providence for drunkards, fools and the United States of America—where enjoyment of the finer things vindicates imperial prerogatives and televangelical lucre as surely as going slumming sends shivers down the asscrack—he never seems to tire of recounting how very much yonder humble folk meant to him. A missionary of mass-market libertinism in humanitarian guise, he combines the scolding and verbally chastened impulses of progressivism with insatiable lust for colonial spoils. A hippy-dippy paver of paradise, ever on the lookout for unsullied authenticity to add to his collection of taxidermied heads, he’s a blue-state Paula Deen with as much regard (and as much use) for the niggers as a payday lender. And he looks like a big gay squirrel.

No fewer Indians dead for today’s cowboys being bi-curious, Bourdain’s interview questions of local denizens are always undergrad clichés, three steps short of poignance and five steps beyond real engagement. In the end, I didn’t know what to do about all the poverty I saw, but I sure ate good while I felt bad about it. He’ll use your history as a prompt for glib establishment tautologies, your city as a backdrop for a trustfund odyssey journal entry, the most hackneyed stereotypes about your culture and a dozen words of your language for a thin veneer of erudition between fits of sleep apnea brought on by the dreadful exertion of deciphering your pitifully accented ESL. The jingling in his pocket plays to local mercenaries, airtime whores and the shucking bourgeois sleeper cells that furnish him obsequious Squantos and Queequegs for guides, but never to the peasants, whose testimonies he’s happy to peddle wistfully through an interpreter, but who lack the venality—the truly ground-down sense of thrift and proportion—that his handlers have in mind for them.

One can well suppose how this sausage gets packaged—A: Hey Pepe, who’s the gringo? B: Pipe the fuck down and put on a shit eating grin, will ya? Can’t you see he’s being followed by cameras? Which are as good as apostles, or Angles of the Lord; on whose shoulders they alight separates hip from square, living from dead, but they can only lead you if you want to be led. This week, we’re here with the guy who’s been doing the thing that speaks so poignantly to the universal Us and where We’re all going…. Well why in the hell didn’t they put him on TV years before? And isn’t that universal We just the old, royal one? This isn’t a two-way street, after all. You’re telling us what to care about.

When Nir Rosen mocked Lara Logan’s rape in Cairo, it was despicable because he and she are playing the same game, only she has to play it with a twat between her legs, while he gets to take his own assignments (“Imperialism,” he told the Senate). Same isn’t true of Anderson Cooper.

In the words of another plagiarist luminary artificially accorded relevance beyond any reasonable expiration date, The times, they are a changin’: of her travels, Rebecca West gave us a thousand-odd pages devoted with desperate passion to a single area of the planet. Kerouac regurgitated his faggy soul in its tipsy entirety, little though anybody wanted it. Orwell took up arms with his hosts. Jon Stewart may’ve been a sycophant who played an iconoclast on TV, but he did it four nights a week, and even Brian Williams deserves credit for admitting he’s a phony. But Bourdain is a new low, a middlebrow parakeet, a geopolitical ambulance chaser whose every insight turns out to be precisely CNN’s vapid conventional ordure, served up in affected tones suggestive of some scintillating intellectual morsel. The world according to Anthony Bourdain is an abortion, a tree falling in the woods—an undifferentiated clump of cells that only the trend-setter, the marketing hack and the affluent solipsist’s ADHD nanosecond of consideration renders extant. And as this gas bag orbits his handlers’ parcels, he regurgitates his inch-deep cognitive intake in blithe, self-important banalities as homogenous as his digestive output.

By itself this carnivorously pontifical agenda-setting is quite unremarkable; what makes Bourdain’s every blasé pledge-drive du jour so egregious is the feigned humanity, withdrawn in the space of an Instagram share once he’s on to the next paternalistic holiday in the sun.

He checks in with the Congo to report whether anything’s changed since Conrad, and concludes that it hasn’t. Nope, still, uh… dark. Blame King Leopold, that’ll keep the heat off our sponsors! His Morocco is nothing but the footsteps of Bowles, Burroughs and sundry lesser man-boy love pioneers, to whose mughrebi meanderings he devotes the entire episode. He presents the haunted ruins of Leptis Magna as a veritable oasis of civilization in the Libyan dregs; his only complaint is that the cocks have all been chiseled off the facades by Mohammedan prudes. He gives Iran the predictable recalcitrant-child treatment: thankfully, there are a handful of brave ESL speakers holding out there, dreaming of TJ Maxx and the caramel macchiato. His Lebanon is a blur of caricatures, titillating nightlife mashups juxtaposed with exotic houses of worship and gratuitous stock footage of multi-confessional war dead. The feminism of Beirut literata Joumana Haddad in Parts Unknown is reduced to little more than…. parts unknown, the unemployed forbidden fruit of some deposed oriental despot’s harem, all lipstick and leggings and horridly uncouth death threats from jealous cleric cousins lurking somewhere off-camera. When he temerously characterizes the country’s deadly fissures as hip vibrance, she asks whether his lurid enthrallment has anything to do with the fact he’s just visiting, and the piece of shit deflects by asking “Am I not supposed to love this place?” Well you’d better ask it first, Tony. This isn’t the gay princess cruise you take it for. Where Flaubert got off light with syphilis, today they might pull your fucking fingernails out with a pair of pliers. (Now that I’d tune in for!)

Apparently monolingual (his copy-hacks don’t seem to realize raconteur is French for blowhard, anyway), Bourdain’s every encounter is a one-way street. Each new attempt to relate to those foreign “friends” he so self-servingly calls upon is terribly awkward to behold, even when he’s visiting English-speaking realms. But friends these guilelessly hospitable or attention-whoring dupes undoubtedly are, in the same sense that vile showbiz backstabbers are so adept at namedropping and mutual exploitation. His every word and gesture is smoke. Anthony Bourdain has Muslim friends the way Donald Trump does. He’s got as much chance of breaking bread with the locals unaided by fixers and coming away in one piece as the camel has with a needle’s eye. Underneath the mealy ideals is a sugar daddy impresario indulging crimson fetishes on the cheap as he moralizes behind hired protection. And did I mention he looks like a big gay squirrel?

A Profoundly Evil Man

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“This next cat flew in all the way from the Hamptons, please give him a warm welcome….”

Part one here

More post-election fools-gold profundity this week as Jon Stewart’s artificial-relevance tour continues:

I think one of the lessons of this book and what we’re talking about is to put satire and culture in its proper place, that controlling a culture is not the same as power. And that while we were all passing around really remarkably eviscerating videos of the Tea Party ― that we had all made great fun of ― [they were] sitting off a highway at a Friendly’s taking over a local school board. And the lesson there is, as much as I love what we did…there is a self-satisfaction there that is unwarranted, unearned, and not useful.

Since when do Jon Stewart’s ilk have to earn self-satisfaction? But the local Friendly’s, there’s the locus of power, not Viacom or the White House, where during Obama’s tenure Stewart was a regular and, at the time, secret guest. This flag-draped charlatan’s disdain for the world of Rockwell’s Four Freedoms is palpable. If controlling a culture is not the same as power, can any amount of power ever be enough?

Ah, but there is a silver lining (via HuffPo):

‘Not everybody that voted for Trump is a racist, I don’t give a fuck what any of you say to me. You can yell it at me, you can tweet it at me. They’re not all racists. Or they’re not giving tacit support to a racist system … We all give tacit support to exploitative systems as long as they don’t affect us that badly.’

[Stewart] brought up a conversation with another person who argued that ‘by saying that [Trump supporters] are not all racists, [he’s] giving tacit support to a man of racist language.’ Stewart then pointed out that many Americans are complicit in exploitative and damaging systems, asking the person to pull out his iPhone. ‘I was like, Guess how those are made, guess who makes them?’ Stewart said. ‘Oh yeah, but that’s …. It’s not different, we all do that. All of our shit stinks and getting beyond that takes incredible work.’

Incredible work,” Jeezus, don’t sell yourself short there, Jon. How much is this fifty minutes going to cost me? These remarks aren’t observations, they’re machinations. Power is always selectively moral. So if a professional moralizer can get past his complicity in sweatshop slavery, what hope is there for those recalcitrant rubes down at Friendly’s, whose culture he controls?

Love’s Iron Curtain

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Don’t stop believing

What becomes of a Russian girl?

We shall have to learn how to smile

Through strip malls and leasing offices

and uncomprehending inquests of a new colossus

Through syphalitic massage parlors and purgatory’s own vinyl siding

Through weekly coupons’ deadly barrios and indifferent correspondence courses

She longs for an abandoned pensioner and dies by a thousand cuts of anonymity and disdain

arranging clearance racks and perfume samples with the red shameless handmark upon her throat of a fat, impotent generation’s inchoate hatred of mother

Who flitted, frolicked, recited simplicity and diligence

Whose defiant gaze passed recorded history’s last glimmer of innocence

and the future’s city swarmed blind and tumult

Never knowing what grave depravities await

to make the overeager dashing of brains against the gears of heaven’s ever-turning barricade appear quaint

Colonel Bert and the Epistemology of Time

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“We” don’t

Would you recognize a great man if time deceived you?

Bert is America

Bert is forgotten

Bert’s wife Ann brought our boys a tray of brownies the day we moved onto the cul-de-sac

Who does that anymore?

A thin, sinewy pillar

chin up, shoulders back

but with a manner of able grace and a twinkle of unwary forebearance

Bert was an artillery colonel but he wouldn’t have you know unless you pry

There are those for whom time yields,

and if you see it, you’ve seen too much

This word, “America,” gets thrown around a lot, though its meaning is actually fragmented

and a fragmented meaning can’t be grasped intuitively

When Ann gets sick Burt reports for visiting hours in ironed slacks and collared shirt

Dignity is a lost art

Every few months now an ambulance takes Ann away while we’re all out

Seasons change, life goes on

Ann rotates between facilities with the utmost christianity

between doctors and blood tests

but none can say what’s really wrong

Funny how they can see inside your cells but cannot see a person

a neighbor, a fellow

Across the street, Bert works afternoons on an old car, ploddingly

and suffers these curious times without all the desperate questions that plague me in my travails

If we shirk our potential must we ignore the man who meets it?

Is the terminus of fellow feeling in a democracy a windowless room?

Bert keeps up a solemn resistance.

Vegas Odds

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An idea whose time has come

Professor Woland declaring ‘Black Lives Matter’ is how you know to bet on Operation Human Shield.

As for pelt-head, I’m guessing he gets his orders in a manilla envelope from Jeffrey Epstein, in cartoon cut-n-paste text collaged over a blown-up negative of himself doing unkosher shit to a dog collared eleven-year old.

I dunno. I could be wrong.

Personally, I prefer earnest stupidity to refined guile. So the older I get, the less it bothers me to find myself agreeing with Stormfront.org. Yet the alternative right—shallowly erudite, media savvy—seems, well, a little… off. 

And not only the alternative right.

How was the Muslim Brotherhood crushed? It was brought to power.

Why are the people who killed Kennedy tolerating a decade’s worth of John Birch in national syndication?

What could the Carnegie Endowment possibly have to do with an ostensibly alternapunk guerrilla news outlet?

Every several months brings a new and oddly polished YouTube huckster positively brimming with esoteric supposed revelations. There’s so goddamned much truth afoot you’d think deceit was a revolutionary act. I mean, 9/11 gabs don’t have firmer ground to stand on than WTC 7?

Rand sang himself to sleep on a Rodney King cover. Papa Ron’s selling doubloons for JP Morgan Chase.

An arid, inverse 1968 is being ring-led by a gay Jew fratboy and an ex-academic outer-DC trust-funder.

And Donald surrogates are legion.

Ain’t that some shit?

When the Syndicate wanted to keep the Constitution suspended, they had [what does a white racist call] a black professor lead a Tracy Chapman hum-in. Now, seven years into the Trayvon administration they’ve got a method actor—one of TS Eliot’s lost golf balls—on the stump intimating 49% of what 51% of voters want to hear like it’s a Gods Must Be Crazy coincidence.

Ironically, responsive government’s what you get when everything you say is backlogged.