Back in 1996, I was living in Linz, Austria where I had made some British friends. They lived down the street from me in a dorm. One afternoon, I was in their communal kitchen drinking tea and talking.
A group of Erasmus students came in. One was a Swedish woman, 19 years old, terribly worried about something. Her group’s concern drowned out our teatime conversation.
It turned out the woman had a sty. Unsure what it was, she feared the swollen eyelid could get worse or cause blindness. Foreign, she didn’t really know how to go to the doctor, so locals helped her find treatment (a free clinic down the street). They knew a sty was no big deal, but they sincerely wanted to settle her anxiety, and the clinic took her and treated her.
I was 23 years-old, the only American on the scene. I didn’t share my point of view with anyone, though you can predict what it was.
“What a bunch of wusses.”
The American mind, consciously and unconsciously, views sickness in much the same way that it views poverty or tragedy: signals of something flawed, wrong or weak with the individual. If you had not done this, you would not be suffering that. If you weren’t this way, you would not be dealing with these outcomes. You’re sick? Prove your worth. Bear it out and get to work.
In the general American mind, default reality is pleasant and safe. If something’s wrong, it must be someone’s fault…someone must have caused reality to shift. The overlying mythology makes this a requirement: America is the greatest country in the world. We don’t just pursue happiness (er…material gain and demonstrative wealth). No…we achieve it, and if we can’t, we pretend to.
We’re just a competitive interest rate away from a wide, dandelion-free lawn, and a driveway boasting shiny cars.
Here in Chicago, I lived among neighbors who tried to one-up each other after Christmas by throwing out packaging. The more they cast to the landfill, the better their Christmas had been (as a credit card company lit a cigar).
These neighbors believed whoever is happier is superior. The proof of happiness is in the spectacle. Look what I’m capable of!
At least until this point, we have thought of illness this way.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone to work sick in America, even when I had the right to call in. I played it off, though sometimes I was miserable. This happened in restaurants, a hotel and a telemarketing center, where I sold subscriptions to Playboy magazine. The workers there sat three feet from each other. Whoever came in after my shift used the phone I had coughed all over.
But I scored points. I was “dedicated.” One manager called me hardcore. A lesser man, the idea went, would not have demonstrated such commitment to a clown show that offered no benefits and could cast me to the dumpster.
Right now, America does not know how sick it is. We’re not testing enough people. Some brag about our “low rate of infection” as compared to other countries, when in truth the best we can do is estimate. Earlier this month, the president kept people on a ship rather than bring them to shore, and admitted he did to keep the numbers low. It was all about the spectacle.
This is our larger, older illness. It’s one of consciousness, and we’re watching mother nature dismantle it before our eyes. Covid-19 is bullshit proof, bravado proof and mythology proof, at least in the moment. Rising stocks won’t save the billionaire who’ll need a ventilator. We’re facing the test of our generation, and what consciousness comes out on the other side will determine our larger future.
Will we accept the obvious, that the sick are not weak, burdensome or disposable, as the poor are not irresponsible or lazy. No individuals will pull themselves out of this by bootstraps, or whatever cliche you want to use. This will take a collective effort. As we sit in fear of illness, suffering or death, we should also fear we’ll fail to learn the lesson of compassion this moment clearly demands. Will we return to our poisonous mythology of the super-powered individual? Will we learn to see that one person’s loss is not another one’s gain, but that all losses belong to the collective?
As the poet wrote, so much depends on the answer to this question.
I’m depressed today because I know I’m complicit. Separating myself from the culture—indeed, the cultures—to which I belong is impossible.
I am an American at a terribly low point in our history, and I can’t separate myself from the embarrassing maelstrom in our daily rhetoric, the “leaders” we believe reflect our values, at least in part. I refuse to use their names in this post. Using their names has for a long time been part of the problem, a way of using attention junkies to gain attention.
I’m an educator at a time when education is far less effective than it should be, both yielding and reflecting the maelstrom. I’m in higher education at a time when the whole system—the system that compensates me so that I might pay my student loans—looks at students as streams of revenue, at courses as products, and thinks of itself the way an empire might, at its teachers the way Pharaoh saw captured troops. A contemporary college’s greatest partner is a bank. Its greatest enemies are artists and philosophers.
I’m a man of letters at a time when people argue in comments about clickbait headlines. Despite the headline’s purpose, so many don’t bother to click, yet freely unload their frustrations, ignorance, hatred, fear and anxiety. I have written such headlines in attempts to profit. My refusal to monetize this blog is a cheap and pathetic attempt at integrity, one whose sincerity is questionable. It’s embarrassing to receive a “paycheck” for your “writing” in the amount of $6.00, the result of 12,000 “clicks”. We’ll say, “Hey, better $6.00 than 0!” We justify so many vile acts this way.
I could go on. I think I’ve summarized the situation well enough. No…I’ll go on.
I am a child of migrant refugees who now fear and loathe migrants and refugees, who blame refugees for failing to contain a war that banished them from their homes, migrants for working jobs that, if performed by others, would raise prices. Among us are sons and daughters of those displaced because tyrannical demagogues decided to send their armies into battle, slaughter citizens en masse. These children of the displaced today support a demagogue and tyrant. I am complicit in this irrational fear, in this simultaneous hatred and denial of one’s back story. I have paid money to companies that financed movements and politicians who profit by inflaming the maelstrom. Some of these politicians hold shares of the company that sends me a bill each month.
That bill buys a product that’s bad for me. The company knows, all of its employees know the product is bad for me. How many of us pay our bills from the sales of products we know are bad for the people consuming them, and how many of our bills represent purchases we know are bad for us, bad for our kids, bad for people not yet born? The maelstrom swirls, gaining speed. We all know what we’re doing, and we go about it as if there’s no alternative.
Our national rhetoric is about to achieve a level of profanity we may not be able to imagine. I think it’s important, right now and right here, for all of us to stop using this sentence: “Look at what they’re doing over there.” That’s a dangerous delusion, part and parcel of the problem. The correct sentence is this one: “Look at what we’re doing over here.” If we could wake up to ourselves, to our actual predicament, which is that our conditions are the result of our actions and ideas, we’d see the alternative path.
Longtime readers of Liquid Ink know how much I loved Suokalbis, the since defunct Vilnius dive, which in an essay that won’t go away, I called the greatest bar in the world.
Here’s an excerpt from Suokalbis, A Eulogy and Lament:
When an old man dressed in tan Soviet-era trousers gyrated in imitation of Freddie Mercury, and when his dance partner — a young woman who might have worked at the reception of an area hotel — swung her round hips to Fat Bottomed Girls, you knew what it was about. When you saw a scrawney trolley bus driver color his cheeks with lipstick borrowed from a tourist — one perfectly happy to hand her makeup over — and you watched the couple bounce around to Ra Ra Rasputin, Russia’s greatest love machine, you understood that Suokalbis had a purpose. The bar wasn’t merely a refuge for the city’s 86-list. It was a public space in Vilnius that experimented with the notion of absolute freedom.
I’m far from the bar’s only fan.
Filmmaker Arturas Jevdokimovas contacted me a few months ago about the essay, asking if he could use some of the text in his new film, Anthology of the Plot. Obviously, I agreed. The website promoting the film, which will make its way around the festival circuit, is now out, and I encourage readers to visit.
Here is a video of a homeless man playing a public piano in Sarasota, Florida, as part of the Sarasota Keys Piano Project. It requires no introduction or commentary.
My first experience with a public piano was this past spring in Amsterdam where I took this photo:
That moment was about as great an experience as I have ever had with public art. I stood by that piano for almost an hour, just waiting to see what kind of people would sit down to play; each time I returned to the train station, I walked by to see what was going on. People took turns politely, complimenting and thanking each other, and the pianists ranged from a few Asian tourists to very obvious commuters (as the man in the photo is most likely a Dutchman coming hom from work).
The piano music mellowed and calmed the experience of the busy train station. It also opened up the space and contributed to the rhythm. I was so moved by the music, the openness and trust experienced between the city, its residents and strangers, that I’m convinced every city should have multiple public pianos in places like train stations, post offices and outside the DMV.
The Summer Literary Seminars are in their fifth day—fourth day of classes and lectures and readings—and the event has been fantastic. It’s a privilege to attend once again (this time with my little girl).
I’ve noticed that a lot of traffic from the SLS website has found its way here to Liquid Ink, and students are perusing my photos and blog entries. Last night I got into conversations with some students who asked about my connection to Lithuania.
Here’s an essay I wrote about my grandparents’ flight from Lithuania in the 40’s. It’s titled Displacing Forces, and was originally published in Dialogo magazine out of DePaul University.
Here’s the blog post that has gotten the most traffic in the history of my blog. It also says something about my heritage. You will not need to remember what happened in the London summer Olympics to catch its drift.
You know who you are. You’re not square. You’re not like those people over there, those regular people, the ones with 9-5 jobs in skyscrapers and homes in suburban wastelands. You’re hip and cool. You have tight pants and a fedora. We’re in awe.
Not really. It’s one thing to listen to Arcade Fire because the band is good, and to have remixed your own versions of various Radiohead tracks. Yes, it’s cool to be the only guy in your Starbucks who knows MC Conrad. It’s ultra-cool to go The Metro or CBGB twice each week to know the scene. But we have to face it. Being cool and being alternative are two different things. Here’s the truth: it’s cool to be alternative, but it’s not alternative to be cool.
Virtually anybody can be cool. You just need to be finished with high school, live in a city and take a photography class or major in graphic design. You see? Instant cool.
If, however, you want to be alternative, it takes more than tight pants and a gold phone. It isn’t necessarily better to be alternative, of course. But it does require doing things that few people do.
1.) Listen to contemporary classical music
Here are some names: Claire Chase and ICE, Eighth Blackbird, CUBE. If you search through all the members of ICE, for example, you’ll find a network of music that’s unlike anything you or your friends have heard.
Here’s another name: Arvo Pärt. He’s not a hipster. If his music does not kick your ass, there’s no hope for you. You’re going to hell.
2.) Read literary fiction
Sure, Charles Dickens was really boring in high school. That’s because you read him when you were a child. But you’re older now, and you’re worried about being too similar to all those people over there. One way to be different from them is to develop empathy. Literary fiction offers you this lesson.
Don’t look for a list of names from me. The list of Great Books is out there, and they are all available for free in local libraries. Investigate some of the stories you think you know. They’re different from the movie version, believe me.
If you want to really be alternative, subscribe to a literary magazine. You can follow virtually all of them on Facebook and Twitter.
(Note, reading literary fiction is different from simply getting an MFA or flaunting your copy of Gravity’s Rainbow in a Cleveland Starbucks. You can read literary fiction without doing either of the aforementioned.)
3.) Learn a foreign language
Yes, Spanish counts. But so does Icelandic. What are you going to do with Icelandic? Funny…you never asked that question when you bought the turquoise drapes or when you signed up for graphic design. You can do the same things with graphic design as you can with Icelandic: fuck all, or whatever you want.
4.) Cook your own food
No, it’s not alternative to go to the latest BYOB in Williamsburg. Everybody’s doing that. The alternative people in the urban west cook for themselves (and others). They do it instead of playing Xbox or posting pictures of their appetizers on Facebook. They bring their own lunch to work or school.
5.) Read multiple newspapers
In any format. And if not every day, then at least regularly. And don’t worry too much about the Dining or Entertainment sections. Your friends will tell you about that. Worry instead about the Business, Science and World sections. If you read those, your friends won’t know what the hell you’re talking about.
But you will know, finally, that you’re completely different not merely from those people over there but also from most of your friends. Ironically, once you gather the narrative they’re missing, it will become very difficult to look down on them or anyone else. I’d explain why, but I’d need you to read the news first.
I am not comparing myself to Burry, except to say that I have traits people consider problematic. When people find out I have PTSD, and when they hear stories about my childhood, they make striking conclusions. The most common are “You’re too sensitive,” and “You’re too intelligent” followed by “You think too much.” When I face those comments, I might actually surge with rage on the inside. But I’ll claim to agree: “You’re probably right.”
Am I thinking too much? Am I guilty of hyperbole when I put those dots together and come up with this: “If you were dumber, less insightful and a bigger asshole, you woudn’t be suffering from an anxiety disorder.”
Is there any other conclusion? Could this realization be why writers, if the article is correct, are twice as likely to commit suicide?
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