To you biographers of Caesar, I am that murdered general, a Roman nose engraved on silver coin; an alabaster column in perfect Roman order, a sword, a plough, a prefect, a century of soldiers— a bumper crop in Tunis or in Spain. To you biographers of Peter, I am that Prince Apostle, a Hebrew man enshrined beside the Po; a traitor and evangelist fell prey to Roman order, a sword, an ear, a net for men, a century of soldiers— an empty cross along the Apis train. To you biographers of Arthur, I am that coming high-king, a Celtic myth in Celtic pride entwined; a pauper and a prince, once, before the Roman order, a sword, a stone, a chalice, a fief of noble soldiers— the Cup of Christ long kept by England's swain. To you historians of Athens, I am that naval power, the wisdom of my people long beheld; Master over Sparta before the Roman order, a sword, a fleet, the polis, a city-state of scholars— the light of pagan Europe in my blade. You genealogists of Adam, I am the father sinner, God's firstborn from the dirt of Eden's shade; a farmer and a workman, the sewer of disorder, a sword, a tree, the rocky earth, left to my warring children— their history still in my image made.I wrote this maybe 15 years ago while I was reading Leaves of Grass. The poem is really nothing like “To a Historian,” but I loved that title so much. I think that was the impetus.
I realized, like a week ago, that there’s a whole new decade coming up. I was born in 1980, which means I get to start my own new decade, too.
In 1990, when I was ten, I told my mom it felt like nothing new was being invented. We had phones, cable tv, remote controls, space shuttles. She said “let’s see how you feel in ten years.” In that interval, of course, everyone got PCs, modems, screen names…looking back, all that innovation, which gave rise to smart phones and social networks and blogs and everything we spend time on now, was not was I was looking for. If you had told me, then, that by the time I turned 40 we’d have little devices on our wrists with more computing power than ENIAC, I would have said sure, but will there be jet packs and artificial gravity for our bases on the moon?
I used to read a blog called Paleofuture. It’s still out there, somewhere. One day, Paleofuture posted a picture of someone’s 70’s vision of an 80’s space station. Sure, every time I see a ’57 Chevy or googie architecture, I wonder why the future Walt Disney invented for the Boomers never, ever came. But I was a kid in the 80s. The picture of the space station was a sort-of writing prompt. This is from around 2012.
I was a kid in the 80’s and got to go to EPCOT. I used to read Popular Mechanics and try to make crap out of batteries and magnets and draw fighter jets and space stations and curvy future cars and build paper ammo wristbows from rubber bands and hangers. I did The Jason Project.
I remember when the Challenger blew up because the lady teacher had a kid my age and my family had an Aerostar the first summer they came out. After it happened Ford pulled the commercials that showed how the nose of their new mini-van looked just like the Shuttle. I broke the sliding door with my first GI Joe and burned my arm on an interior light and it scabbed and cracked and leaked all summer and I’d touch the puss with the fat tips of my fingers to see if it would hurt.
My grandmother made me watch INF when I was 7 so I could say that I’d seen history. She didn’t say it but in 1987 you had no way of being sure you’d see more big human moments. Imagine living like that for 4o, 50 years, thinking about the button, building schools with fallout bunkers, doing drills. I remember the first time I saw a plane, it was Wednesday, 9/19, 2001. I went to college near a power plant with two cement torch chimneys so these things made me nervous. I imagine living like this for 40, 50 years, collecting history for my son just in case it stops. Waiting for the break, the thaw, the perestroika. The Western glasnost Gorbachev and the Dubai-Vegas-Beijing Red Dawn white trash show. Waiting for the INF bombs to come in off the market. There is no end of history, Francis Fukuyama. There is history or nothing.
Obama will close Gitmo but will hold enemy combatants indefinitely without trial on the mainland. Semantics must be justice. There are pictures of Pelosi toasting Cheney and Shepard Fairey laughing, obey, obey, obey, obey the giants and their posses. I was a kid in the 80’s.
I thought we’d have more now: sustainable communities instead of social networks. Colonies in space. We got personal computers, personal accessories, personal devices, vanity, vanity, vanity, rah rah trips to ISS but lazy outward pushing. If Richard Branson brings the heavens we should fill them.
A good occasion to refresh our memories regarding one William Jennings Bryan. Timely, timely, timely.
A good friend engaged me about this via email this week. I think it’s just about beyond question that our national political structures are utterly, fundamentally broken at the macro level. A broad survey leaves little to the imagination: special interests, Big Whatever…in too many ways our politicians are not our own and are accountable first to their fundraisers and donors. There are exceptions. There are micro-level organizations of integrity, there are good candidates and great public servants. But the system itself exists for itself in perpetuity. Don’t believe me? Try running for Super Congress.
Are our politics broken beyond repair, or can they be fixed according to the rules they’re governed by now?
How anxious are you? If you’re between 18 and 100, are tech-savvy and engaged, your answer should be very. If you’re between 30 and, say, 45 (the Upper Cusack Limit), you might also consider the total refusal of anyone to move a sane agenda forward as an unprecedented opportunity to lead.
Babyboomers, heel-graspers that they’ve been, have been uncannily quiet in all of this at the national level. Sure, they’ve been the public face of so much chicanery since the Clinton Administration, but they’re not seizing any real opportunities to create something new or leave us with much. Barack Obama, young Boomer that he is, out to be the virile head of some great movement. Alas, there is nothing. If I’m being fair, and I do want to be fair, Obama has lead on a few key policy issues, but the wither, blister, burn, and peel of support from the progressive base is not news. It happened for reasons.
We, the USA Network demographic, don’t trust national Republicans or Democrats. We love the idea of hope and change and progressive causes but we don’t believe in attendant hype or machines. We like the idea of populist movements but have seen them be hijacked by agendas that couldn’t be further from our ideals.
We are displeased. What to do? (If you’re picturing Billy Zane as an evil tycoon who doesn’t give a shit, good. We’re being taunted, everyday, by people who will never want for anything, people we’ve put in power, many of whom are apathetic at best toward our well-being or future.)
One impulse is to turn local, and I believe that localism, rightly channeled in all of its healthy forms, will go a long way toward changing our communities in radically sustainable ways. But that won’t happen without you, Generation X. You who are parents, you who are holding down jobs, paying bills, paying taxes, you great middle class getting screwed. I’m asking you to do more. I know, I know. The good news is that in places like Allentown, PA, and, I imagine, its analogs everywhere, there are indeed many Boomers doing great things and looking for help. Your vested interest is your children’s future. Determined as you are to make damned sure the world they inherit is better than the shit-storm left you, you don’t really have much of a choice. If you’re not already, please get connected. Please make a difference. Please build communities.
But we haven’t forgotten about you, Great National Mess. You are Das Nichtige, the unchosen nothing, the aggregate mass of political sin, of omission, of shirking, of all that is wrong with our government, our economy, our budget, our laws. You are our misplaced priorities. Your time is over, we cannot sustain you, but your enablers have said that you’re too big to fail, too big to move.
But you’re not. We know your coordinates. You thrive at the intersection of political parties and the military industrial complex. George Washington and Dwight Eisenhower, two Citizen-Generals, warned us of you, but we were too busy moving west, killing Indians, too busy moving west, building suburbs, to listen. We’re listening now. We won’t support your national campaigns or your friends in Big Anything. We don’t want Monsanto or Super Congress. We don’t want your labels, your symbols, your platforms. We want clean water, clean air, and safe food. We want safety nets and renewable energy. Sustainability is our ideology, our children are our constituents, and our political leaders will answer to us.
And who will they be if not us?
Ed Koch has a very interesting piece up on RealClearPolitics. I’m not going to get into the Israel-Palestine debate in this post, but I did want to point out Koch’s religious eclecticism on matters of the hereafter. I’m not in the business of opining on the eternal fate of people, but I do sympathize with the religious and legislative impulse behind Koch’s placement of FDR in the not-quite-sweet by and by. Certainly, it feels icky when civic leaders speculate about these kinds of things. On the other hand, like the Sinead O’Connor piece I posted yesterday, Koch’s essay captures a public figure in raw struggles around faith, life, death, justice, and forgiveness. You need to know, before reading the excerpt below, that Koch has just described newly-found evidence of FDR’s less than progressive attitude toward the fate of Jewish professionals living in a newly liberated North Africa following World War II. I’ll also mention that I remember learning about FDR’s rather crass sentiments toward the Jewish members of his own administration in high school. Yes, I went to high school in the 90’s, but I doubt this was a case of revisionism. On to Koch:
I appreciate FDR’s contributions to the survival of our country. At the same time, I have never forgiven him for his refusal to grant haven to the 937 Jewish passengers on the SS St. Louis, who after fleeing Nazi Germany had been turned away from Cuba and hovered off the coast of Florida. The passengers were returned to Europe, and many were ultimately murdered in the Nazi concentration camps before World War II ended. I have said that I believe he is not in heaven, but in purgatory, being punished for his abandonment of the Jews. The concept of purgatory is Catholic. I am a secular Jew, but I am a believer in God and the hereafter, and I like this Catholic concept. The Casablanca document reinforces my conviction that President Roosevelt was, at heart, not particularly sympathetic to the plight of the Jews.
I’m not sharing this piece to stir up a big debate about FDR’s eternal reward. But I am very interested in and sympathetic to the way Koch rather nonchalantly identifies himself religiously in the excerpt above. “The concept of purgatory is Catholic. I am a secular Jew, but I am a believer in God and the hereafter, and I like this Catholic concept.” Period. I don’t relish the thought of anyone being stuck in purgatory, but I love Koch’s honesty about spiritual beliefs he has chosen, some informed, indelibly, by his inherited Jewishness, others by the pluralistic settings of successive communities and constituencies.
Here and there, I’ve described myself as an eclectic or even provisional Christian. Even though I am a protestant, traditions from across the wider Christian experience appeal to me in various ways, as does a whole lot of secular philosophy. This sort of up-front religious navigation strikes me as honest and compelling in ways that weren’t readily accessible to the pilgrims of other eras.
When deep space exploration ramps up, it’ll be the corporations that name everything: the IBM Stellar Sphere, the Microsoft Galaxy, Planet Starbucks. – Fight Club
We all know that companies (and specifically, the economic polices set forth by mercantilism) played a huge part in the founding of European America. It’s probably safe to assume with The Narrator that when they run out of stadiums, giant companies will, indeed, have a hand in naming the stars in the next push of industrial expansion. Behold, friends, The Facebook Nebula.
There’s a reason “branding” has become such a ubiquitous noun-verb in recent years, and it’s obviously tied to our increasing consumption of dynamic visual media. In a nifty meta-critical move, sites like Brand New and Brands of the World help we consumerist natives remember our lives in corporate logos even as they help curate (you knew it was coming) good and bad design features from which emerging and veteran creatives can draw inspiration or caution.
I’m working on a new infographic for the blog that I hope to put up later today. During my research, I was struck by the succinct political history implicit in what’s going on here:
Considered in light of the grist-milling Soviet system, “designer: unknown” and “contributor: unknown” become rather chilling political statements. “Status: Obsolete” heralds the world we still live in: Soviet weapons and technology still unaccounted for, Soviet scientists still off the grid, regional economies still shaky, but also millions and millions of people more free; in some places, truly, in others by comparison and in degree. Imperfect, even dangerous as all of this is, we’re reminded again and again that people cognizant of their dignity as human beings will rise to demand that dignity recognized, that sovereignty civilly reckoned with if not yet fully honored.
The CCCP’s obsolescence was as far from inevitable as is the rise of true freedom in Russia even now. Consider all that remains to be seen as revolution moves through North Africa and possibly beyond. We have seen freedom ramp up, and if and when it coalesces into free societies and governments, it will be the people that name everything: Free Egypt, Free Tunisia, Free Libya. Free Iran. What might these emerging societies teach us about our own bondage to the Dutch West India Companies of our day, and to entrenched political attitudes that keep us from the business of prudent, engaged, informed civil life? Might this be the end of the world as we know it? Let’s hope.
Martian Starbucks by firexbrat via Flickr.
Written in the second or third week of the Fall 2009 fiction seminar taught by Benjamin Taylor in the New School MFA program.
I want to share some thoughts from my prose fiction seminar last week. These are via our teacher (paraphrased, some phrases quoted) with some extended, rambling reflections following the asterisks below.
Art as a human pursuit is 35,000 years old. Agriculture is 10,000. That means that 25,ooo years before we got the idea to put seeds in the ground and grow things, we were making art. Specifically, cave painting and pottery started 35,000 years ago, but storytelling is much, much older.
Storytelling did not emerge from a need for passtime, but to explain things. That is, to “perform the most urgent function.” Stories were told to cope with unanswerable questions “on the frontier between culture and nature.”
“Literature is about trouble.” There is no end to storytelling because there is no end to trouble.
The hypothetical end of literature has made me think this week of the old hoped-for “end of history” that was supposed to occur after the West won the defining ideological battle of the last century. Or, you know, the workers’ paradise that was to be realized when class struggle ceased and there was nothing else to drive the dialectic. Instead, of course, new ideological struggles emerged, full-grown, and old ones smolder but aren’t out. There is no end to history or literature until there is an end to trouble, however you define it. Very literally, Yogi Berra was right. It ain’t over till it’s over.
Those of you with eschatological concerns can, of course, consider whether there will be storytelling in the eschaton. Can you imagine life without it? Where there is no weeping or gnashing of teeth, will all of our stories be boring? Or self-congratulatory? On some level, storytelling seems essential to any sustained worthwhile activity I can imagine. Christian theology says, after all, that God is Logos, and I understand Logos as dialectic and story. I hope for the eschaton (not the bloody, violent scary one; the just one where everything that’s been lost is restored) but I don’t always believe in it. What are we to do without our troubles? Our ambitions? Our insecurities or petty prides?
I’m in Kempton, PA today with the Kittatinny Ridge blue in front of me and the Hawk Mountain Preserve and between us alfalfa, I think, and maybe switchgrass. It is sunny but cool enough for sweaters and jeans, not cold. I am with people who are interested in sustainability and justice and environmental responsibility and I think that if the eschaton could be like a just day in Berks County in September then perhaps I would still have good stories and worthwhile ambitions even without trouble.
I’m tempted to say that we mark time by trouble, and that where there is no trouble, there is no time and so it makes sense that we speak of eternity as timeless. But we also mark time by good things. First dates, first kisses. Births of children. I can’t really believe in a detached timelessness where nothing new happens as something worth looking to. A just day in the fields, in the mountains, is nice, but so is the evening, the moon, the few degrees cooler and the idea that we do it again. I like being human. I don’t know that I’d want to be more than that, but being that forever might be okay.