Portlandia at brunch.
“Jupiter’s moving into Leo.”
“Oh my god!”
“Jupiter’s moving into Leo.”
“Oh my god!”
But then if you had the other temperament, which must have praise, which must have encouragement, naturally you began (and she knew that Mr. Ramsay was beginning) to be uneasy; to want somebody to say, Oh, but your work will last, Mr. Ramsay, or something quite clearly. … Then Minta Doyle, whose instinct was fine, said bluffly, absurdly, that she did not believe that any one really enjoyed reading Shakespeare. Mr. Ramsay said grimly (but his mind was turned away again) that very few people liked it as much as they said they did. But, he added, there is considerable merit in some of the plays nevertheless, and Mrs. Ramsay saw that it would be all right for the moment anyhow;
Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse
The temptation is real. The lure of books, the promise of discourse, the appeal of quiet contemplation in a noisy city —
The lushness, the calm, the order, the history, the marks of vision and revision, the life of the mind giving clear shape to bricks, steel, mortar, and glass, the parks and the parkways —
The Michigan shoreline sits far to the east, far out of sight, so on most days the Lake might pass for an ocean. In spring the water’s currents warm along the beach at 57th. In winter a cascade of frozen waves rise against the boulders running north from 51st. Its immensity, strength, and ease can make forgettable the neighborhoods to the south, west, and north, and for a time erase whatever term of art for ghetto arrived in the latest security bulletin.
I remember the short January afternoons, straining southward through east windows, hoping to read the sky for sunset. In my pair of rooms six floors up, in a converted hotel nobody designed for long-term residence, the dark months stretched deep into spring. Life-signs were few — distant rooftops smoking on subzero mornings and the rare crow perching on a high bare branch. Straight out across a few yards of dead air, a woman I would never meet lounged in hoodies and jeans. Nobody left their apartments and, except in passing, as a social comment, nobody wondered why. On the ground floor, a dark common room furnished in another era’s grandeur sat in another era’s dust.
Cafes closed in time for workers to make the evening meal, at home, the neighborhood retreating to its dining rooms and studies. At a certain early hour of night the articulated buses stopped rolling in from the Loop and stopped rolling back toward it.
And then you remember that the Loop is only a transfer point along the long route to any place in any part of town you might actually want to pass those few hours you have to spare.
And then your mind starts playing tricks on itself, coloring the neighborhood a civilized oasis — like the bright clearing in a dark jungle — invoking social schemas long ago deprecated and debunked. Your enlightened sensibility — your scholarly integrity — forbids you from giving any credence to bankrupt social theories, for a host of intellectual and sociological reasons, all of them sound. But there it is, pressing on your thoughts: a darkness metaphorical and non-metaphorical, both feeling and more than feeling, at once true and too unbelievable to be real, in your head yet too present to be imaginary.
Gradually, night by solitary night, the city’s real character rises to intelligibility.
Midway through fall quarter your evening strolls cut short, turning back at the grocery store. You begin to notice how alone you are on the sidewalks. You cite the late-autumn chill — surely that’s the explanation — and smile at the checker. She smiles back. “Have a good night.” You return home, cook, clean up. You glance at the week’s stack of assigned reading. You reach for the remote.
The day was three days after my twenty-first birthday. I’d been insomniac almost the whole week before, owing to the late summer heat, to a soft mattress spooning a concavity of bed springs, to hay fever in the harvest season, and to headaches. At the end of these sleepless nights the girl I was dating spent the night with me, laying peacefully beside me in that awful bed. Finally I slept, waking only once, with a start, from the nightmare image of a plane that wouldn’t land — an image so alarming I forced myself back into sleep to dream out a happy ending. After which I enjoyed a weekend of rest.
On Monday night she plied my agreement to a morning jog. Tuesday morning she came to my dorm room to pick me up, rushing in with an unfamiliar breathless look. She said, “I heard something about a bomb at the Pentagon.” She asked if I’d heard. I hadn’t.
Immediately she had me by the wrist and out running our circuit through the neighborhood to the bank of the river that ran through town, a quiet, shaded strip of lawn where geese attacked and shat. The day was warm and clear. I remember the noise of our sneakers and the color of the skies, the green and the dirt, the bricks and the siding. We chatted and laughed.
When we turned back towards campus every radio and TV in that small Iowa town seemed to be on, and every door and window open on every living room, garage, and pickup truck, and one broadcast after another delivered the news fragment by fragment.
What brought her rushing to my room was not “a bomb at the Pentagon,” It wasn’t the act or the event that set her sprinting. It was a sudden new universe sprawling to close over the one we’d known. It was a meaning that ran deeper than the evidence. It wasn’t a premonition of military adventure, of recession, of devolving civil discourse. It wasn’t facts or identities, wasn’t a doling out of victim and aggressor, wasn’t rage or fear or grievance or an ache for justice.
It wasn’t anything beyond the instinct that everything we understood was changing, now, for us and everyone we knew. Which is why she sought to shield me from it, and why yanked me to the sidewalk for one last jog, stealing for the two of us together every minute of that morning she could grab.
Verbatim, the first five paragraphs of a news article in today’s Chicago Tribune (subtitle: “There was blood everywhere”) with annotations.
Note: the Tribune’s article has been updated.
Five people were shot Monday evening in the Uptown neighborhood along a Safe Passage route outside a church that was holding a prayer service at the time, officials said.
Four shootings in the city since then have also left at least six people injured.
Another conventional (if pornographic) feature of recent news reports is the day’s tally of gun-related casualties.
The Uptown shooting happened at 5:57 p.m. on the 4500 block of North Sheridan Road, police said.
Police said a white, four-door car pulled up in front of the Uptown Baptist Church at Wilson Avenue and Sheridan Road. Someone from inside the car opened fire at a group of people standing in front of the church, wounding five people, police said.
The site of the shooting calls into question common presumptions of urban safety. According to Uptown Baptist’s event calendar, the shooting occurred near the end of the community’s Monday Night Meal, which the church calls “an incredible outreach for the poor and homeless in our community.”
The victims, all men, ranged in age from 21 to 58, Chicago Police Department News Affairs Officer Ron Gaines said, citing preliminary information.
While it’s unclear from the article whether any one of the victims was targeted, the fact that all five men were adults suggests that the city’s gun violence is not isolated to disaffected urban youths.
Muslims destroyed the Twin Towers and Christians hate the gays, or so the Twitters say. In the 1930s it was fashionable to hate Jews, then late in the ’40s, suddenly, dramatically it was not. (When the U.S. waged war on “the Hun,” said a teacher of mine, Americans with German surnames could wake and walk out their front doors to pick the paper off the drive and find a Sanskrit symbol painted on the sidewalk. Some families changed their names.) There was the internment of the Japanese and the hearings organized by Senator McCarthy of Wisconsin. There is the five-hundred-year-long ballad of Americans of African descent.
In Massachusetts way back when, women were hanged for abnormal public acts. In 2013 the gendered set themselves at one another’s throats, invoking grievances as old as civilization as just cause for asshole moves, because in March in Santa Clara one woman publicly humiliated two men who shared a joke that she found, for whatever reason, to threaten her.
America has a long and shameful history but it all reads like old news. History was full of unreasonable objectifications long before the quaint hatreds of American public life. From the chronicles of ancient battle songs and other acts of hoodoo we’ve learned beyond a doubt that human beings have reliable means of projecting convenient ideas into the heavens. We extrapolate vast meanings from the minutia of personal experience. We’re good at it — better at it than we are at most things. It’s bad logic to stretch particular truths into universal Truth, and bullshit besides, but the practice is as real and vital a part of earthly life as the pebbles beneath my toes.
I’m not sure there’s any kind of social program capable of breaking us of our easy habit of chopping the world into us and them, in and out. What’s it take to loosen up the binding feel of an impression? to train a generation of young minds to doubt that whatever appears before them is exactly what they think it is? The prescription reads like a disease!
I’ve met many people who say the answer is science or social justice or some combination of the two, or one or both of them tacked onto some other abstract category of thought. Everybody absolutely gets their say, but they’ve been talking for years and I really want them to be quiet a while. I honestly have no idea what the words mean anymore. I know they go a long way toward rallying support for some political objective or another, which is fine. I can say from personal experience it’s also a fantastic endorphin rush to join up with some great humane cause. People take active part in political causes for all the reasons that people join churches, homebrew clubs, sewing circles, and motorcycle gangs. The cause becomes our cause, the meaning our meaning, the goal our goal. I’ve done the bake sales and the info booths, the cold calls and the rallies. I get the sense of it.
What the words fail to do is to address the basic problem of abstract categories, which is that they’re made up. As contemporary political expressions, words like science and social justice amount to a credo. They convey nothing more than the same old thrilling feelings of unity and purpose of every great common act and every awful social identity movement, caught up with the same crappy zero-sum metaphysic in the assertion that they stand on the “right side” of a history when history is far from finalized. Of course activists might be aiming much lower than ideals — say, at a simple reversal of role and fortune, a mere rejiggering of the mechanisms of production. Such ends would be fine, provided they were pronounced clearly and laid open to critique. Still they would not be anything like an answer to the problem that the advocates of science, social justice, etc., insist the ideals address.
Far be it from me to advocate the social status quo. I’ve met enough pointed interference, in my pursuit of the simple things I want, to feel the urge for large-scale change. It’s a rare thing for me to live a month without hearing how my height or some note in my voice reflects a deficiency in my character. It used to get me down. It no longer pains my soul to find myself before some hipster court of phrenology. On an intimate and personal level I am aware of how attributes can be seen to add up to a positive ID whether there’s any identity or not. John Ames meditates in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead that “We take fortuitous resemblances among us to be actual likeness.” This works in the negative in addition to his meaning.
Whether data comes from a computer or from an eye, it’s only data to a point. The instant data lodges in a brain, it gains the weight of prior sentiment, and finds itself attached to the cause of argumentation. Time and time again, familiar reductions stand in place for cold hard facts, even among the advocates of looking at the cold hard facts. The world is as we take it to be and there is not a single one of us given over readily to hearing any different from what we already think we know. The acts of hating Muslims, loathing Christians, and despising Jews are all one act; the fear of blacks and the contempt of women share the same movement. If prejudice is part of how we approach the world around us — and it seems to me it is — then our task is not to overcome it and defeat it but to master it and regulate it.
For this reason I was moved by Brian Beutler’s reflection on being shot five years ago. He refused to let the experience harden his heart.
You can’t tell victims how they should react to the crimes committed against them. That’s wrong, and anyhow it’s largely out of their control. But to anyone whose instinct is to crouch defensively and treat everyone who resembles their attackers like criminals, I’m living proof that there’s another way.
Everyone who’s ever shot me was black and wearing a hoodie. There just aren’t any reasonable inferences to draw from that fact.
Baudrillard is antipositivist rock candy.
Faced with a world that is illusion, all the great cultures have striven to manage the illusion by illusion — to treat evil with evil, so to speak. We alone seek to reduce the illusion with truth — which is the most fantastical of illusions. But this ultimate truth, this final solution, is the equivalent of extermination. … Literally, to exterminate means to deprive something of its own end, to deprive it of its term. It is to eliminate duality, the antagonism of life and death, to reduce everything to a kind of single principle …
"The Perfect Crime," in Jean Baudrillard's Passwords
My God, you can stay more or less happy doing your work and enjoying the flesh and the company of friends until you get a glimpse of the way poor people perceive the world.
Archimedes Nionakis in Andre Dubus's "Land Where My Fathers Died"
It’s the same for the way wealthy people perceive the world.
And the moderately affluent, I mean the ones who go in for nice big fenced-in yards. These ones, along with the concealed carry set. But more and more it’s the commuters who find SUVs attractive, you know, in case there’s an accident. Then too, it’s the guys who get hepped up when dudes check out their girls, and it’s the girls who call the dudes creeps to keep them away. But it’s also the nominal creeps themselves, microaggressed from years of hearing they’re creeps.
It’s anybody who hasn’t learned how to live with people, how to maintain a peace. Before long anyone with a mind for other people’s problems feels the affliction as an affliction and speaks up or speaks out, though speaking is only naming the problem by a new name; it’s nothing like resolution.
“and my therapist says, [redacted],” she says.
“Your therapist?” I ask. Winter, bare trees, overcast.
“My therapist,” she says.
“[redacted] mentioned seeing a therapist,” I say.
“So do [redacted] and [redacted]. And [redacted],” she adds, “and [redacted] and [redacted] have the same therapist.”
“Am I the only one in the group not seeing a therapist?” I ask.
“We get six weeks of it included with tuition,” she says. “Maybe you should give it a try,” she says.
A lounge of browns and grays, institutional cushioning, recycled computers, secondhand magazines. I ask for the restroom. The receptionist smiles. I take a candy. The skies are oppressive. They’ll call to schedule.
My footfalls grind salt into the steps. Thick gray air. The receptionist directs me to the lounge. I take a candy. She smiles.
Intake is a room of desk lamps. He reviews my answers to the questionnaire. History of depression? “No,” I reply. Medications? “None.” Feelings of hopelessness? “I’m in grad school.”
Support system? “My parents. And a couple friends up north. My best friends. They’re great, I love them.”
“You … ‘love’ them?” he asks.
“Yeah,” I reply.
Scribbling on his legal pad. He looks up at me looking at him. There’s a question on my face. He leaves it there. He has more questions.
Her office radiator clangs. She leans to gape at me through Coke bottle lenses. Her alto is a rattle and her teeth are all wrong. “I’m afraid I’ll always be alone,” I say. I am nineteen. “Maybe you’re supposed to be alone,” she erupts with a grin. Some then-undiscovered part of me recoils. She pulls two weeks of Paxil from a drawer and eyes my guitar case — she knows my instructor. “Tell him I said hello.” He is wincing, fifteen minutes later, and then he looks at me, and casts a kindly smile. Then he says we should tune up.
Back inside my dorm I turn the Paxil over in my hands. In an instant the box becomes a portal to the future. It’s the kind of future that I can make a definite choice about, right then and there. Post-its slide to make the box a place inside my desk, in case I change my mind. I don’t.