“Are ‘Friends’ Electric?”

Gary Numan emerged from backstage with a deep bow and a dramatic flourish of his gangly arms. Sweat dripped from his hair and smeared the eyeliner darkening his eyes. He’d already blasted the audience at Salt Lake City’s Metro Music Hall for an hour and a half with industrial beats, synthesized noise, and screaming guitars. And he looked tired. But he peered out at his fans through dark locks of hair and flashed a genuine smile of thanks.

To open the first of his two encores, he reached back to the beginning of his decades-long career and crooned, It’s cold outside, And the paint’s peeling off the walls, There’s a man outside, In a long coat, grey hat, smoking a cigarette, Now the lights fade out, And I’m wondering what I’m doing in a room like this. A lot of musicians use their songs to tell stories. Not a lot use them to tell horror stories.

Numan set the stage, described his dilapidated surroundings, and established some vague danger lurking on the periphery. He scared us out of complacency. He let us know, in no uncertain terms, that, despite the gentle synth groove and inviting vocals, he was not interested in your usual pop music fare. When he arrived at the climax of the song––where he finally asks the question articulated in the title––he turned his mic on the audience to let us shout the lyrics at him, “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?!” Maybe, the song asked, all our friends are robots and there’ll be no one left for us to love once they short circuit. The real horror had little to do with the threat lurking outside. The real horror, Numan suggested, was in the paranoia he felt at the loss of genuine connection.

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I bring an end to this record today. For three years now, I feel like I’ve moved from one crisis to another, managing one just long enough to prevent the next from drowning me. It was like someone trapped me in a room with water levels that rose steadily until all the oxygen got trapped in the two inches of atmosphere at the ceiling. Left to tread water, I let my school, work, and interpersonal relationships suffer so that I could survive. I found four points of contact in the corner of the room long enough to pass my qualifying exams, but now, the aching in my muscles demand that I either tread water again or dive deep to force a drain open somewhere.

Maybe this is how the paint in Numan’s room started peeling off the walls. Its occupant found the drain hidden in the corner, cleaned out the gunk, and waited for the water to wash away. Looking for a way to escape, he peered outside and found a nefarious looking man pacing the sidewalk waiting. The wet lights blinked and sputtered out. Cold and shaking, he hoped that the flint of talent and chert of inspiration was enough to light up the room. With each click, click, click, the darkness blinked from existence and the light…

 

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The Unraveling

The nightmare of the human condition is not, as so many people have suggested, that we are beings toward death. The nightmare of the human condition is that every human consciousness exists in isolation. We have so far discovered no way to bridge the gap between one consciousness and another, and so, until some techno-wizardry cracks open the human psyche to expose it to direct unfiltered connection, we remain trapped in our own skull-enclosed echo chambers. Our interactions with others seem to confirm that people are similar enough to us in some fundamental respect that we can safely assume their experience of the world mirrors our own. We admit to the possibility of “intersubjective experience”––where our perception of a particular event feels so intensely similar to another’s so as to appear identical––but these are little more than tired comforts masking the truth. We do not fear death so much as the fact that we all die alone.

The Untethering

My parents raised me to grow into a religious man. But the effects of medicine differs from one body to another. I can’t sleep between the waves of nausea I get from medical opiates, and I can’t swallow hook, line, and sinker the religious opiates peddled by anyone who suggests simple supernatural answers to complicated natural questions. Marx argued that, just as morphine helps ease physical pain, religion may help calm emotional turmoil. But some of us suffer existential crises every time we stare at the bathroom ceiling for hours as we pass kidney stones. Our bodies confuse medicines with poisons––poisons with medicines––and we spend our lives searching for mysterious cures or nostalgic remedies to unresolved illnesses. That’s just the way the world works for us.

The tolerance I developed to religious pedagogy originated in trauma. But I hesitate to dwell on that too much. I use this record to reach out to those who’ve suffered trauma––to locate kindred spirits––and to express support and solidarity. Together, we unearth sanctuary in the oases of these windswept wastelands. We acknowledge our trauma and speak openly about it to one another. We resist the victim/martyr complexes so common in trauma narratives so as to walk the wasteland stronger people. We also recognize that the worst thing you can say to an angry person is “settle down.” We understand that when you tell a hurt person to “get over it” you invalidate their trauma in unspeakable ways. So we tread lightly with one another even as we identify, name, and call out power when it corrupts and any ideology that protects the corrupted.

Marx suspected that people acquired immunities to bullshit through the criticism of religion. Depend on unchecked spirituality for medicine long enough and it’ll cross the neurobiological threshold and become poison. This crossing has less to do with religion itself than with a style of thought that accompanies religion. Religious adherents often believe that, through personal revelation, they acquire some Absolute Truth that proves all contradictory claims false. But Truth is, of course, a harsh mistress, and Absolute Truth little more than a Succubi we exorcised to the delusions of purgatory long ago. Nonetheless, when you spar with illusory truth claims you produce natural antidotes to the baseless proclamations of anyone powerful enough to force their perspective on you and/or the world.

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I am not sure if I possessed a natural disposition toward criticism or what. It is, in any case, impossible to tell at this point. But I have trauma to thank for kicking me out of complacence and toward skepticism. I wish there were a word specific to the feeling that someone has when they question everything they hold true and begin to tread water in the oceans of uncomfortable ignorance. It is an untethering that occurs in whatever part of you that you used to call a soul but for which there now exists only vague notions of identity. In my travels, I have met a lot of people who have suffered through this process of untethering, and I worry that, in that state, they may float too far toward memetic poisons just as destructive as Absolute Truth.

Nihilism is, by definition, either actively hostile toward or coldly indifferent regarding the answers we propose to the human condition. Untethering concludes in nihilistic styles of thought––which devalue everything through their fetishization of nothing––as often as it frees people to adopt styles of thought that create meaning in a world that is, more than likely, disinterested in our trivial ideological squabbles. Vonnegut was probably right when he observed, “We are all here for no purpose, unless we can invent one. Of that I am sure. The human condition in an exploding universe would not have been altered one iota if, rather than live as I have, I had done nothing but carry a rubber ice-cream cone from closet to closet for sixty years.” So many people read this and feel sad and powerless. The trick is to read it and think, hey, given this state of affairs, I am free to invent, to create, and to love until the wasteland blooms.

Mad Maximum: Fury Shows

The thump tsk from the rave still hissed in my eardrums as I made my way over the Point in the early morning blue. From that angle, I could see all of Utah Valley from the gravel pit in the North to the wind turbines in the South. Like usual, nostalgia flooded my higher order thinking and muddled my sense of self. My identity had been tied to this place for so long that it spoke to me through fragmented memories dating back to my troubled childhood. I couldn’t help but reflect upon them.

Kant says that we human animals experience the world within the confines of time and space. Memory transgresses these limits only because it is imperfect. The nights I ventured out onto the frozen ice of far away Utah Lake to throw angry stones into the dark were long past, but here, at the Point, nostalgia collapsed time and space to make them feel present again. Trauma is an unnatural curse cast by natural forces as cold and indifferent as they’re supposed to be warm and loving. It’s always those closest to us who forget their conscience and do us the most harm. I wish memories were as easy to toss into the darkness as stones.

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When I got home, I packed up my computer and headed for the restaurant that sits at the mouth of the canyon in the shadow of the turbines. I ordered my food, found a corner booth, put my headphones on, and started writing. It was November 29, 2015, nine months since my marriage had ended as spectacularly as a train derailing into a dam, and I was still angry. But the hissing in my ears reminded me of the people I had met huddled around the fire outside the rave earlier that night. We had talked politics, and, during one of my routine fireside eco-socialist rants, one of them turned to me and said, “the hope of a better world is strong with you.”

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It’s the kind of ridiculous thing you hear from inebriated ravers around a fire out in the industrial ruins of West Salt Lake City. But I appreciated the sentiment anyway, and I wrote to capture the stoned fantasy of my random momentary friend.

The morality of trapped seraphs, of sequestered shaman, and of freely-associated producers will take us over and under, where the mad maximum slumbers in the ecosystems beneath our feet, in the air we breath, and the trees. we. fell. We need new tools. Held right, held tight, they will become the weapons we use to create hope for a better world.

Susan Sontag once said that any writer who aspires to count themselves among the skilled must possess four traits. They must be a nut, she said, or obsessed enough with their subject so as to let it consume them completely until they’ve exhausted all the words they can conjure regarding it. They must be a moron, she joked, because only the moronic obsess over something, record all of their thoughts about it, and publish what they’ve discovered for public scrutiny. They must be a stylist, she argued, since writing should be pleasurable to read or else disregarded as a waste of time. They must be a critic, she concluded, or possess the necessary intelligence to write on their subject with insight and/or authority. Far be it from me to throw any water on Sontag’s literary fire––God knows, it’d take more than my meager bucket to squelch that flame––but I’d like to suggest a fifth trait. I believe that the writer must also be authentic if they’re to capture their audience’s attention enough to communicate their dreams, their anxieties, or their passions.

Inspired by Sontag, I started this record as a way to hone my craft and exorcise my demons. Two years later, I’m still not sure if there is a purpose, thesis, or teleological thrust to its detached but righteous indignation. I suppose that I’m guided by the mantra I’ve developed to cultivate what I consider worthwhile moral virtues. “Love easily and widely. Surround yourself with many people and few things. Pursue passion not wealth.” I suppose that I’m trying to do as I said. “I want to talk to people––connect with them––push collective intentionality toward the unified field––and venture into the fray with new allies. We are all of us always healing in some way. Let’s see if we can help each other.” I suppose that I’m still stuck somewhere in the industrial ruins of capital trying to find hope.

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With love, laughter, and truth. Always. j

Mallets and Chisels, Ruptures and Schisms

The utopian impulse is not unique to either the Left or the Right. People from both sides of the political aisle dream of building a world that conforms to their personal moral taste. This of course says nothing of their ability––or, indeed, their conviction––to take dreams and make them reality. You may not appreciate the horrific accomplishments of Robespierre and Saint-Just. But they at least had the courage to sculpt reality out of their dreams. For them, the guillotine was more than a murderous contraption used to decapitate oblivious monarchs. They wielded the executioner’s blade just as the sculptor does the mallet and chisel.

Only the ignorant operate under the impression that society doesn’t yield to violence the way marble does to the crack of the sculptor’s hammer. I suspect that how we feel toward violent upheaval reveals more about our utopian proclivities than our attitudes toward violence. You see, the revolutionary milieu renders morality paradoxical. It becomes both everything and nothing. We justify what we would otherwise abhor because we yearn for potential outcomes that satisfy our utopian impulses. We may object to violence on principle, but look, none of us are so naive as to believe that violence isn’t one of the––if not the––official language(s) of twenty first century politics. We make moral judgments every day about if or when certain kinds of violence are preferable to others. We say that killing a terrorist is OK and object to the chaos and disorder during a riot.

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The question is, are we currently operating under the revolutionary milieu and its paradoxical morality? We so often think of politics and its associated revolutions as a sudden break,  rupture, or schism in the status quo. But just as war is politics by other means so, too, is politics war by other means. Revolutions can set in motion change so gradual it veils the breaks, ruptures, or schisms the powerful wish to hide. Just listen:

There is little reason to hope that we’ll be able to slow down global warming before we pass a tipping point. We’re already one degree Celsius above preindustrial temperatures and there’s another half a degree baked in. The West Antarctic ice sheet is collapsing, Greenland is melting, permafrost across the world is liquefying, and methane has been detected leaking from sea floors and Siberian craters: it’s probably already too late to stop these feedbacks, which means it’s probably already too late to stop apocalyptic planetary warming. Meanwhile the world slides into hate-filled, bloody havoc, like the last act of a particularly ugly Shakespearean tragedy.

This is a revolution brought on by ecological degradation not inane human political maneuvering. The genius of the revolutionary milieu that the powerful have manufactured at the expense of the powerless is that this break, this rupture, this schism has yet to produce a paradoxical morality that facilitates resistance. Its a revolutionary milieu that masks the violence of the anthropocene to keep the pacifist status quo from eroding. Sit in your home. Watch your TV. Discuss your favorite shows. Forget that, in the next two decades, we’re likely to face refugee crises that will bend or break the capitalist economy. Indeed, it’s easier to predict the refugee crises than it is the the durability of capitalism. It may absorb the crises. It may die trying. Whatever the case, are we dreaming dreams profound enough to account for drastic change? Are we ready to take to the streets with the proverbial mallet and chisel to sculpt realities that preserve cultures of love and care?

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Epigrams and Interludes

“‘Knowledge for its own sake’ –– this is the final snare morality has laid; with it, we become completely entangled in morals once again.” –– N, BG&E, 64

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Let this knowledge ensnare us. Let us become entangled in its moral consequences.

“The degree and type of a person’s sexuality reaches into the further-most peaks of their spirit.” –– N, BG&E, 75

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Even though she, too, asked you to disregard authenticity to behave in ways she considered more masculine.

“We are best punished for our virtues” –– N, BG&E, 132

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Serenity, courage, and wisdom remain elusive. Free will is an illusion. Evolution unavoidable.

“Whatever is done out of love takes place beyond good and evil.” ––N, BG&E, 153

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Thus, whatever purpose we invent for ourselves, let it be motivated by love.

“Talking frequently about yourself can also be a way of hiding.” –– N, BG&E, 169

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Not everyone wants to have sex.

 

RIP Lil Peep

When I was fourteen, struggling with the pangs of puberty, and desperately looking for my place in the Junior High culture of awkward cool, some friends and I broke from the safety of the status quo to perform Nirvana’s “Heart Shaped Box” at the school talent show. I would’ve preferred hiding behind a guitar, bass, or drums, but alas, I had friends who were better at all three, and they needed a singer. So I picked up the microphone and did my best Kurt Cobain impression for the whole student body. The mocking cries of “hey, wait” followed me all the way through High School. Most people knew me as the kid who “did Nirvana” in Junior High and little else. By my Senior year, I had ducked out early to finish school in concurrent enrollment classes I could take at the local college. To this day, I wonder if this experience robbed me of a decent High School experience and set the stage for a lifetime of feeling like an outsider.

I had friends, sure. I was always able to summon my more gregarious side for social events and intimate gatherings. I always read enough of a variety of books to keep myself conversant in most topics. I always liked talking to people, getting to know them, and figuring out what made them tick. But even my two best friends in High School––the young men with whom I spent the most time––were able to carry on a love affair for years without my ever suspecting anything well into adulthood. (A police officer busted us in the foothills for underage drinking the night they tried to come clean to me, while, drunk and oblivious, I remained convinced they were playing a prank.) I existed then, and I exist now, on the periphery of even those communities I engage with every intention of finding a place. I might, as Brene Brown suggests, find comfort in the words of Maya Angelou, and accept that “you are only free when you realize you belong no place––you belong every place––no place at all,” but I don’t. I base my whole project on finding, building, and cultivating intentional community as one way of cooling the heat of the anthropocene.

I stopped listening to Nirvana after I performed in the talent show. My listening habits became decidedly more angry and anti-social after that. I honed my guitar skills playing Deftones, Alice in Chains, and Rage Against the Machine. I introduced sequencing to my musical pallet after Nine Inch Nails, Skinny Puppy, and KMFDM cracked open my mind like a series of auditory hallucinations. I recorded dozens of songs in my scrappy home studio when I could’ve been out socializing and finding my place. People laugh when I tell them that music is my religion, but it was there, in my parents’ basement, playing, sequencing, and recording music, that I learned to pray. Music has accompanied every spiritual or mystical moment I’ve ever experienced. The dejected crunch of Cobain’s guitars, the alienated wail of his vocals, helped me work through trauma at a formative moment in my life. From that day forward, music would be one of my best friends and most passionate lovers at every crossroads and oasis in these windswept wastelands. Years later, I would joke that, if someone couldn’t remember the day Cobain died, I wouldn’t date them. I was afraid that if they didn’t feel that loss the way I did––at twelve years old, listening to the news through the warped sound of an old radio––they could never feel music the way I do.

I don’t play music anymore except to pick up a guitar every once in a while to fiddle around with some basic scales and relieve some stress. I have traded in my beloved aeolian and ionian modes for research and writing instead. But I still turn to music during times of crisis to help me explore the mysteries of thought, sentiment, and perspective with which I have yet to come to terms. My partner knows that if I pull up to her house with the loud repetitive rhythms of Ministry destroying my speakers, I’m angry and looking for a fight (not with her, necessarily, but with the world). Whereas, she knows that the mournful howls of PJ Harvey act as unspoken code for, “I need some cuddles.” It is through music that I crack open my chest cavity to pin my heart on my sleeve. As I said recently,

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In response, my brother and my son have both accused me of being too “emo.” I am not even sure what that means, I argue. And is it even a bad thing? Is “emo” just an epithet for wearing your heart on your sleeve? But look at what you said about Louis CK, they say.

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But, I argue, I’m genuinely upset that one of my heroes turned out to be so scummy. Why shouldn’t I express that?

Look at what you said about a night out with your partner, they say.

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But, c’mon, I ask, isn’t it fun to have someone else to beat the socialist drum with? I’ve been at it alone for so long now. I’m only excited.

It’s music that made me this way. I’ve interpreted so much of what’s happened to me through the emotional thrum of music that it’s natural to express myself with some amount of melodrama. Just listen:

The Velvet Underground – Venus in Furs (1967)

I am tired, I am weary
I could sleep for a thousand years
A thousand dreams that would awake me
Different colors made of tears

Led Zeppelin – No Quarter (1973)

Walking side-by-side with death
The devil mocks their every step, ooh
The snow drives back the foot that’s slow
The dogs of doom are howling more

Talking Heads – Psycho Killer (1977)

I can’t seem to face up to the facts
I’m tense and nervous and I can’t relax
I can’t sleep ’cause my bed’s on fire
Don’t touch me I’m a real live wire

The Cure – Just Like Heaven (1987)

Spinning on that dizzy edge
Kissed her face and kissed her head
Dreamed of all the different ways, I had to make her glow
Why are you so far away she said
Why won’t you ever know that I’m in love with you?
That I’m in love with you?

Depeche Mode – Clean (1990)

Clean
The cleanest I’ve been
An end to the tears
And the in-between years
And the troubles I’ve seen
Now that I’m clean

PJ Harvey – To Bring You My Love (1994)

Climbed over mountains
Traveled the sea
Cast down off heaven
Cast down on my knees
I’ve lain with the devil
Cursed god above
Forsaken heaven

To bring you my love

Bright Eyes – We Are Nowhere and it’s Now (2005)

If you hate the taste of wine
Why do you drink it ’til you’re blind?
And if you swear that there’s no truth and who cares
How come you say it like you’re right?
Why are you scared to dream of God
When it’s salvation that you want?

IAMX – I Come with Knives (2013)

The paradox or our minds
Too much to believe, too much to deny
You fool me again to quiet my pride
But I’m a human, I come with knives

Lil Peep – Awful Things (2017)

It’s just the two of us, it’s just the two of us tonight
Burn me down ’til I’m nothin’ but memories

It’s so much longing, despair, and nostalgia expressed with such raw authenticity, and it’s been going on since musicians found a way to evoke catharsis through popular music. Call it “emo” if you want. I call it the authentic expression of emotional turmoil in a world more likely to traumatize you than provide you with sanctuary. So, rest in peace, Lil Peep, at least you got it. I wish I had had the courage to set aside the criticisms of a thousand peers to pursue my passion the way you did with such admirable disregard.