Liquid Ink

The official website of Gint Aras, Finalist 2016 CWA Book Award

1 Comment

How can I provoke you to read this?

This piece by Katy Siegel, titled The Worlds With Us, is the best summary of the current intellectual/social moment that I have found. I have been struggling myself to write or express something like this without sounding new-agey or ancient. (It’s odd that ideas such as these leave you pegged as either Santa Barbara Bead Shop or Byzantine.) My greatest fault, whenever I tried to take pen to paper on the subject, was that I’d end up bitching about the academy being a wank fest (which, when bad, it is). While this piece is concerned primarily with the aesthetic of contemporary visual art, I believe the shift in consciousness that it’s getting to can be viewed in any intellectual circle. Writers are always late to the game when it comes to aesthetic movements (or at least they have been since WWI). In this case, however, many are stuggling with the same beast.

Here’s the heart of the matter: [The] shift is not from one perspective to another, but to the loss of perspective itself, to the rejection of an anthropocentric worldview and its subject/object dichotomy. Basic is the recognition that humans are neither on top of the world or outside it; they are in the world, and not as a special category (the subject). The subject/object polarity underlies and maintains categorical dualities such as organic/inorganic and nature/culture that we have used to carve up existence; dualities that, following the dismantling of the first opposition, no longer seem useful, much less true or still less inspiring.

When I was in graduate school, and I graduated in 2002, I argued strongly against what I saw as a form of institutionalized yet invisible censorship disguised to look like openness or a liberal philosophy. What I mean is that writing, especially literary fiction and poetry, was judged to be either PoMo or non-PoMo, “innovative” or “square”; in both cases, the former was “good” while the latter “shit”. It’s hard to explain without looking at examples, and I don’t want to get into examples or parodies. I’ll expose myself: the typical art student I encountered, and I was this way to a degree, went to art school because s/he saw it as a means to escape becoming a middle class square. Art school, however, wasn’t enough. You also needed to become a hipster, if you will, and dismantle all things square. One of those things, for example, was the narrative that you learned made for a “good story” in high school, taught to you by a teacher who reminded you of your mother.

In college, you learned to dismantle all things square by “deconstructing” them. Now, you’ll forgive me, because I haven’t the slightest clue what deconstruction is. I wrote papers about it, and, apparently, used the method to deal with literature. One teacher called one of my “deconstructions” brilliant. The whole time, if I’m to tell the truth, I felt like I was playing amateur shrink, using various clues an author gave me to peer into his sex problems, all of which I invented, basing my inventions on various texts by Sigmund Freud.

I think any reading of any text, either formal or informal, is fine, so long as it is not built up as THE WAY to do it. You cannot call yourself a defender of open-mindedness, the kind of open-mindedness that’s necessary to creat art—to play, as a child does, in the sand with the stones—if you believe there is only one way to play, only one way to observe the game. There is more than one game.

Except, of course, for the BIG GAME, the game in which all the little games get played, the one where the illusions take place. I’m talking about what Zen teachers call emptiness, what Alan Watts calls “it”. It is, to use a brutal term, a singularity, a universe in which we are not subjects engaging objects, separate from anything, but entirely and completely part of a system that we can neither fathom nor perceive, except in small chunks generated by our (flawed and limited) minds. Everything is in constant shift and flux and, ironically, that’s always true: it’s impermanent. Always. Shifting so quickly that nothing—no thing—is ever fathomed as frozen and itself. Born human, all you get is flow.

In such a predicament, you should be able fearlessly to tell exactly the story you wish or write the text that flows naturally to you. I myself was guilty in the past of attempting to write stories and texts that adhered to some aesthetic movement or theory, and for doing it to demonstrate my understanding of that theory. Of course, it was all contrived bullshit. The only idea I ever encountered that did not seem to create automatic dualism was Robert Irwin’s seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees. His artistic project was a strong inspiration to me when I encountered it in graduate school.

That was over ten years ago. A decade later, I’m preparing for my own Jukai. I don’t know if it’s ironic that now my single greatest aesthetic position or theory is one that exposes all theories, including the self, as constructed delusions. I have become aware that all I can really perceive is myself perceiving, and that this is its own delusion. How to express the realm beyond this is not as important as simply accepting that there’s a story flowing inside me, an image I’m imagining, a feeling I can set alight by selecting the right kinds of words, hand them over to an interested reader.

Most imporantly, I’m happy to see that we’ve come back around as a society and a human race. We’re understanding once again that a work of art does not have to prove anything. It can’t. We knew a very very long time ago that there is nothing to prove.

Lamp post

1 Comment

It would be easier if…

I’ve been told that my classes—I teach rhetoric and remedial college literacy readiness courses—would be easier and more engaging if I used YouTube videos and multimedia. I routinely use Google Maps because…well…most of my students don’t know where London and New York are. That’s not the kind of media I’m supposed to use, apparently, because the map is boring. I’ve also shown TED lectures. That also seems not to qualify as the right kind of video.

What if I taped my lectures and put them on YouTube? I could simply sit in the back of the room and watch my own lecture. Has anyone tried this? Did the class respond with irony or complaint?

It sure would be easier if I could video tape myself once and replay the whole thing over and again. If they had any questions, I’d just go back to the part where I explain the answer, which is what I have to do in live lectures anyway. Is this genius?

Leave a comment

An open letter to the Chicago and Regional Transit Authorities

Hey, CTA and RTA. My transit card, which I have linked to my bank account, has been suspended. Seeing that your vendor has, for reasons no one can explain (I have contacted the people three times), made it impossible for me to use my card to board a bus or train on either Pace or CTA, I’d like to offer you a list of places that are currently more easily accessible than your transit system:

1.) Raúl Castro’s ass

2.) North Korea

3.) The Sixth Plane of Hell

4.) Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s scrotum

5.) The distant future

6.) Black holes

Here are some actions that are easier to accomplish than it is for me to pay for transit in Chicago:

1.) Auto-fellatio

2.) The construction of a perpetual motion machine

3.) Colliding an immovable force with an unstoppable object (you read that right).

4.) Losing myself in a closet

5.) Producing the philosopher’s stone

6.) Teaching a contemporary college student how to use possessive pronouns

There is currently only one (1) city in the world that is refusing to collect payment from me for transit. That city is not in Poland. No, it is not in Lithuania. It is also not in Ukraine or Costa Rica or Mexico. You can bet your last board-member-on-the-take that it is not anywhere in Cuba, where they frisk you for cash just as you get off the plane. Only one (1) city in the world has set up a transit payment system that not only refuses to collect payment but also takes no interest in answering the questions of a man who contacts the vendor several times to ask, “How can I pay for transit?”

My suggestion? If you need help learning how to collect payment from riders, visit any city anywhere in the world that has a bus system. In the meantime, check this out:



Photo by Marc Levin.




Cold weather and masculinity

When I was in primary school, all the kids generally enjoyed long exposure to cold weather. If there was a difference between the way the boys and girls enjoyed it, the girls seemed to have the option of saying it sucked while boys expected other boys to enjoy it. Our parents or guardians did not keep us from the cold but simply told us to dress properly, to wear layers, hats and gloves.

In Chicago in the 70’s and 80’s, most kids walked to school. My mother guided me to kindergarten on my first day, September of 1978, but on my second I was on my own. Rain or shine, sleet or snow, the streets surrounding our school saw processions of kids. Some loitered around the yard of the sheet metal plant or in front of the corner store waiting for friends. But the boys proved their worth by waiting outside.

On especially cold days, boys who got rides from parents—an event of profane exception—faced certain ridicule. You could get away with it if you had a sister, especially a younger sister, and the whole family got the ride for her benefit. But if a parent drove a pair of brothers three blocks down the street to keep them from negative temperatures, they’d face a whitewash. That meant they’d get dumped in a bank, snow rubbed in their face, possibly an icicle shoved down their backs. This is how you dealt with the bourgeois.

Of course, getting whitewashed was actually rather fun, a source of pride, at least up to a point. There were kids in the neighborhood, the toughest ones, who’d even dare us to whitewash them. Whenever we got enough snow for the plows to pile into massive banks along a particularly wide sidewalk, we’d play King of the Mountain, essentially a wrestling free-for-all in the snow. We did it happily, whitewashing each other, and we’d come home sopping wet from sweat and dirty slush.

Following a snowstorm, a Chicago boy went out with a friend or a brother to shovel, and to earn some money in the process, hitting up all the old widows first, working all evening as the temperature dropped. You proved your value and validity in two ways: by the length of time you stayed outside and the amount of money you earned. It did not matter if you couldn’t feel your hands or feet, and you never admitted it. In fact, if your hands were numb, you knew you were doing it right. You stretched whatever curfew your mother had established, and you worked frantically, knowing that the Molina brothers or the Stanislaw cousins were out there along with older kids, the Lamberts and the Bertollis, bastards with wider shovels.

You were hardcore if you worked until the evening news came on and had over a hundred bucks to show for it. And you were also hardcore if you could take and give a quality whitewash. But the most badass kids were the few—and as the neighborhood fat ass, I was not one of them—who went garage hopping on frozen, icy rooftops.

* * *

You need to imagine a Chicago alley to understand the concept: the garages are arranged in neat, parallel little rows, and they are all the same height, the sidewalks between them the same distance, about eight feet. You’d climb onto one garage at the end of an alley, run up to its peak, slide down the other side, then jump to the next garage, repeating until you got to the end of the alley (or fell, usually onto a fence or rose bush). It was daredevil in the summer but suicidal in the winter. The risk, however, is what made winter garage hopping, performed by a skilled hopper, an act of urban eloquence: a boy rising gracefully over gangways between snow-covered garages, his dexterity feline and fear completely invisible.

Did anyone ever fall? You know the answer. When Frankie Sanchez ruined a rosebush that had been growing for decades, planted by someone’s dear late aunt, Old Lady Paciorek came out in slippers to yell at him as he lay bleeding, entangled in thorns.

* * *

These memories came up today when I stepped outside to an unseasonably cold November morning, the temperature around 20 degrees (-7 C). My first reaction was, “Fuck, it’s cold,” and I felt the temperature attack my knees and hips; I grew oddly aware of the insides of joints, now tingling as if rubbed with mint balm. I inhaled the frigid air and felt it burrow up my nostrils, deep into my sinuses, the scent of frozen moisture that, for me, always announces the true onset of winter. I used to welcome this onset with excitement.

Today, for the first time in my life, I felt a sense of lethargy. I imagined all the snow I’d need to shovel in coming months, and I thought about the gutters—I had not been up there since the spring, and they were probably clogged with a pulp of autumn leaves and maple seeds, now frozen solid. I’d have to take care of that, or I’d have to call my guy and pay him to do it.

None of it proved anything at all. It just seemed like crap you dealt with if you were stupid enough to live in a place where the temperature fell to 20 degrees.


Photo by Rene McGurk.

Leave a comment

A view from outside the universe

Admit it. You have always wanted to see what the universe looks like from outside it. You’re also very interested to know, in physical terms, the scale of the Earth (and yourself) relative to everything everything everything. It would put so much into perspective.

Now you can. Click here.


Image taken from Wikipedia.

Leave a comment

Grading what does not exist

I am approached every semester, usually about 10 to 11 weeks in, by at least one student who has not turned in a single bit of homework and yet is very interested to know how he is “doing”. I use *he* with purpose. Probably four out of five of the students who’ve asked me this question over the years have been men.

My answer is always the same: You haven’t turned anything in. The student will, as a student did earlier today, stare at me in wonder, even bafflement. It’s as if there’s some hidden meaning, some riddle, some plastic we could bend to crack and reveal, pop!, the answer beyond what’s obvious. The student did not ask me to tell him how much homework he had handed in. He asked me to explain how he is doing, and I clearly misunderstood. Now the young man is at a loss. Should he repeat himself?

Some of them ask, “So, like, whaaaaat? You know. Does that, like, mean I’m not doing…good?”

I’m fascinated by the idea that I should know how the student is doing without having read any of the student’s writing. It’s a compliment, after all, to be considered a seer, to have the existential capacity to know how a student is doing on an absolute level. Pick a number: seer, priest, empath, monk, alien, god. Not even Apollo had the ability to feel how someone was doing. Apollo had to ask or observe. In terms of the pantheon of mythological figures, these students seem to think I’m the Holy Ghost.

It begs questions. Why? How? Is this the result of an education system that worries about how everyone is feeling? Is there a gap between how a student is actually feeling and how a teacher perceives the student’s emotional state? I don’t grade emotions, of course, but perhaps I should. I should imagine them and grade them.

Or perhaps I should imagine the paper I would really like the student to have written, award it exactly the grade I wish he could earn, and then announce to the world that our imaginations have become one, at least from my point of view. This is a path to perfection. Oneness with the teacher. It’s a concept of divinity, easy to consider real.

Shouldn’t this at least partially explain how this student got the idea in the first place? I mean, someone out there must have told him that, yes, you’re doing fine. I have not read a single thing you’ve written all semester—a piece of writing from you doesn’t even exist—but you’re doing fine.

There. I said it. You’re fine and so am I. You and I both are fine. And that’s the goal, isn’t it? Feeling fine. It’s easy. Just ask someone to determine your emotions for you. It’s automatic.

Leave a comment

Demise of Chicago’s insomniac culture

I got interviewed for this article about a Chicago Starfucks that changed its hours recently. It’s the only Starfucks worth going to, primarily because it has a serious late-night culture of bohemians. I had no idea the hours were going to be changed until the reporter told me about it, and my reaction to the news is featured in the article.

Among the many things that New York has over Chicago is a bonafide insomniac culture, one that exists throughout virtually the entire city. For a writer like me, a guy who really likes to work at night, and who gets bothered when he’s on a roll and ends up interrupted by some librarian who says, “I’m sorry. We’re closing in ten minutes,” all-night cafes and diners are essential. It does not have to be a clean well-lighted place. It just has to stay open and serve tea or coffee.

You know the refrain: “It didn’t used to be this way.” Chicago was an insomniac’s paradise in the 90’s, back when places like Red Caff, Green Street Cafe and Zorba’s never closed (there’s a nostalgic list, eh?), and when The 3rd Coast, still my favorite Chicago cafe, allowed all night smoking and bottomless coffee for less than $2. All of those places were a short el or bus ride from the Loop, which meant they were full of UIC, Columbia, IIT and Art Institute students, wired and looned and sharing cigarettes. There are still places that don’t close, including the White Palace and Mitchell’s (or whatever it’s called now), as well as various Frumpin Frunkin locations. There are also the all-night cabbie restaurants that sell greasy Indian food. For some reason, I just can’t write in those places. Writing in a Frumpin Frunkin is especially humliating, and reminds me of being trapped in hellholes like Akron, Dayton or Katowice, Poland where, back in the mid-90’s at least, the only place to hang out at any time of day was a Burger Ass. 

It’s easy to blame rising rents, or the fact that Chicago’s latest hours are hoodlum infested. I think the problem is more complicated, and that it has to do with what Robert Putnam argues in Bowling Alone. We just don’t care about community anymore. I doubt that the owners of Green Street made any serious amount of money between 3-5:00 am. It wasn’t worth it, not from a financial standpoint. But dammit, that multi-ethnic community of West Side smokers, readers and potheads, students and artists, bohemians down to their last dime…it was cool. And the owners knew it was cool. They were one of us, and we were one of them, even if we went there just to put our feet up and nap for a few hours, buying only a banana.

If it’s any consolation, The Hungarian Pastry Shop in New York recently also adjusted its hours, closing now before midnight, and Cafe Esperanto in Greenwich Village is long since defunct.  I spent many a late night in both places while at Columbia. So insomnia just ain’t what it used to be, not even in New York. Chicago, however, is killing faster than a major city should.