Archive for July, 2012

Venerate Scavengers

I woke up this morning hungry. I went to the fridge and all I had was eggs and beef- well past their expiration date. I considered putting on clothes, grabbing my wallet, walking to the grocery store to buy fresh food, and then bringing it back up the stairwell… but I was low on energy, so I had steak and eggs well-done.

A voice told me about my ancestor who woke up hungry. He contemplated stringing his bow, tracking a beast for hours, cornering and attempting to kill it, then hauling it back before sunset. Instead, he took a stroll scanning the sky for vultures. He found a carcass beneath them, chased away a few small dogs, then made a fire and took his time cooking the partially rotten meat.

Many people identify with the power of predatory animals like the wolf, tiger, and killer whale. Or emulate peaceful creatures such as the panda bear, horse, or (may I say) gopher. This dichotomy translates into political beliefs- realists who contend life is a competition for resources versus idealists yearning for a more egalitarian society.  One thing these foes have in common is their indifference- if not disdain- for the hyenas, turkey vultures, and maggots of the world.

Why are scavengers rarely elevated to the top of the totem?

Taken by: Muhammad Mahdi Karim

“Scavenger” originates from the 14th century scawageour, which was somebody hired to clean shit off the streets. Ignoble labor.  A century later, the term was extended to non-human animals. The consensus is, whether you a bird or man, you are inferior if instead of hunting or producing your own food you merely pick it up.

But if my intuition or the work of the late Lewis Binford is true, we are mistaken to identify with the noble beasts in the first place; we are useless creatures. It will prove quite useful to consider ourselves as such when facing the future’s problem- having too much shit and nowhere to put it (thanks planned obsolescence).

We don’t need a brilliant plan or policy- we just need more scavengers. Here in Chicago, it’s common to see a Mexican man driving a worn pickup through alleys salvaging “junk” otherwise headed for the landfill. Yesterday, my sister had way too much mulch delivered to her home and she feared being ticketed for obstructing the alleyway until such a man came to the rescue.

The problem is not that we need more economic growth- we need less. Every night dumpsters are filled with enough food to end poverty. Want a proper three course meal? Dumpster dive at Whole Foods.

It might also prove useful to be a spiritual scavenger. When you grow up in the suburbs and lack a deep connection to place and tradition, you need to pull something together out of what you can find. My faith is a conglomeration of the 60s, Taoism, Indigenous Cosmology, and German Idealism. The trouble is doing this authentically. I’ve never been to China, so how can I expect to grasp Lao Tzu? Humility helps, which is something a tiger doesn’t have.

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Paul Has Chemo

I didn’t know the word at the time, but the boys in our first-grade class shaved our heads in “solidarity” with Paul. He was my best friend, so my mom took me to the hospital to visit. When I entered the room, I became upset because it wasn’t him- his black hair was really gone in a way mine wasn’t- black shadows surrounded his eyes- he was the most tired person I’d ever seen- his voice was different because he had to whisper.

My mom sat me down at the table next to his bed and left the room. I put together the plastic pieces of Connect-Four and split the chips into two piles, red and black. Paul coughed and something inside of him rattled like a can of spray paint. I told him about school and our field trips to the pond and post office. I told him about my last hockey game, how I scored two goals and two assists, not enough for a hat trick but that’s four points, I said. I became angry with him because he wasn’t paying good attention.

After a few moves, Paul said it would be better if I put in his pieces for him. He handed me a black chip and pointed to the third column from the right. I dropped his chip for him; it fell with a click. Then I sat on the edge of my seat and shot my own red chip down the center column and told Paul about the ride I took on a tractor pulling a wagon full of hay and big orange pumpkins you could sit on. I made it clear to him how Fall is the best season, because my birthday’s November 11th. He kept falling back onto his pillow.

Eventually, I had it so no matter where he went I’d win. I told him so. He chewed this over and said nothing. He stared at the game. Then he stared through it, through me, like he saw something far away. I peered behind me, twirled back to Paul and repeated myself- he could go anywhere… I’d still win. He shut his eyes, so I went ahead and chose his move for him, to block my three-in-a-row, but it didn’t matter because I could put my chip on top of that and connect-four, anyway. I felt happy when I won. But right after, I considered Paul boring because he wasn’t competitive.

The next game, when he handed me his chips, I was afraid to touch his hand because I thought I’d hurt him. I didn’t try as hard as before and kept looking to the door. Every move, he seemed to make a life-or-death decision yet didn’t care. I got real nervous and didn’t like visiting Paul. My mom came in, I put the game in its box, and Paul fell asleep. I said bye to Paul and his eyes opened but I don’t think he was awake.



Agoraphobia- fear of the marketplace. It can happen while you walk down the street, are deciding which park bench to sit on, or speaking up.

For whatever reason, we love agoraphobes. For example, who do you think is a better artist- one deft in small talk, or who cut off his left ear?

There’s a myth of the hyper-agoraphobic hermit sealed in his den of isolation creating byzantine works of genius who, tragically, cannot communicate his thoughts to Fellow Man. Then, one day, a neighbor calls the city on account of a bad smell and they break into his apartment to find his bloated body beneath his much larger body of work, which is subsequently harvested by academics and refined into multi-volume compendiums, launching his post-humous self into stardom. His work is forced upon highschoolers whose teachers tell them how sad it was how he wasn’t understood in his own time.

Enough. The truth: the one who understands himself doesn’t fret about being misunderstood.

For a long time, I’ve celebrated my own agoraphobia and alienation. To me, it set me apart, made me unique. And so, publicly, I announce my attempt to be an agoraphile (lover of the public). Which is difficult, because you’re all un-fucking-bearable.

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Sigfried (victory-peace)

This Week in Heat- A Flicker of Being in the Midst of Nothingness- My Familial Life-Force- Geist, or Spirit/Mind- The Two-Holed Tube- Affirming Life Through the Denial of Guilt- Drugs are Spiritual, Albeit Unsustainable, But Really What Is?- I Seek a Non-Material Life-Force

This heat wave is misery. What’s a few degrees out of the infinite spectrum of degrees?- A lot, actually, if you’re an organ-ism like myself. For there exist certain conditions for life, and just a few degrees too much for too long and you become dis-organized to the point of oblivion. The conditions are stricter than they seem- we’re alive but consider those who didn’t make the cut- the stuff of cemeteries, premature babies, all those who didn’t-or won’t- make the bottleneck.

We the living are in the most precarious position of all. In a way, the dead have more life than us; their legacy is solidified- if they’re remembered. The German word for oblivion is Vergessenheit, which literally means forgotten-hood. Even Prometheus and Dylan are headed there- because the people who haven’t forgotten them are headed there, too, when the universe tears at the seams and all conditions for life vanish.

My memory goes back as far as my maternal great-grandfather, Sigfried. While I never met him in the flesh, his memory was strong in those who raised me, and his reality is vivid to me. He was a small man descended from the Austrian peasantry. The youngest son, he would inherit nothing and emigrate to the U.S. For what it’s worth, he was born nearly the same time and in nearly the same place as Hitler. Back then, Austria was not the neutral and modest country it is now- Vienna was the seat of a great empire. It was their Archduke who was assassinated, setting into motion machinery that would claim the lives of millions of men, and set the course of Sigfried’s path. He and I share the same grey-blue eyes.

File:'Stormtroops Advancing Under Gas', etching and aquatint by Otto Dix, 1924.jpg


Sigfried became a Stormtrooper. It was the duty of the Stoßtruppen to climb out of the trench first and lead an attack. Years later Sigfried’s son Karl would recount how there was a fence between their property and the Milwaukee seminary where Sigfried worked as a laborer and how Sigfried could vault himself up and over the tall fence in a flash- I think he might’ve still been using the technique learned in the first world war. Considering that conditions for life include: not being blasted by shrapnel, punctured with lead, snuffed by gas, penetrated by bayonet, it’s absurd that he wasn’t cast into Vergessenheit right then and there, precluding Karl’s (and my own) chance to even emerge from oblivion.

Instead, he was captured by the Italians. Conditions at the POW work camp were miserable. Basic conditions for life also include sufficient food, water, and rest. For Sigfried, these conditions almost went unmet- he nearly died of starvation. One day the prisoners were loaded into box cars and sent to an undisclosed destination. Along the way, Sigfried and his compatriots planned to murder their guards whenever and wherever they stopped- a suicide mission. Another condition for survival is not being swarmed by fellow humans and having your skull crushed by their boots. When the train finally did stop, they found themselves in Vienna- their captors gone.

Before beginning the long walk to his home in the Austrian hinterland, Sigfried stayed a night or two in Vienna. Possessing absolutely nothing, he slept under the last pew of Stephansdom (St. Stephan’s Cathedral). I try to imagine the pew inches away from my eyes, the vast silence of the cathedral at night. It’s a trip for us descendants to sit on that same pew. Next time I’m in Vienna I will lie down beneath the pew, to draw his memory even more vivid, away from Vergessenheit.

I stare at a picture of Stephansdom, the engine of today’s train of thought. It hangs on the wall of Julius Meinl at the corner of Southport and Addison. I sip a three dollar espresso. All the basic conditions of life I have met. In no foreseeable future will I starve. After resting here, I will seek further refuge from the heat at the Music Box theater, and then at my sister’s air-conditioned apartment. Biologically I am young. My father is far up the corporate ladder. I can afford to avoid processed foods. If I get cancer while my parents are alive they will sacrifice everything for the best care possible. No hurricane will touch the Midwest.  Furthermore- and these are the only conditions I take credit for- I don’t smoke or drink; I wear a helmet; I practice mindfulness to avoid sudden accidents. To wit: oblivion feels far away.

Relative to Sigfried, I am quite privileged. Even now, in response to my body’s first message that it’s hungry, I ask for a menu. In the background of this entire conversation is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Whether Sigfried was climbing out of a trench or working his ass off in the new country, he devoted much of his time to the basic conditions for survival and security. I, on the other hand, devote most of my energy to fulfilling the pyramid’s apex: self-actualization. In English we call this the realm of mind or spirit. Both terms are captured by the German word Geist. I’m not suggesting that Sigfried lacked Geist– everyone (even plants) has it. It’s just that I am one of those- currently, at least- who works less to sustain consciousness and more to improve the quality of it.

Since the time of high school when I learned of my accidental privilege I’ve felt a fair amount of guilt. In the past six months, I’ve made serious progress against guilt, which most of the time is anti-life and fear-based. But guilt is not all bad. It is an attribute of Geist. For the most part, Geist has written this entire text- it’s the one capable of thinking historically, abstractly, etc. But to say it’s the only part writing right now would be false. There’s also that two-holed tube creeping behind every lofty statement.

You know it. Like a worm, it blindly moves forward, taking material in one end and expelling it out the other. It’s a bottomless well forever needing to be filled; it doesn’t care about starving children in Africa; it doesn’t care how the chickens were treated; it is infinite appetite limited only by its own inevitable dis-integration. Perhaps you’ve heard stories of a man in a concentration camp who stole food from his starving father. It wasn’t the man who did this- it was his tube, which, while a condition for Geist, is not Geist. Only Geist could care for a father or feel guilty for what the tube has done.

It’s a necessary step, I believe, to become aware of the structural violence involved in having your tube fed at the expense of others- the Mexican man who just refilled my glass of ice water is in some ways closer to who my great-grandfather was (is) than I am, even though he has brown eyes- but it’s a step you need to move past. I enjoy my goulash with a burp.

About a year ago, when I was immersed in drugs and alcohol, I felt like a complete waste. I didn’t think my life was worth sustaining. I thought not only was I part of an invasive species- I was part of the most destructive subset of that species. I compared myself to an elderly man with dementia in an old folk’s home being served sirloin steak night after night. So much destruction of life to sustain such a vacuous existence is unjustifiable. So I went on my bike trip- to find a reason to live. That’s another chapter, but suffice it to say that I’ve found a life worth living – but it’s not something I possess. Making a life worthwhile is an ongoing project.

Part of that is my sobriety. It’s helped a lot in dealing with guilt. Six months ago, when I started doing yoga and taking herbal supplements, I felt guilty that I was paying so much money for an experience forgone to others. But eventually I realized (not without help) fuck contrition. I’m attempting to make myself healthy; I’m healing psychic wounds of the past; I’m putting on my own oxygen mask, before I help others with theirs. Essentially, I’m surpassing the decadence that comes from my ancestors having achieved the American Dream. When the current generation of Mexican immigrants has grandchildren who have all their basic conditions for life met, they too will struggle with alcoholism and the need to create a worthwhile existence. I believe Sigfried would rather have me overcome the challenges of my situation then to revert back to his poverty out of guilt.

Anyways, I mentioned that I use much of my energy improving the quality of my consciousness. This did not begin with sobriety. In fact, anyone who’s dabbled with drugs or alcohol is in pursuit of an improved state of mind. Guilt is not the only attribute of Geist. Euphoria, ecstasy, a feeling of oneness, lightness, being high – are all in the realm of Geist. Yes, I am saying drugs are spiritual.  At first. They give you access to an elevated shape of B­eing. Naturally, you don’t want that to stop, so you keep taking the drug. Eventually, you are dependent on the drug for the experience. Finally, you are simply dependent on the drug without even having access to anything spiritual. This is the most base. The tube wants to be fed something and it’s not even food.

The first 90 days of sobriety were misery on a physiological level. The tube is demanding substances. However, you’re kind of high on being sober, and get through it. The next stage is more difficult. I now experience spiritual hunger. I choose not to drink, but I want to lose myself dancing; I’m not going to take acid but I want to trip. Drugs were the means to terrific, life-changing experiences. I still want those experiences, but not by those means.

Apparently, there is a way to enlightenment, nirvana, and salvation- whatever you want to call it. It requires discipline, sacrifice, meditation, work, and a life-long process of cultivation. The opposite of instant gratification provided by drugs: the path of the ascetic, which sometimes is hard to distinguish from plain masochism.

It’s the undoing of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs- it’s the anarchy of needs. Buddha gave up water and food, Jesus allowed himself to be crucified, Nietzsche took cold baths in the wintertime… each of these men had mastery over the two-holed tube. They were able to replace the most basic drive- desire- with something insubstantial, that’s to say, spiritual.

I’m not claiming to be a bona fide ascetic. Far from it- bourgeois comfort, security, and self-preservation are still dear to me. I’m still anxious about the conditions for life and terrified of Vergessenheit. I couldn’t imagine myself being in the condition of Sigfried when he finally reached the family homestead. My great-great grandfather aimed his rifle at the emaciated, wolfish-looking man running up to their front door. His wife pushed the barrel away, recognizing her son.

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Contemplation Twilight

Water- Stunted History- Numerology- The Crotch- Continuum Has No Mean- Don’t Be a Car- Tautologies Are Not Tautologies- Beginnings Are Fragile- Affected Nostalgia- Actual Child Not Playing- Affordable Care- Escape in Movement- Reflection. 

If you look closely, the drop isn’t dropping at all. Like a lump of dough, molecules droop down, and then yank the rest after it. Rolling awkwardly.

Outdoor seating at The Wormhole Coffee- gets its name from being a portal to the past. Décor includes: Care Bears, He-Man, NES. Even a DeLorean, like from the movie. Hipsters wax nostalgic. Because they’re still children? Because they lack history?  We assume history begins and ends with our life. Yet for the body to survive, a single cell needs to die.

The address is 1462 n. Milwaukee. Add those and you have 13- a bad number. Add those and you have 4, an even worse number- if four was the guiding principle of the universe we’d have only leap years and instead of jazz marching bands conducted by carpenters. Thank God for 5. Actually, thank 1, that paradoxical number (all the ones make one).

Located a block and a half south of the three-way Damen/North/Milwaukee intersection I once heard referred to- not without affection- as “the crotch” by a young man on his phone in a bus heading west on Fullerton toward said crotch. I thought yes that’s just what it is: a convergence of deep angles, harboring grit that the wind won’t blow away. The center of so much attention.

Admittedly, the very thing I’m doing to set myself apart is exactly what everyone else is doing: passing judgment. Rapidly. Someone’s dressed better than you? They try too hard. Somebody looks plain? Certainly, they lack inspiration. Too loud/too quiet, too fast/too slow… too this/too that. Only I am the Measure of All Things, the Middle Way, Goldilocks with straight red hair.

More than once I hear behind me, “Learn how to fucking drive!” It’s a shame how aggressive cyclists have become. Just a month ago a cyclist, failing to stop, killed a pedestrian in San Francisco. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was riding fixed. Once, you had to fight for the right to ride, but not anymore. Not here, at least. Don’t ride a bike like you’d ride a car. Enjoy the wind, stay in the momentum, and embody a less linear, more cyclical way of moving.

[part of the problem is assuming there is a problem. if i’m always seeking the answer, i’ll always be seeking the answer. too often i don’t do things because i convince myself i’m unprepared. that’s one reason i’m beginning this, right now]

I go inside to have my tea infused for the second time. In the corner are a dozen faces, fixated on the same point in space. I figure, from their mute anticipation and twisted necks, that it’s the bottom of the ninth or the president’s announcing a string of assassinations committed by a rogue CIA agent. Nope, one of them clutches a rectangled controller while the rest watch him play Super Mario Bros. 3. The one where Mario wears a coonskin hat for no explicable reason. I’m convinced they’ve played this game and expressed their love for it more as adults than they ever did as children.

As the Earth turns away from the sun like it’s never going to look back, long shadows are cast by the tiniest bumps. Finally, hazy inferno lifted, insects crawl quietly from their dank quarters and pick up shortwave radio on their antennae. Gum remains on the ground: flat, black, hoarding all light, for all intents and purposes not even gum at all. Half the street is bathed in twilight, while the suds roll into the drain. Of course nothing is certain? An ambulance races to a children’s hospital. 30 year olds walk past, giddy, pawing a new toy helicopter.

Earlier this week the Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act. Afterward, Obama said the Supreme Court also upheld the principle that people who can afford health insurance should take the responsibility to buy health insurance. Right or left, everyone bristled at these words. Because we citizens are called on to make a sacrifice. We haven’t done that since like, the second world war.

I came here before having a breakdown, back at the apartment I’m staying at. I almost lost my shit because after a week of getting my shit together (moving to Chicago and seeking gainful employment) I slowed down for a moment and then stopped altogether. The movement of the bike ride to Wicker Park helped. Riding a bike isn’t my favorite thing in the world, but the day I ride a bike and it fails to make me feel better I’ll probably kill myself.

Streams of sun ricochet off a broad plane of glass on the other side of the street and shatter the shade over here, as if it were setting in the East. Neatly framed by a single window is a drop of fire. Though just because it’s miniaturized doesn’t mean you can stare directly into it.