And I am happy. Some of them might even be right. The pizzagaters were only the outward signs of an inner disorder that was general. The snow falls evenly over the fields. In 2009, after the crash, the average net worth of African-American women was five dollars. Inspect your hands for an hour, the turning of the wrists, the grip of the knuckles, the octave-spread, the twist of tendon and the orchestration of bone. He is least in strength but strongest of mind among his kind. It was as if he had just asked a question. It’s a hotel restaurant, after all, with pharmaceutical executives going over the new graphs of the pick-up rate of the latest diabetes drug, assistants messaging vice presidents about meeting times and places, fundraisers scouring the profiles of potential donors. And, over the course of his life, Plenty-Coups watched his dream realized, the buffalo replaced, the destruction of all that could have been significant to him or to anyone he knew. There was no gasp from the crowd, hardly even a murmur. And the chickadee flew on, terrified. These people, dazed by their phones, were not worth inspection. The Four Winds that always make war alone had this time struck together, riding down every tree in the forest but one. High office pimped out. My father’s image was drifting into the impossible fuzz, the big misrecognition — he had been dead long enough that the world he had left wasn’t the world that remained. Of course, we live in a time when think pieces in response to the above observations could be written more or less automatically. Because the wheel fell off the conveyor belt. If you could play a meal in a Walkman, it would be dinner at Jams. Why had I turned my face away? Because it was the inauguration of Donald Trump. Only a few blocks over, the great gold tower announced the branded name of defeat-in-triumph. Why did the guard smash it? How expensive are those knives? It wasn’t distorted enough to provide any clarity, and when you saw it clearly, it wasn’t worth looking at. Because it wasn’t just the one thing, it wasn’t just the news, the latest catastrofuck, Trump, et cetera, the invalidation of law and custom, the worship of might for its own sake. It was kind of funny, if you were looking at it from the outside, and at an angle. The child learns, through this method, that money is the emptiness that makes things possible or impossible. The eating work and the working meal. Why did the company buy cheap ball bearings? I have traded in facts of all varieties, sociological and journalistic and academic. The building going up on Central Park Tower at 57th will rise to 1,550 feet, the one at 111 West 57th to 1,428, One Vanderbilt to 1,401, 432 Park Avenue to 1,396. Meanwhile, story itself meant less. The radio had been playing a song by a woman whose name I can never remember, whose voice sounds like the sweet-and-sour sauce they slather on mall court chicken, a song about how beauty is pain but it shouldn’t be. This bar was the same as all the others, only more so. Expertise was suspect in itself. I will be with you when the phone no longer rings. To escape my own sense of meaninglessness and to dive into the pleasure of relieved distortion. Intellectual Magic Negroism, I suppose. Meanwhile, I was dreaming that my nose was a dick and my eyes were balls, and as I walked through a great and foreign city, my dicknose kept banging into strangers and into the walls, and my eyeballs swung under, googly and precarious. I will miss famous poets. It was an exercise in counter-distortion. I went to Jams that night because I thought it might make a good bit in an essay, like the smashed phone. Triple Berry Brownie? There was a gray mood in the immediate aftermath of Trump that everyone lived and breathed but no one could quite articulate — a heaviness, an anxious depression, an apocalyptic cloud. Everyone metabolizes the distortion in their own way. Nothing I could ever do would matter. Why was the moment confusing? And the gray spread from the world to ourselves. It could have been any day between the ages of six and 12. That night, the cold was closing in on minus 30, nostril-tightening, core-haloing, the fucking crazy cold. The phones provided all the necessary illumination. Then they faded to gray — it didn’t matter this time. It is the walk home, after school, from the bus stop to the house in Edmonton where I grew up. In the souls of the engineers, and in my dreams, the whys could go on forever, an abyss of whys funneling down into distortion within distortion. We worked while we ate while we worked. I will miss the North. Their politics was the politics of spoiled children. Once in my home, among the ones I loved, I would be overwhelmed by a terrible sense of failure, of inevitable emptiness. The food was, in its way, as distorted as gluten-free end-of-the-world rations. I was crossing into the States to report on the Trump inauguration, and the crowd at passport control was jumpy, swelling, the border agents anxious, the travelers confused. What could I say about these people? The smashed phone at the border crystallized the distortions of the time and place. The lightning no longer struck once or twice, to light up the night. Why did this gray atmosphere and sense of sizzling breakdown fill every room? Trump was a brazen gangster, and his brazenness was as essential as his gangsterism. Gluten-free! It was unintentional but obviously systematic: if I wanted to understand something in the United States, apparently I asked a black woman. The Border
A SMASHED PHONE at the border — I knew right away it was a great bit. Confronted by disproof, there was always another layer of conspiracy to burrow under. They just did. These weren’t just vague opinions or self-serving bullshit. At times, Trump seemed like nothing more than a distraction from all the distortion inside us and outside us. She was full of the same longing to leave, I could see. What if the future isn’t a boot stomping on a human face forever, but all faces dimming around the edges, blurring — an uncanny valley of the other. Because it wasn’t sufficiently durable to meet the demands of the production line. On Sixth Avenue, below the Park, I felt it at a restaurant called Jams, which is as good a place as any, I suppose. I will go where I can find it. Immigrants rounded up in prison camps. He radiated hard-won pride. Maybe it wasn’t even distortion anymore but the way of the world. There can never be an America for them because they are already in America and it is no America to them. I want to keep walking. The juggernaut had always been coming. Meanwhile, you are the inspector, out of a cheap 19th-century novelette. Butternut squash risotto and gnocchi with pecan sage pesto and duck tacos with crème fraiche. Because I was writing essays. We have all been running to catch a flight that took off before we left home. Two or three policemen waited awkwardly at the curb. I will miss language you could chew like taffy for an afternoon, then leave it sitting on your tongue until it dissolved into nothing or a dream. Why could I not remember her? Patients dumped out of hospitals onto the street. So:
Why was Donald Trump elected? What do they mean? Daddy! It was salty and crunchy, dry the way the past is dead, smothered in butter and tarragon. As I was wandering the stalls devoted to multipurpose axe-heads, and solar-powered flashlights, and gun paraphernalia, and conspiracy literature, and various other survivalist accoutrements, I passed a retailer offering pre-made, ready-to-cook bundles of gluten-free rations. His crying face was always the result of good news in our little lives — because his grandchildren were growing up to be intriguing people, because my brother found a better job, because the property values were rising, because spring was breaking out, and he was not there to see any of it. Look at the men walking through the mall with their assault rifles slung over their backs, reeking of a summer’s worth of sweat. Because nobody considered what the purpose of information was, or even if there was any. It stuttered, staccato, a strobe. I will miss the white rhinoceros, a fortress that carried itself over the earth. Every now and then, on Military Road in the background, a convoy of sirened limousines would pass — power leaving the city, power entering the city. His face was quizzical, his lips closed, his head slightly cocked, his eyes pursed. Because the guard smashed it. A hooker with half her ass exposed by a hiked-up skirt, barefoot, stood in the middle of the street talking into a sneaker like it was a phone. The fanatic stood there, looking at the middle-class Washingtonians strolling by; he was uninterested in the transfer of power, defiant in his existence, yelling that the pizzeria was a place of demonic oppression and the secrets we were all hiding were about to be uncovered in the divine light of revelation. Children, not just factories, figure out the world this way. Who do you think you are? The only escape was back to America, to the ocean of distortion, away from my son and the curiosity in his lamplit eyes, away from my wife, away from my daughter and the unanswerable questions sprouting curly-haired from the sides of her head. Why wasn’t it sufficiently durable to meet the demands of the production line? Writing was just putting yourself in the later, moving it up, because the later that was coming would erase whatever you thought you had meant. Kids murdered in schools by their classmates. He negotiated with the white people who took the land they were going to take, and he gathered two hundred marks on his coup-stick, two hundred feats of daring earned by striding up to the boundary between life and death, two hundred acts supremely riding the edge. “In that tree is the lodge of the Chickadee. My essay-self and my home-self were diverging. None of that is information. Because the moment was confusing. It was terrific. Maybe clarity would come later. Everyone goes on with their lives. He was weeping, my mother and I figured, because living was beautiful and he was not among the living. I cannot see. Rather the opposite. A gray-tentacled mood — that’s what I called it, to myself. A short brown woman was checking her messages behind me when an agent, striding out from his station, slapped the woman’s phone out of her hand, hard, onto the ground. I left Jams without really noticing. I have no affirming flame to lift out of the negation and despair other than the dream of my father’s questioning face, a dead man’s unasked question. Authenticity was for people who weren’t paying attention. It’s quite another to see it, to look into the face of conviction eating itself. The crowd at Jams was an instruction in the self-consuming moment. My daughter once woke me up, calling in the middle of the night, screaming Daddy! These fuckers thought that the world was going to end and they could still ask for their pasta and vegetable stew and Spanish rice gluten-free! All I ever thought about was my family, my wife and son and daughter. The Jams pancakes were layered with smoked salmon and dusted with caviar; the salmon was too cold and therefore bitter, erasing the flavor of the caviar entirely and leaving the texture of languid bubbles on the tongue. His face crying, sobbing. Because the people in key states in the Electoral College voted for him. If an engineer were to consider the consequences of any machine he designed, he would never build anything. “Listen, Plenty-Coups,” said a voice. When a source died while I was reporting on crowd-funding health care for Mother Jones, I spoke with her neighbor — and finally, after talking to maybe 30 experts who were only half-useful, I understood the intersection of Medicare and Medicaid in the state of Georgia, the impossibilities of chronic care management under conditions where emergency is the basis of care. [That’s how children figure out the adults know much less than they seem to know.]
Why can’t I have that toy? Every story mattered less. Maybe the night had something to do with it. Because light diffracts for the edge of the atmosphere. Everybody burned with anxiety and nobody gave a shit. Because the ball bearing on the conveyor belt rotator cracked. In the example above, the solution becomes obvious without needing to be expressed: the factory must find a higher quality ball-bearing supplier. Why did the distortion become a juggernaut? At home, I was a fleshy contented irrelevance. The psychological mechanism was so obvious: the crazier the belief, the more he believed. It was an unendurable clarity, though. The desk and the table were one. I decided, after another, slower drink, that I would never write about Jams. Lately, I’ve been reading Plenty-Coups’s autobiography. “Facts matter” — that seemed to be the heart of the cry of resistance. The distortion is unacceptable and it is all there is. During the inauguration, I went to a bar in a black neighborhood and bought drinks for two hours, during which time I learned that when you send a generation of young men to a foreign country to kill brown people, you shouldn’t be surprised when they come back home and keep on killing brown people, as a service to their country. If I sat long enough in my clarity, distortion shimmered up. I had to go to the toilets to laugh.
V. And given the many impunities, ancient and modern, racking the American system, at all levels, a bit of business with a phone barely registered. (No fortress can survive us.) I will miss the idea that a painting can be holy. Old banners for a fresh riot, old hates for new music, new borders for old companies, crumbling bridges and rotten ideas. The crows scatter for no reason, filling the air like livid ash. The stories appeared. The country is true and it is beautiful, but its truth and beauty are unbearable. Everything else will matter less. This distortion was just background. He saw the buffalo dying and he saw the earth covered by a new kind of buffalo, strangely horned, bellowing strangely, the cattle whose name he did not yet know emerging as if out of a narrow window in the earth. It was a perfect moment — or near perfect anyway. Then, from the other side: I was just reacting to internalized white guilt, or currying favor with identity politicians. Why did the ball bearing on the conveyor belt rotator crack? The world is there to be seen. They were the only ones who seemed to know what they were talking about. The Gluten-Free End of the World
The Republic was falling, and my father’s ghost visited me in a Best Western in Bowling Green, Ohio, which is as good a place as any, I suppose. Then he was warned away from a tent filled with baby’s things and saw himself as an old man. I learned that, if you catch your pinky finger in the system of American law, its gears will chew up your whole body. Why do you have to work for money? I will miss the New York where you could become who you are. It can’t be there for any other reason. The faint steam sunk, stunk, setting. I crave clarity. Why? For myself, I had half-forgotten all that shit from university, aletheia and veritas, unforgetting and confirmation. Because the company bought cheap ball bearings. Only one tree, tall and straight, was left standing where the great forest had stood. It must have had something to do with the confusion of being in America. Like I said, a bunch of cheap tricks. “After this, nothing happened,” Plenty-Coups told his biographer. I dreamed other dreams than my dead father’s face. Because he believed, as an American whose history and culture are based on clarifying violence, that violence would provide clarity. Everything old was new again on the menu at Jams. I do know that the next time I want to write anything about the United States, I will look for the African-American woman closest to the story whom I can find. I will miss the rank smell of rotting paper. It was that they wanted the distortion. Not that that’s a particularly satisfying answer. They didn’t need candles here. The memory that returned, over and over again, was this: I am walking across a field of snow in the deep cold. She would leave me these whispered memories like white shells on the banister that lead from the upper hall. The restaurant brought me their version of chicken. Do not look too long. This part of Manhattan is set to spike, or so I’ve been reading; the market looks hot in midtown’s Crazy Mountains. He is willing to work for wisdom.”
The chickadee became Plenty-Coups’s sign — like the chickadee, he listened to the future as it came, patiently, without rage. But in the Best Western in Bowling Green, Ohio, my father was no longer weeping.
III. That’s the key to its appeal, obviously. He lived meaningfully in a world emptying itself of any meaning he might understand. After writing maybe a half-dozen stories for various magazines and newspapers, I came to realize an uncomfortable fact about my own reporting, my own vision. Because I had been to Tokyo recently and because I was traveling the world, to see it. The distortion became a juggernaut. APRIL 2, 2018
I. Tens of millions of zombified addicts. Why did they come to believe that he represented their interests and worldview more than his opponent did? Why did the engineers live in such emptiness? I will be with you when the water can’t be drunk. Why did the people in key states in the Electoral College vote for him? Because it does. I am alone. The place was an odd type of culinary resurrection: the original Jams was the first California-style nouvelle cuisine restaurant in New York City, lasting from 1984 to 1987, born in the hot sin of junk bonds and finished in the massacre of black Monday. But the final why was always missing. I could come up with another dozen standard responses, if you really put me to it. If nothing mattered, did anyone matter? The comfort of the five whys method of Taiichi Ohno of the Toyota Production System is that it stops at five. I would go to the inauguration, or to San Francisco, or to Detroit, or New York, or Toledo, and I would interview 40 or so people, and the only quotes I would end up using were from the four or five black women I happened to meet. The Juggernaut
What I am trying so hard to describe is an impression that is an idea, or an idea that is a sensation, or a sensation shot through with thinking about the sensation — memory and imagination and whatever sweepings from the lonely rooms memory and imagination grow from. So, I was looking around, and I ordered a drink, and I thought about my daughter — sitting at a round desk in an art gallery, painting a girl with electric rainbow hair while I colored a pattern of moon and stars with those cheap candy-smelling markers. There is no date stamp on this memory. So:
Why did the factory shut down? When I was in the States, I was not myself. So:
Why was the phone smashed? At my son’s age, Plenty-Coups wandered into the Crazy Mountains in Montana and wandered out with a dream. The mirroring instinct is ferocious and general to lingual primates, one of the technical specifications of the mind’s theater. It wasn’t too hard to see why my memory would fill in, for this woman I couldn’t bear to witness, the face of someone who had known me my whole life. Because he was inherently fraudulent, you had a choice: the extreme shallowness of facts or the turgid fraud of power. I ran to her and asked what it was, what was the emergency, and she whispered in my ear the fact bursting out of her: that an octopus has three hearts. Banner image by Filter Forge. The facts were never going to save us, that much was clear. In 1964, the father of cybernetics, Norbert Wiener, called information systems “the modern counterpart of the Golem of the Rabbi of Prague.” (The Golem is a species of juggernaut.) And, before then, Gershom Scholem, the great Kabbalah expert, wrote that “golem-making is dangerous; like all major creation it endangers the life of the creator — the source of danger, however, is not the golem or the forces emanating from him, but the man himself.” And, in 1920, the Czech play R.U.R., which coined the term “robot,” was based on the idea of the golem; the very first piece of fiction about robots imagined that they would annihilate their human creators. She laid it all out in detail. I had a bunch of cheap tricks older hands had taught me: to remain as silent as possible for as long as possible so whomever you were talking to would rush in to fill the awkward spaces; never to say “hi” or “hello” or “how are you” but to blurt right out my most important question since people instinctively answer the first question without pausing to consider whether they should; to offer confessions in order to receive confessions, to make jokes in order to be told jokes, to be warm in order to receive warmth. Why were you writing essays? The mythlessness of my country fell on me like a physical affliction. They have knives, too. Walking back to the car, my daughter climbed up into my arms, and I slid us over the crusty part of the snow, the slippery uncertain path, to whatever was coming. And who could swallow that shit, slouching into the middle part of the 21st century? In that chamber smelling of bureaucratic flop sweat and plastic luggage, the reek of contained cosmopolitanism, two thoughts ran through me like a current. The five whys method can be applied to any situation. You’re out there pretending to inhabit a distorted version of your consciousness so you can be clear inside your language later. Why did the doing away of distortion provide such pleasure? Why does light diffract from the edge of the atmosphere? Children ripped from their families. Khembavi, the wife of one of my father’s business partners, a family friend. What does it mean that, if you order a small scoop in the Dairy Queen in Bowling Green, Ohio, they give you a large, and if you order a large, they give you an extra-large? The man had died much too young, which seemed the obvious explanation, but the image of my father sobbing never coincided with sad times. Because I had been to Tokyo recently and because I was traveling the world, to see it, and because when I was watching the world I was not at home and not away. When it gets like that, moisture evanesces, the atmosphere flees into transparency, the nights grow freakishly radiant, and in the empty air the moon goes mad with its own clarity. Georgia Mud Fudge? Because meaning itself was changing, and the boundaries no longer moved but were torn up. Outside the cold had a crispness like spring, and the brightness a polished emptiness like overexposure. Why can’t I have every toy I want? The snow is thick, swirling, covering me in ghostly white. And the thunder that rippled into chords had been stretched into a single uninterrupted fuzz, a furry oily beep, an unending dial tone screech. America had shimmered into a great empire of distortion, and my desire for clarity was as absolute as thirst. So what would? I knew it was a beginning. Nothing anybody else was doing mattered either. I will be with you when the last elephant falls, and you hear the news of its extinction in some mall, like you might hear about a pop star’s divorce. A nation of Samsons pulling down the temple on their heads, the United States may be the first great power in history to collapse because it can no longer figure out what it means. Walking past the tent cities sprawled through San Francisco, on my way to talk to one of the great new breed of innovators, I saw a homeless child congregating over a little box of treasures on a curb — his private life. You can’t have every toy that you want. Then he saw a great storm that destroyed an entire forest except for a single tree with the chickadee in its branches. Or is it merely that I am a white man, with all that implies, so that when I hear the voices of black women, with all that implies, I am hearing what I cannot know myself? The idea is that clarity comes of its own accord, simply by repetition. The one thing you are never to report on is the first thing you notice when you start to work your senses: the sheer beauty of the world in its transfiguring pain. He was arrested, and everybody on the internet chilled a bit. The pursuit of clarity became my sole job. White male writers need to abandon their tendency for romanticized Othering. At the same time, I was overwhelmed, first, by a feeling of deep distortion, a sense of the world skewing, and skewing from the place it had skewed to, but also by an equally deep sense of disillusionment, a clarification that the world was not what I had thought it was. Because that’s how the world is. On the road outside of town, a blonde girl, maybe six or seven, stared at the passing cars with sacred attention, her eyes glass-green. I will be with you at the border crossing, in the holding pens. The stars blaze in infinite cold. We were always shocked when the machines overran us, even though the warnings could not have been clearer. They looked beaten. And the flavors — Cappuccino Heath? The prevailing gray mood was, in part, the consciousness of permanent dissatisfaction, everybody fluttering between beliefs they couldn’t own. A few weeks earlier, a young man named Edgar Maddison Welch of Salisbury, North Carolina, in an attempt to corroborate a theory he had read on the internet about a pedophile ring run by Democratic operatives out of the basement of this utterly banal pizzeria, brought a legally purchased AR-15 into the restaurant and fired into the ceiling. I dreamed that my nose was a dick and my eyes were balls, and as I walked through a great and foreign city — I think it may have been Tokyo — my dicknose kept banging into strangers and into the walls, and my eyeballs swung under, googly and precarious. Usually, there’s a larger wisdom as well, an insight incidental to the technical solution, that emerges from the five whys method.
II. In this case, it’s obvious: trying to save money on production items while sacrificing quality is a false economy. I didn’t know what the question was, but I knew, in the dream, that I was desperate to answer. I do not want to return home. But the strength of the facts, when you actually see them made, in newspapers or magazines, is simply the number of eyes paying attention and the strength of their suspicion. How much of clarity is just counter-distortion? The whole point became to generate the opposite of silence — overflowing speech, overrunning the boundaries of sense. “I am trying to live a life I do not understand,” a woman in his tribe said after his death. His face was haggard but handsome in a crumpled way, a bit like a shredded Frank Zappa. Nobody sees it coming, even the ones who see it coming. But dissatisfaction can be insight, too. The first: This is not normal, this is not the way it’s supposed to be, this is not what America is. African-American women just explained better how things worked. The place squatted at the bottom of One57, a 75-story tower where foreign money has momentarily parked, a glass financial instrument rising like a scalpel lancing a fistula up the asshole of the Manhattan night. Instead, I obsessed over the “Five Whys Method” developed by Taiichi Ohno for the Toyota Production System in the 1950s. By the time of the inauguration, though, the pizzagaters were back, and it was the old new spectacle. If you said they couldn’t have something, they had to have it. He was typical of the distorted: distortion feeds on its own distortion, so the more they throw themselves into their distortion, the more they must believe it is clarity. Because the small brown woman was breaking the rules and he felt that the only way to demonstrate to everybody that they shouldn’t break the rules was through a violent gesture. Because it does. The city of the future, alive with electric cars, smelled of alcohol and piss and disgrace. What would ever matter? The second: This is normal, this is the way it has always been, this is what America is. Defeated by satisfaction, opiated expensively, distorted by fulfillment, slouching backward into the future. These women were the only ones who appeared to me not to be insane. And clarity and distortion were what you came to believe afterward about how you had been before. And the information machines made more and more information, and so they made more and more distortion. Why did I dream this dream? For many years, my mother and I had dreamed the same dream about my father. Maybe it would come to somebody else. Everybody read them. I abandoned everything else. They did not just want to own guns, they needed to be able to take guns into schools and churches, and the guns had to be assault rifles. Because you have to work for money. The broken device upon the battlements, international humanity divvied up into queues, at the place in between, neither here nor there. Then I would return to Canada, to clarity. It was too much. It wasn’t just the distortion, the distortion feeding off distortion. Where does it come from? You can sell them Trump, I guess. Why were you traveling the world to see it? It had nothing to do with the truth. African-American women endure levels of domestic violence somewhere around two and a half times higher than other women in the United States. We drank mint tea in a little Lebanese restaurant near her apartment and tried to interpret it. The violence was more or less symbolic. I knew none of them would satisfy. I was starting to lose my envy of other people, and it felt like incipient impotence. At least we knew he was full of shit, which was a relief in a way. During this time, a gray atmosphere, a sense of sizzling breakdown, filled every room, including shitty little hotel restaurants below the Park on Sixth Avenue. I will miss the green funk that gathers in the corners of the lazy rivers. Because we would run out of money. Why had I seen her and not comforted her? I am, ultimately, intellectually selfish. Everybody understood. His eyes were very dark. Anyone can figure it out, and I’m certainly no better than the next. The place was more or less a theme restaurant; the theme was tasteless greed, but nobody gave a shit because nobody knew enough about Jams to know what it stood for. Our pictures had pleased us, daughter and father together. It barely qualified as news anyway. Here’s what I saw, for what it’s worth. The father’s questioning gaze was a judgment on his son. It was a saturation. The thing shattered, leaving abrupt silence. Because they could imagine no other purpose for themselves or their machines. Their meaning floated, momentarily, in the air — would it matter this time? Canada is, when you get right down to it, an encounter with the irrelevance of all human action. There is no law at the border, only enforcers — the place is a Styx of impunity. What will you miss from the world that is leaving? You must see. Because celebrity dominated all other values, because information coalesced into narrower and narrower networks, because spiking inequality created a sense of the fundamental impossibility of justice, because a political ideology that devalued the role of government had run rampant in America for 50 years. I was in some place in between, neither here nor there. The faint steam of the Avenue of the Americas fogged the view. If I sat in my distortion, clarity bubbled up. It was that they couldn’t conceive of the outside of any distortion. If you are going to look into things, you are going to have to look into a great deal of dissatisfaction. So:
Why is the sky blue? Chocolate Covered Cherries? Almost every significant quote I gave, from anybody who knew more than I did, came from an African-American woman. Why did those technologies enable those ancient pathologies? An hour later, she called me back to her room to ask me what coincidence meant and I did not know quite how to answer. Is that a word, in the sense that I mean it? She remembered in a dream and had to tell me. I will miss the way, after peeling a clementine, the peel curls like the musical signature in the old wood of a cello. So:
Why was there so much distortion in the shitty restaurant below the Park on Sixth Avenue? The vision came in that form for years. White people need to stop turning black people into saviors. That’s what writing gets you. It was the willed distortion. Dad had that same look of vague mystification I remembered from the motel in Ohio, but this time I understood the question he had been asking: Why had I not looked at the woman’s face as she was having the phone smashed out of her hand? The pursuit of clarity is clarity, or maybe not. He led a grand life before the whole order sustaining that life’s grandeur collapsed. The Crow talked. African-American women die in childbirth at rates comparable to the developing world. Why did he need to demonstrate through a violent gesture that they shouldn’t break the rules? The cold is Albertan, crisp and murderous. Why did the wheel fall off the conveyor belt? That was a way of putting it. But why? The Moon
My father’s face returned one more time, in the North, at an Airbnb in Muskoka, Ontario, which is as good a place as any, I suppose. During the inauguration, I stayed with friends whose apartment was a short walk from Comet Pizza, which had become, against its will, a shrine to distortion. I was in Bowling Green to report on an end-of-the-world “prepper” conference for the Guardian, at a mall that smelled like rotten leaves and antique grease. And that meant that the distortion was accelerating and that it was impossible to see how its momentum could be stopped. The agent pointed at the sign: No Phones. He made peace with the future that had no use for him. The Five Whys
In the middle of our vast informational splurge, the notion of truth has been folded up like a flower you might find pressed between the pages of a book of poetry in a box in your grandmother’s attic — the passion of another age. Trump’s automatic dishonesty created a vortex. He was the chief of the Crow tribe when the juggernaut rolled over them, and he made his peace with it. Because they believed that he represented their interests and their worldview more than his opponent did. The heart pumps blood and receives it back again. The short brown woman — I’m sorry but I can remember no more details, I couldn’t stand to look at her — took on, in hindsight, the features of Mrs.
IV. I will be with you in the poison garden, but I will not know which flowers you are to pluck and which flowers you are to refrain from plucking. To keep costs low. Why did this memory return? I am heading home. Every American city I visited — Detroit, New York, Toledo — was filled with what I would call ordinary distortion: drugs, apocalyptic politics, inequality of all types and all sizes. There was something innocent about the distortion that had gripped the country. Laptops open beside cocktails, and everyone else on phones. The Sioux fought. I sometimes wonder if stupidity is simply a brand of pride. And I won’t lie, I thought it would be a prize to capture that mood, and the phone was a start, a hook. ¤
Stephen Marche is a novelist and an essayist. I learned that the first thing people spend money on in the United States is a story that allows them to believe they built themselves. Look, it’s the stuff from the ’80s! A bedraggled man, who looked as if he had lived a great time alone, among many screens, in the dark, stood in front of man-sized banners listing the sin content of the world, and shouted into a microphone about satanic rituals and child sodomy. To resist, you had to buy back, at least a little, into the myth of American innocence. How close are the ragged outfits by which they define themselves to the paramilitary uniforms of another era? Who do you think you are? It’s one thing to read about this shit. Is that condition the source of the insight I hunted out? Obviously, if you can sell people gluten-free end-of-the-world rations you can sell them anything. ¤
Featured image by Michael Vadon. The essay-self is a technical self. Why would we run out of money? I needed a human being there, as the woman lowered her gaze, silently picking up the pieces of her phone and history. Standing there alone among its dead tribesmen, I thought it looked sad. It was a smashed phone, after all, not a 14-year-old murdered by the police for the color of his skin, not a middle-aged father deported from everything he’s ever known in a fit of geopolitical pique, not the casual shredding of the old orders and allegiances. “What does this mean?” I whispered in my dream. The meaning of the boundary had fallen. The five whys method is simple enough. When something breaks down, you ask “why?” five times in a row. Not that the smashed phone was an important moment in the history of the fall of the Republic, or all that shocking even. Nobody would read about it. On the road, in America, watching, always watching, I was conscious of myself as a character in a story I would later be telling. Because of the persistence of the most ancient pathologies and because the latest technologies enabled those pathologies. My beloved, curly-haired one, daughter with the question sprouting from the sides of her mind, the one who runs into the garden to eat the apple, I want to say that I will be with you. The wind whispers through the boreal forest and the skyscraper corridors and the backyard fences: Who do you think you are? Otherwise, was the distortion out there or in here? It fit so well with the scenery and the times. Why did he need clarity? New York has swallowed plaster and its blood is hardening. I wasn’t jealous anymore, not of the various prizes, not of the various jobs. Hey, it’s a free country. The Chardonnay reeked of aspirational decor magazines.