Self-Immolation in the Best Possible World – Part 1

“If I thought it would help I would immolate myself in full view of the camera crews; my counterclaim. But as we all know the only tale that would be told would be that it was me, not them, who was insane.”

– “Cop Just Out of Frame” by Propagandhi

I would like to begin with a disclaimer. In the unlikely event that a loved one of the man memorialized below happens upon this essay, please accept my deepest sympathies. What follows fails to accommodate the magnitude of your loss. It is not my intention to pick at the pain that you have suffered or diminish the tragedy of your loved one’s departure. Nor is it my intention to encourage other people to leave the world behind. We have a responsibility to one another to stick around. But we also have a responsibility to do what we think is right and sometimes those two things are in tension. If you knew and loved David Buckel, out of fairness to yourself please don’t read on.

On April 14, 2018, David Buckel used the last fossil fuel that he would consume in his life to soak himself in accelerant and light himself on fire. 

He likely did not burn for very long. The time between his distribution of his statement of purpose and the first 911 call was approximately 20 minutes. While the New York Times devoted a number of features to Mr. Buckel’s life and death, it barely registered on the 24 hour cable news cycle. He contacted a number of media outlets immediately prior to striking his match, stating that his actions were intended as a protest against the thoughtless short-sightedness that was driving the mass extinction already underway on planet earth. He left a note near his corpse apologizing to the civil servants who would be forced to discard the evidence of his sacrifice. 

Media treatments of this event generally followed similar contours. They provide the reader with a sense of the man. Those who knew him loved him. By all accounts he was saintly, an attorney dedicated to the advancement of rights for LGBTQIA people, a father who raised a daughter alongside three other parents, an environmentalist who committed himself to the organization of a composting facility in Brooklyn. 

But then, after cataloging the accomplishments wracked up in a life well-lived, the questions begin. 

What possessed a man who lived so well, one who was loved by a broad circle of people, to do such a thing? Why did he do it when he did it (and where he did it)? The subtext of these questions is that Mr. Buckel was not in his right mind. Many articles provide contact information for the National Suicide Hotline, as if this could deter someone from committing an act that was less about ending a life than it was about saving billions of them (and that’s only the lives of human beings).  

I indulge in one of many possible gross internet pleasures. I read ‘comments’ sections on news sites when they exist.

My favorite is Fox News. These digital spaces are the refuge of the truly and profoundly stupid. There is a cluelessness necessary to engage with these forums that provides me, a detached observer, with a sense of superiority that I don’t often experience in my life. In this instance the New York Times sidebar of reader’s comments in response to Mr. Buckel’s self-immolation offered a deluge of idiotic common sense in which his actions were interpreted through the lens of mental illness. 

I don’t think Mr. Buckel was any more or less mentally ill then anyone else traumatized by the arc of human history towards mass murder and oblivion. I don’t think the act was crazier than any other possible means of intervening in our 21st century holocaust. I don’t fault him for doing it in Prospect Park. 

There is a general sentiment among those who decry his actions that he at least should have done it in Times Square for a more visibly shocking outcome. Alongside this is the question of why he did it at the break of dawn. 

These questions are stupid. He did it in the way he did it because he couldn’t have accomplished it in any other way. Anyone who seriously considered the thinking of a person committed to this course of action would be guided in the same direction. 

The likelihood of being able to successfully accomplish his goal in Times Square is very slim. In order to douse oneself in gasoline amid the army of police that patrol the center of Manhattan one would have to be virtually invisible. If apprehended he would have inevitably been accused of plotting some outlandish act of terrorism. And if he succeeded in striking the match he would have likely been ‘saved’ from his fate and forced to live the remainder of his life in the excruciating pain of the victim of severe burns. It would have transformed beatification into a farce.   

Mr. Buckel was not insane. He was well aware of the tradition of self-immolation that runs through the history of Buddhist scripture and political struggle and referenced this in his letter to the media conglomerates that would be more interested in his death than the issues he fought for, literally to his last breath and beyond.

The most iconic instance of self-immolation was that of Thich Quang Duc in Vietnam, creating an image that ricocheted around the world, casting the light of a raging inferno on the corruption and brutality of the North Vietnamese puppet regime in 1963. And yes, it is a shame that Mr. Buckel’s death was not caught on film as Quang Duc’s was. It is equally shameful that there was not a crowd surrounding him, prostrate at his act of ascension, as there were at the occasion of Quang Duc’s. He committed the noblest of deeds in a society with no frame of reference for his generousness of spirit.

Even if there was not a tradition of self-immolation among those attempting to confront forces much greater than themselves, it would still be a sacrifice meant to inflict some wound upon the apocalyptic juggernaut of a society in which we live. It would still have been angelic. It would still have been an act of love. His only sin was doing what was right in a world that refused to hear his screaming defiance. 

It is worth noting that Mr. Buckel was a Buddhist. I generally take professions of a religious affiliation with Buddhism on the part of Anglos with a grain of salt, as I do with those who align themselves with Christianity. I think “If you really believed that…” followed by a litany of boolean logic. People’s religious leanings are simply a box that they check. It’s not a religious affiliation so much as it is an identity that serves as shorthand for who you exclude from your life. It allows us to think we’re good people while all it really does is reveal that we’re hypocrites. 

Not so for Mr. Buckel. The act of burning oneself is holy in almost every iteration of Buddhism that he might have adhered to. It is sacred, signifying a thoroughgoing compassion for all living things and a casting aside of one’s attachment to the body. It is only in what is beyond a doubt the most selfish society that has ever existed that the observer would shrug their shoulders and question his sanity.

Suicide always needs to be considered as a political act. 

Suicide is never not a response to material conditions on the ground. When regimes of violence and neglect are dominant the abandonment of life itself is necessarily a statement that condemns those in power. It is a weapon of the weak, an arrow launched at the heart of empires, whether it be by public immolation or as a private affair. 

It would take many pages to offer a full accounting of the role of suicide in political struggles but it bears mentioning that it has been a last refuge of enslaved and colonized people throughout history. Less savory but undeniably political is the explosive sacrifice of the self committed by the suicide bomber. 

Despair is a political phenomenon that our modernist technocracy has thoroughly pathologized. When one is living in the best of all possible worlds any dissatisfaction is an indication of an organic disorder to be located in the faulty genes and poorly organized thought processes of the potential suicide. A three day stay in a psychiatric hospital, a fresh fistful of pills and a month of cognitive behavioral therapy should be sufficient to set the sufferer on the right track. And if this isn’t enough then it is a personal failing, not the inadequacy of the world that is to blame. 

If Mr. Buckel was despairing it was a despair born of love. He was living in the age of Trump, in which any progress made to ameliorate, remediate or adapt to climate change has been rolled back and the arms of government dedicated to managing the deluge of pollution that emerges from America are staffed with cynical ideologues situated deeply in the pockets of corporate interests . 

I think Mr. Buckel was more sane than most of us. In the face of the greatest manifestation of greed and foolishness in human history he burned against the tide. 

Psychedelia at the Door

On Indigenous People’s Day weekend I planned on doing drugs. 

For the past two years I have had about ten grams of Psilocybin cubensis and a couple tabs of acid in the freezer. My sister, brother-in-law, niece and nephew were visiting my father in Vermont and the constant thundering of feet and periodic spells of crying (at least the ones not attributable to me) would be quieted for three days. I wanted to take advantage of the silence. And I would be able to smoke. I love to smoke while high. Otherwise I’ve been off tobacco for a good long while. 

I didn’t do it. 

First it was going to be Saturday. Then it was going to be Sunday. Then it was Monday and the opportunity had evaporated.  

I don’t quite know why I choked. There are few things I have loved in my life more than psychedelic drugs. They’ve been a teacher, a partner, even a lover. They have scared the shit out of me and forced me to confront things about myself that I might have spent a lifetime ignoring if not for their intervention. I am fond of stating that while they may not have made me a happier person they have definitely made me a better person. 

So why the hesitation? I’ve had bad trips. Really bad trips. But that wasn’t my concern. They’re rare enough that it’s statistically unlikely that I would have one. I’ve done them in far sketchier circumstances than my sister’s suburban backyard. And I’ve done them with shittier events closer in the rearview and on the horizon.  

I have loved drugs since the inauguration of my adolescence. 

Somewhat predictably my first experience of drugs was with tobacco. It was relatively easy to access. Lots of adults still smoked in the mid-90’s and it was easy to filch a cigarette from a dad’s pack when it was half empty. A friend and I hid in a sump. This is a feature of the suburban landscape that might not be familiar to all readers. They are ostensibly a means of managing the flow of water, but they also serve as a refuge for childish transgressions. 

I thought cigarettes were awful, truly disgusting, and I was resolved to smoke them until I liked them. We walked back to my house and I passed out on the front lawn, my head swimming. The pine trees opened up onto a blue sky in autumn. I picked up smoking and didn’t put it down until I was in my early twenties. 

Alcohol was another early edition to my repertoire. Parents were reliable in their tendency to keep intoxicants on hand and somehow were naive enough to not expect that their suffering children would avail themselves of the means they themselves employed to kill their pain. In the spans of time in which my parents were at work I would sneak mouthfuls of whiskey from the pantry, getting just buzzed enough to avoid detection. 

On one occasion my best friend was moving to another town and we got utterly shitfaced on my parent’s liquor. I knew I was far too drunk to go unnoticed and so I had the kind of brilliant idea that could be expected out of a wasted 13 year old. My drunkenness would only go unobserved if I was asleep so I chugged a bottle of Nyquil. 

I came to consciousness as I was being loaded into the back of an ambulance. I had been found in a pool of my own vomit in my parents’ basement. I told the paramedics what wonderful people they were and the nurses at the hospital were showered with love and compliments on their divine calling. It was determined that this wasn’t a suicide attempt and so I was allowed to go home. The next day, as my father was dumping liquor down the sink he would wave the bottles under my nose. I gagged and vomited. 

I truly loved alcohol. I pursued it throughout my young life. I drank Angostura bitters and cooking sherry trying to get wasted. A friend and I would regularly wander through a vacant house in his neighborhood. We found a case of budweiser hidden in the attic and spent a week drinking it on a wooded hillside. I was a good beer drinker and kept away from hard liquor until it was available at which point I drank that as well. 

Like any kid with an interest in consciousness alteration I smoked weed. My earliest experience of this was smoking shaky garbage out of a modified soda can. I got ridiculously fucked up, laughing, spacing out, trying to express profound ideas that when spoken aloud seemed facile. 

My younger cousin was similarly drug obsessed. This was not surprising. His father was a long time user of everything but had a particular affinity for heroin in his youth that bled into a cocaine haze in the late 80’s. He spoke openly about everything dangerous. I loved him for it. 

He would revisit the crimes he’d committed in his younger life, terrifying and alluring stories of muggings, stare-downs with stick-up men when he was running drugs for the Strong Island Boys and fights he’d been in and won. For a thirteen year old he was an intoxicating enigma. It’s only in adulthood that I’ve been able to recognize how poisonous his effect on my life had been.

Both me and my cousin were incorrigible pill fiends. We stole everything we could from our parents medicine cabinets, at least anything with an orange label warning against driving. This was our litmus test for acceptable drugs and we took nearly anything. It was the early nineties and there was no wikipedia to tell us what exactly it was we were taking. 

One day my cousin discovered a joint in an empty pill bottle and two rohypnols. We are still unsure of why these were in his mother’s possession. The joint was quite a find. Very young people lack access to glassware and generally have little skill in rolling cigs, joints and spliffs. To find an assembled and unblemished knuckle bone was an incredible stroke of luck. 

We planned on smoking the joint in his father’s backyard, but in his manic periods he could show up out of nowhere to talk at us for hours. Sometimes these discourses were war stories, sometimes they were celebrations of Rush and the drumming of Neil Peart and sometimes they were obvious delusions. He was convinced that the neighbors were undercover cops and that they were survielling him. He claimed they were trying to break into the house surreptitiously. This was crazy but also normal. We were used to it. 

For some reason we acknowledged the joint in our possession. He wanted to smoke it with us. For a 13 year old me this was as good as it was likely to get. Doing drugs with my super-criminal uncle seemed like exactly where I wanted to be. The three of us smoked in the backyard and re-entered the house to play Metallica songs ineptly (I was on guitar while he played the drums). It was heaven. 

The next weekend I returned to the same house containing the same people. Once again my cousin and I smoked weed in the backyard. Instead of joining in for an encore of our partying the week prior, my uncle entered the basement that served as my cousin’s room enraged. We thought it was a joke initially but it abruptly became clear that he was deadly serious. His wife had smelled it and he stated that we were putting his children in danger. We both became alarmed. He threatened to call the police and have us taken away. 

We were kids. We did not consider how remote the likelihood of him actually calling the police was. This was a man who kept a sawed off shotgun under the couch in a houseful of children.

His face was a horrible mask, a rictus, and he was sweating. Both my cousin and I were terrified, crying and begging him not to have us taken away. He took a can of catfood from the pantry and opened it, then held it underneath my cousin’s mouth. He told him that he would call the police if he didn’t eat it. I offered to eat half and my uncle refused. It would have to be his son. 

It seemed like it took forever for this to happen. Time dilated and then ripped in two. The moment was frozen in a three dimensional structure that was infinite. Tears ran down my cousin’s face as he brought a spoonful of cat food towards his quivering mouth. And then the prestige: My uncle didn’t really want him to eat that cat food. He just wanted to make sure we didn’t get into the habit of smoking weed every weekend. The guy who gave us cigarettes was concerned about this. 

In junior highschool I hung out with a group of boys who were all very committed to weed. We would smoke shitty pot out of a shitty bowl in a shitty basement. Then we would play Super Mario World and eat garbage. I would suck doritos dust from my fingers as I walked home. I wish that my high school years had followed this pattern but it was not to be. There were several attempts on my part to acquire harder drugs. One of my classmates sold me ketamine that upon closer inspection was baking flour. I was a safe kid to do this to. 

By high school I was drinking all the time. I spent my weekend nights destroying myself. I loved it until it became terrifying and even then I kept it up. Every few weeks I would black out and do something absolutely fucking insane, like fightclubbing myself half to death or leaping onto subway tracks. 

I was divorced from all of that after a lengthy period in a ‘therapeutic boarding school’. I assert, to head off my own doubting mind, that I was cured of alcoholism by my connection to Alcoholics Anonymous. Though I’ve done a great quantity (and variety) of psychoactive substances in the intervening 22 years, I have not taken a drink. For a long time drugs were not a part of my life either. 

AA is a weird thing. It’s probably the most significant mutual aid society in the world. It is, with exceptions, an organization with no hierarchy and a decentralized organizational form that runs almost entirely on volunteer labor and member financing. 

It’s also got an amorphous mystical streak, a working class syncretism that draws on the creatures of the Christian pantheon and pairs or replaces that with a grounding in the AA cosmology.  There’s a generalized spiritism that pervades the membership in which people receive prophetic dreams and come into contact with the divine. AA’s eloquent co-founder Bill Wilson was particularly revered. Saying “I’m a friend of Bill’s” is a kind of speakeasy password for people on the water wagon to identify one another. 

Bill Wilson was and remains an interesting person. For the purposes of this essay it feels necessary to say that Wilson first achieved sobriety after a profound spiritual experience while undergoing the “Belladonna treatment”. Belladonna is a powerful (and deadly) deliriant with the alkaloids scopolamine and hyoscine doing the heavy lifting. For reasons that aren’t clear to me this was a commonly applied treatment for alcoholics in the youth of the 20th century, and while people are more likely to experience horror or heart attack from it, apparently it put just the right amount of tweaking on Wilson’s brain to bring him to God. Later in life Wilson had a number of therapeutic treatments with LSD and recommended it as a means of achieving the spiritual experience that successful sobriety requires. 

I clued into this when reading the history of Alcoholics Anonymous in a book entitled Not God. I decided that if the founder of AA had endorsed psychedelics as a means of getting closer to divinity then who was I to poo-poo them. But I wanted something different than acid. I’d taken an interest in mushrooms, the eating kind, the wild edible kind. I loved how they looked. I loved their expressiveness, that they were essentially the orgasm of a being that lay hidden beneath the soil. I knew that some of them were visionary. 

I also loved stealing. This was not considered appropriate behavior for a sober member of AA but I was an outlier in a great many ways. Borders Books, the now defunct chain of bookstores, had a strict no-chase policy for shoplifting and so I stole from there shamelessly. I would just walk out the front door with a stack of books. One day amongst the field guides I found The Mushroom Cultivator. I took off with it. 

I was disabused of my visions of growing mushrooms and getting really sober on them when I began reading the book. It was trafficking in terms I didn’t understand and it became clear to me that I would have to acquire skills and knowledge that were beyond the grasp of a high school dropout. As for so many adolescents at the dawning of the era of computing I had fuck all in the way of learning skills. Even acquiring genetic material was a problem. I had no internet access and less of an ability to identify mushrooms in the field. With my hopes dashed I put the book aside in my collection of stolen fictions and guides.   

I maintained my sobriety for a long time, taking no drugs and drinking no drinks. Even after an unexpected and verbally explosive fight with a sponsor that was the final straw in my active participation in the fellowship I stayed clean. 

It wasn’t until I had been in Arizona for a few years that I resumed my acquaintanceship with cannabis and I did so with gusto. It was not long before I was smoking everyday and for the most part I experienced few ill effects. Almost everyone I was friends with smoked, and while they probably weren’t doing so when they awakened in the middle of the night it was commonplace enough to convince me that I did not have a problem. All things considered you could very well have built a house out of the quantity of weed I smoked between 2007 and 2016. 

Not long after this I was introduced to psychedelics. A woman I was seeing was gifted some dark red DMT, which at this point I realize was a fortunate novelty. This coloration of the drug is called “jungle spice” by drug nerds and is thought to contain alkaloids other than Dimethyltryptamine. As far as I can gather this is a result of the solvent used to extract the drugs from an acidified solution of mimosa hostilis root bark and lye. 

I smoked it in her bed. It smelled like a dream about burned plastic and in a matter of seconds I was watching elves marching in a conga line from every bit of materiality in the room. They were happy, joyous and free. Just to observe them was to have information imparted to me about the nature of materiality. Chairs and dust and wall sockets weren’t inert objects. They were bursting with spirit. They contained the language of eternity within them. 

Not long after this I had my first experience with psilocybin. The same woman had scored extracted material. After many years of interest in the substance I am still not clear on how this was accomplished. The internet is replete with instructions on how to do so that are quickly refuted. Most of the ‘teks’ for producing it are beyond my understanding.

We dissolved it in water. It tasted awful. 

A half an hour later I was walking in a circle in a broken fountain filled with stagnant water and considering the possibility that I was involved in an exchange of information- that the fungus was somehow experiencing what it is to be a human being while I was experiencing what it is to be a mushroom. I woke the next day with a profoundly bad headache. I vomited with such force that I shit on the bathroom floor.

It is important to say that not only were these experiences that did not harm me, they were experiences that made me feel wonderful. My mood has really never been stable. I have a hard time navigating a normal life and my experiences of an abnormal one had been similarly horrible. I felt as though these insertions of the bizarre and transcendent were the missing piece, that they would make me whole. 

It wasn’t long before I was growing mushrooms, a development that was endlessly pleasing to me. It felt like a victory over my younger self’s inability to learn. The acquisition of this knowledge involved a great deal of trial and error and I felt proud of my tenacity in the face of repeated failures. It didn’t really occur to me that I was growing drugs in a rental and that this might be a dangerous thing to be doing. I also started extracting DMT from a large quantity of root bark I had acquired. Again, I felt like a genius. 

Things went well for a time. I explored my mind and expanded my universe. A spiritual life that had been in decline for many years was given renewed vitality through my contact with the images and entities of the psychedelic state. The world was full of life and spirits were erupting from it. 

Unfortunately I was also falling into deep and lengthy depressions. This had been a problem before the psychedelics entered my life and would remain long after I’d put them on a shelf. In addition to these periods of deep, disabling sadness I was also becoming increasingly paranoid. This is a tricky subject for me. Just because you’re paranoid it doesn’t mean they’re not after you. 

In addition to drugs, teaching and grad school I was also involved in protest politics. I co-hosted a show on pirate radio with friends, got arrested once and got nearly arrested a ton of times and was outspoken about where I stood on things on my social media accounts. 

This coupled with my history as a defendant in a federal terrorism case left me with a shaky foundation on which to engage in other felonious behavior. This was made worse after I and a number of friends made FOIA requests to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Arizona Department of Public Safety and the Tucson Police Department. 

We received no records from any of these agencies and I thought this was a very bad sign. As we had all been arrested by TPD, I had been arrested by the FBI, and the Arizona Department of Public Safety had been found to be surveilling social media accounts of activists around this time the idea that there were not records in these agencies possession was not just unlikely but impossible. As they are allowed to ignore the mandates of the Freedom of Information Act if the party they are related to is the target of an investigation I became terrified. I kept doing my drug stuff but at a cost. 

Eventually I left Arizona. I moved back to the home of my childhood. I started growing mushrooms again. But they weren’t working. I attribute this to my long use of SSRIs. 

The classic psychedelics are all serotonergic, meaning that they bind to the receptor sites that are the loading dock for serotonin’s regulation of ‘normal’ consciousness. There are a number of changes in this neurotransmitter system that occur with the long-term use of these antidepressants. Because of serotonin’s relative abundance after the inhibition of its reuptake there is a pruning of receptor sites. This means there are fewer places for classical psychedelics, which are all serotonin analogs, to dock. This diminishes the power of the medicinal experience of these drugs. 

This was a frustrating phenomenon that I attempted to circumvent in a variety of ways. At the point in time I’m discussing my only reliable access to psychedelics were those that I could produce myself. So it was mushrooms that I tried hammering away at this problem with. I took very large doses in excess of 10 grams to little effect. I tried mushroom enemas (there is historical precedent for this among the bits of mesoamerican indigeneity not destroyed by the arrival of Europeans on the continent). Neither of these seemed to work and so for a while I abstained. 

Not long after I had an absolutely miserable experience with a psychiatrist and decided that I was done with this regime of care. I chucked my sertraline in the toilet and was determined to weather whatever miserable withdrawal symptoms occurred. None did, or at least none that I noticed and after two weeks I downed a ten gram dose that transformed consciousness into a brief but memorable visionary immersion in a world other than my own. I was thrilled. 

For some months I did okay. I was mercifully unemployed during the months that preceded the 2016 election which insulated me from interacting with the hateful white working class and their paymasters. 

My father and I had plans to move to Vermont. I was stagnant on Long Island and thought that perhaps opportunities would open up for me in a different place. This wasn’t very strategic thinking on my part. A rural area in decline was not a place to reinvent oneself economically. We also had plans to start a business growing specialty gourmet mushrooms, also a stupid idea in hindsight. It’s a fact that most small scale mushroom growers go out of business within a couple of years and we would suffer the same fate. 

But I didn’t realize either thing early on. I threw myself into the renovation of the barn into a growing space. I was alone a great deal of the time and this didn’t bother me at all. I liked the solitude and hanging about with the dogs. I liked getting stoned at night in the twilight and quiet of nowhere. 

My mushroom supply had been diminished by my repeated ten gram efforts. I had about five grams remaining in addition to a bag of Peganum harmala or Syrian Rue, an herbaceous perennial with high concentrations of the alkaloids harmala and harmaline. These chemicals are necessary components of the ayahuasca experience (although different plant sources are used in the preparation of that particular sacrament). They act as monoamine oxidase inhibitors, preventing the gut from deactivating these consciousness altering compounds. While they are absolutely necessary for orally administered DMT with psilocybin it simply turns the knob up to 11. Taking an MAOI is extremely dangerous for anyone on SSRIs, leading to a dangerously high level of serotonin. This will bring the sufferer to death’s door. I was impossibly happy to have cleared the hurdle of eliminating psychiatric medication from my body. 

The trip was fascinating. I lay in a field on the property and closed my eyes. A deep red blossomed. Music played in the distance. I felt the euphoric bodily sensations of a mushroom high with nausea lurking around its edges. I made my way inside and laid on the couch. Then the visions began. 

The first thing to say is that there was a spontaneous composition occurring throughout the experience in which complex musical arrangements unfolded, shifting from an odd synth composition that followed a tessellated worm burrowing through time and space to a somber piece on the piano accompanied by falling rain. There was a deeply felt love throughout and then abruptly it was gone, leaving my back on planet earth, exhilarated. 

This was the last transformative experience in my psychedelic life, though there is an argument to be made that all of life is psychedelic- it’s just that we have always been experiencing this one with few interruptions for most of our lives. We are wildly high. We simply don’t realize it. For the next many years I would experience a profoundly bad trip. 

I used mushrooms and LSD periodically throughout this time but they were dulled and muddy, not quite horrible but disappointing. Sometimes I would cry quite a bit which felt cathartic but didn’t deliver me from the misery I navigated day to day. During one LSD experience I had a golden hour in which I felt none of the fear, shame and despair of the prior two years only to be returned to my baseline of spiritual agony. 

Perhaps this is why I avoided another foray into psychedelia last weekend. Not for fear of a cataclysmic experience- life itself has been cataclysmic- but a reticence to rock the boat. I have my little schedule of eating, of talking with my mom, of watching television and it’s far from perfect and definitely not what I’d wanted out of life but it’s manageable. That it happens everyday following the same patterns allows for a feeling of control. I know when to take my psych meds and how long it takes them to deposit me into the bliss of unconsciousness. I know that I’ll have at least one good idea about what to write next as I cycle uphill. 

I miss that brave person who would step out into the unknown. Being him was amazing. He was a comic book character come to life with chiseled cheekbones and perfect ways of saying ‘fuck you’ to the villains in his story. He never could have anticipated where this story was headed and his ability to avert disaster is very much in question- it seems as though the plot had been outlined long ago, script intact, with pencils only awaiting the ink of experience before it went to press and waited for him to begin reading his own exploits.

It’s assured that I will take these substances again but when is not clear. I yearn for them and the strangeness they engender. I miss the freedom from my own small concerns, the big ideas that arrive like a meteor, tearing a hole in the ideological atmosphere of my life. 

But it won’t be today. 

Fish Don’t Feel Pain

I grew up on the water, and not in the sense that I lived on the border between land and sea although this is also true. My father and grandfather owned and operated a commercial charter boat. These used to be called ‘head boats’. It was a walk-on business and they charged by the passenger. The earning power of the working class had not yet been completely eroded and the Long Island sound wasn’t in full ecological collapse so people paid without much complaint. Fishing was good and filling your freezer was worth the 20 dollars.

The customer base was made up of people who couldn’t afford their own boats and so they departed from Queens and places even further afield early in the morning to get onboard. The clientele was a melting pot of African Americans, Asians of many extractions, Greeks, Frenchmen and the odd Irishman alongside the generic white flight Long Islanders entering the dotage of their retirement years. I was too young to know that this was a social rarity, to have so many tones of skin and voice crammed cheek to jowl and somehow managing to keep things cordial despite the endless tangling of rigs and the overpriced beer we sold in the galley.

Hundreds of years after the first enclosure of the earthly commons these inheritors of nothing pushed back against being locked out of the protein factory of the oceans. They or their ancestors had been enslaved, displaced, persecuted and impoverished and they didn’t even have the joy of the water. Property lines, parking tickets and living by the skin of their teeth kept them from accessing beaches, piers and boat ramps.

Even the pleasure they enjoyed on the relatively cheap fleet of charter boats that prowled the Sound had a sell-by date stamped on it. Draggers sailed the ocean catching and killing everything that swam. What capital can’t control with fines and fences it simply denudes to feed back to the masses, breaded and frozen or canned. The fewer fish that were caught the more desperate they became to make their 20 dollars count. In time the Long Island Sound was largely a wasteland.  

My summers would be spent among these men, navigating around them and learning less of the world than should have been possible. I was five and free of insecurities. Things were not bad at home and it was too early in my classmates lives for them to have learned the joys of bullying. I was an okay person in an okay world. I had little sense of the ecological disaster looming over the water and the mariners who made their living upon it.

What we fished for followed the seasons. We hung out close to shore during Spring, fishing for flounder amid the mudflats, using mussels that my father pulled out of marshlands not yet eliminated or befouled by suburban development. Sometimes I would come on these trips. The labor of children is useless. I would get stuck in the sucking mud and need rescuing.

In summer it was a mix of things. Porgies (or scup or sheepshead) during the day, feeding on clam along the sandy bottom adjacent to rocks and wrecks. Then it was bluefish at night, boiling up after bunker (or menhaden) and chasing shiny metal jigs. There was no bait on these trips but they bathed the boat in blood. Blood has its own unique stink. People spoke of how there used to be striped bass, abundant, so many that they would catch all they could carry. Most failed to make the connection between the one and the other.

In Fall we sailed for blackfish. These were explicitly denizens of structure along the bottom. They liked rocks and wrecks and reefs. They fed on crabs of all sorts and it was a subject of spirited debate as to which type of crab was best. My father was renowned as a fisherman of this species in particular. In high winds it is difficult to place a boat over a wreck and he would direct two miserable deckhands as he situated the boat, doing some sort of blue collar calculus to put us on fish. 

All the bait was extracted from still living creatures. Mussels were sharp. It was easy to cut the shit out of your hands opening mussels, and the flesh within was insubstantial. Clams were easier. You could get in a rhythm, shucking them by the dozens. Robbed of their shells they would tense until their flesh was sliced into strips. Crabs were easy although the conditions under which they were prepared were awful. There was no way to turn them into bait without getting your hands soaked in Novembers that were biting cold. We would throw them on the cutting board and hack them in half with a cleaver. Their limbs would keep moving even after their bodies were cut in two.

None of this bothered me. It was a fact of life that these creatures were slated for processing into death for things more palatable to the human tongue. 

This was in the days before bag limits. Where in the present there are strict seasons, limits to how many fish a person can keep and restrictions on the size of the fish that are kept, none of that was in play thirty years ago. People kept everything they caught in whatever quantity they caught it and woe to the person who proposed that this wasn’t a sustainable way to fish.

The fish we caught were thrown in five gallon buckets with their swim bladders protruding from their anus due to the rapid change in pressure. There they would slowly asphyxiate over the course of the day. The more fish that there were the faster the oxygen went and then they floated in death, immersed in rapidly warming water. I don’t even know if they were fit for eating at the end of the day. 

There were creatures who did not fit into the scheme of things. People referred to them as garbage and treated them as such. The most insistent and pernicious of these were small fish called cunners that shared the structure on the bottom with more desirable species. They would clean a rig of bait with their small mouths and had some luck avoiding the hooks intended to puncture their lips. When one made it onto the boat most people would stomp the heel of their boot on the their head. Then they would kick it under the deck and into the water where it would float, lifeless. 

Sea robins were another species that anglers hated. They are strange looking bottom-dwelling creatures with a giant bony head and appendages below their fins that appear to be part of some means of tactile navigation. People would hurl them on the deck or simply stab a knife through their skulls. Some filleted them and used their meat for bait. Chinese people would keep them and ask that they be cleaned at the end of the day. They are the only fish that I’m aware of that talk. They would make a deep croaking noise as they desiccated and drowned on air.

The overwhelming goal of all these acts of wanton cruelty was the extirpation of these beings from the fishing grounds. Like ranchers with wolves, coyotes and big cats no one cared at all what role these fish might fill in the hidden ecology of the sea floor.  

When the boat blew its horn three times it was the end of the day. The deckhands would begin cleaning fish. Some were alive and some were dead and as it was a process that needed finishing before the boat reached the dock it didn’t matter. This is one of those instances in which, if fish had a capacity for covetousness, the living would envy the dead. Children are told that fish don’t feel pain, a convenient myth perpetuated by adults who don’t want to take responsibility for brutality visited upon things less powerful than themselves. 

Customers could request their fish be cleaned in one of two ways. The most common of these would be to fillet them, which an able deckhand with a sharp knife could accomplish quickly. It just takes a 45 degree cut and then a turn of the blade to run along the creature’s spine. If you cleaned a living fish you would feel its disembodied flesh twitching, shocked by the insult it had just received. Other people preferred their fish beheaded and cleaned of scales. This seemed more merciful. At least their brains were separated from the rest of their body before a rasping tool was run against the grain of their scales.

None of this was any of my business as a child. I was not of an age where anyone wanted to entrust me with a knife and even if they did the work had to go quickly. There were rhythms of the day that needed adhering to. A kid would slow that down. And I don’t think I registered the cruelty of any of this except when it was blatant and pronounced. Otherwise it was just business, accomplished with little joy by men who could smoke with no hands.  

I can remember seeing a man trying to stomp a cunner. Every time he brought his foot down the fish would slip out and he followed it, stomping and missing until he got it in a corner and then began kicking at it. It was still alive when he threw it in the water. A seagull dropped from the sky and ate it whole. These birds would follow the fishing boats as they moved towards shore. Guts and skins and heads would be hurled off the stern and they would dive and clean up the rotting carnage that we left in our wake. 

I was a sensitive kid and as I ran unthinking into the realm of adult knowledge I felt pierced by it all. There was an ecological sensibility that trickled into my little mind from a monthly subscription to a magazine called Ranger Rick, written for children but dealing with the painful subjects that parents exclude from their children’s awareness for their own benefit. This is where I learned about extinction, about desertification and about climate change. 

Children are powerless. We’re all powerless. In the face of an oncoming apocalypse all we can do is feel impotent and terrified or remain terribly deluded.

I decided I would boycott McDonalds to protest the destruction of the Amazon rainforest. I wrote little stories in my grade school classes about the looming climate catastrophe. I urged my father to discourage the wanton killing of the cunners and the sea robins.

None of this did anything. I saw the failure of the dismal power of one. When I lay awake at night I wondered if I would be vaporized in my sleep. My class had been introduced to the idea of nuclear war via a duck and cover exercise and I became acutely aware of my species’ own possibilities for extinction. 

This is also when the idea of God came into question. I was disabused of my belief in the Easter Bunny one ugly morning in my sixth year of life and the questionable beings of childhood magic collapsed like dominos. If the Easter Bunny had been a lie perpetuated for unknown reasons by my parents than so was Santa Claus, so was the Tooth Fairy… and then the most horrible realization of all. I had seen no evidence of God despite innumerable powers being attributed to him. How likely was it that this was the most significant lie? 

I became obsessed with a conundrum. If God was God then all my doubting and questioning was transparent to him, had even been preordained. My desire to understand this impossibly powerful being was something I could not cease engaging in but would also guarantee that I be cast into hell. I would lie awake and wonder if it was worse for such a creature to not exist or to exist. If not then there was nothing when I died. It would mean the eradication of my consciousness, an end to the troubling thoughts that plagued me. On the other hand, if God was real and if his gaze should pass my way I would be a thought criminal slated for eternal suffering.

I asked my grandfather once how he knew that God was real. He said that he knew this because it was in the bible. It was the first time that I realized he was stupid.

When I was 13 I thought that I would kill myself. I don’t remember if it was serious or not. I think I just wanted to feel different than I did, to save myself from the misery that gained on me year after year. I confided in a friend that this was something I was thinking about doing and word reached my parents. Then I was ushered off to a psychiatric hospital in Nassau County. It was boring. Pointless. 

When I got out I had to go to the docks one day to meet my father. There was a German man who crewed a boat owned by my uncle. He’s dead now and good riddance to him. He captained a ship captured by the British in World War II. I suppose he was just following orders. 

He berated me in front of customers and crew alike for what I’d done to my father by threatening suicide. I walked off the dock and tried not to cry. If he knew then surely everyone else did too. 

Years went by. My father left the family business. I’m sure interpersonal toxicity had a lot to do with it. The kind of disputes that fishermen have can blow up to violent proportions. But he also said he had contributed to the destruction of an ecosystem and that this wasn’t a thing he wanted to continue doing. I agreed. We had  recently gone to a meeting about the problem of hypoxia in the Sound. The fertilizer and dog shit that was washed towards the bays from suburban lawns was prompting blooms of algae that would consume oxygen as they decomposed leaving behind swaths of dead water. 

And I watched the landscape change. Where there had once been potato fields and orchards, wooded second growth denuded for the ship building needs of the British Navy grown back after hundreds of fallow years, now there were endless fields of sod for the manicured lawns of the subdivisions. I felt angry at this. My only fond memories of childhood were of walking through these places, the thrill of fright at a place so absent of humans commingled with hope that perhaps I would find a door, some way out of who I was becoming and who I was expected to be.

I worked the boats on and off throughout my adolescence and adulthood and I learned lessons that only the truly stupid can impart. About racism, about class, about sexism and killing the pain of everything by drinking. I learned that my childhood efforts at averting or even considering the manifold apocalypses that were bearing down on Homo sapiens were the ludicrous whims of a naive child. And I learned that fish don’t feel pain.

Sequela for Fascism

I don’t like poetry. It is at once anachronistic and a dominant means of communicating in the contemporary era. Go ahead and consider social media as a never-ending circulation of shitty haikus and test your ability to unthink this consideration. I’ve met some people that called themselves poets and while I didn’t hate them there was something trite about them. They were too well rounded for me. If you’re going to be a poet at the very least be self-destructive. 

The same goes for song. I think it is rare that lyrics of songs rise to the level of beautiful. There are exceptions of course but on the whole I think it’s true that everything too stupid to be said is sung. It’s banality across the board from Radiohead to Toby Keith. 

So please forgive me for what follows. It is not a poem or a song. Try to think of it as a prayer or an invocation. 

In my previous post I made reference to two children, Brissenia Flores and Lilly Mederos, who were murdered alongside their parents by right-wing militants in the borderlands of Arizona. These events are distant enough in time that whatever spirit that flesh might encompass has migrated, disseminated or ascended. And if there is no such thing as spirit become flesh then perhaps it can serve as an invitation to the spirit of the age to pass on and allow those people it hasn’t ushered to their deaths to live in a better time. 

While the U.S./Mexico border itself has been used as a murder weapon for decades, with the desert sucking life out of the desperate as they cross from one horror to another, there are occasions when it bestows its stolid murderousness upon the stupid, the ugly and the cruel. And it is two distinct instances of this that I want to write to, two times that the right wing milieu collapsed into its most distilled ethos. 

Killing sprees happen all the time. Most of them involve intimate and familial violence. They aren’t limited to the idiots who sieg heil for their daily hit of dopamine. People get hooked on all sorts of hate. It is a crack-rock of an emotion but harder to quit and eventually paid for in blood. 

The perpetrators of these acts don’t deserve to be memorialized but neither do they deserve to be forgotten. They exist in the middle-ground as a warning that won’t be heeded by those who would most benefit. When history repeats itself I don’t think it necessarily repeats itself as farce. Sometimes it’s a tragedy all the way down. 

While not a generally accepted position I was overjoyed when Shawna Forde and Jason Bush were sentenced to death. I hope they are terrified. I hope it hurts. As for JT Ready, who shot himself in the head when he was finished murdering the people who were crazy enough to love him, I am denied the satisfaction of imagining the interminable moments that must stretch before a person as bureaucracy moves them towards the stretcher on which their vile heart will stop beating. I don’t believe in hell but I’d like to.

I taught a class on the border region when I was still impressed with myself. I am not a quantitative scholar. I’m not a scholar at all. But when I was good at teaching I felt that I was really good at teaching. So I didn’t speak to the unique beauty of the bioregion or the art and craft of fire mapping. Instead I spoke to the other ecology of the desert, in which desperate humans migrated through a landscape that kills without discriminating between the lucky and the doomed. 

It was important to me that we discussed these murders. There was something quintessential about them. They captured the brutality of the politics that the border engenders and illustrated the bleed between the state’s monopoly on violence and the eager subcontractors who literally volunteer to deliver it. Some of the young people in the class would have to excuse themselves. Others cried openly. I was concerned about those who did neither. What else do you do with the thought of a 15 month old executed by a middle-aged man? Get angry I suppose. That would be another appropriate reaction. 

The sprayed down and sanitized images of children suffering alone in detention is only one step removed from a cristalnacht of unabashed murder. The armchair warriors and internet turds of the 21st century are only one bad cable line-up away from a spree killing. 

And so I offer a prayer for two murdered children, a prayer that is too little and too late.

To Brissenia:

Darling, I hope you came to yourself with the morning forgotten. Don’t worry about what I’m referring to. It’s not important. What comes next, that is what’s important. 

I hope you found yourself at the mouth of a canyon. I hope your father was holding your hand. If he had other matters to address then I want it to be the gentlest of beings by your side, a luminous woman who knows you well, and I hope you can tell by her smile that she is yours and yours alone. 

I hope you walked bravely with your bare feet in wet sand. I hope the animals of dusk marched before you, the mighty and the meek alike and that you could see how they swayed to the rhythm of secret music. If it is Jesus who you believed in and who you knew to love you best then I hope he led the parade. 

I hope the stars burned most brightly for you, that the milky way shimmered and waved and rearranged itself to smile upon you, that the gentle lion and ferocious lamb came alongside you as you began your march into the purple night and that the shining eyes that opened as you passed did not scare you. Their owners only wanted to see how lovely you are. 

I hope that the music swelled as you walked into the nightlands and that you found a door that shimmered, engraved in gold and lapis lazuli. I hope that it opened to you. I hope that you found you had wings, feathered and translucent, and that you anointed yourself in the rising air, your attendants laughing and roaring at your ascendance. 

I call you Saint, patroness of children who deserved better than they got. I hope you received your tiny sister (of course you did) and that you carried her down the canyon yourself this time- that you shushed the animals so that she would not be afraid and then took her on her first flight.   

To Lilly: 

Darling, I hope you remember nothing of the sounds and sensations that came before this. I hope you arrived in your sister’s arms. I hope she glowed for you, the softest and yellowest green and that her face was warm against your cheek. 

I hope you were washed in the water that you were walked through and that it was warm, that the grime of the world drifted away towards the endless ocean as your angel beat her wings to dry you. 

I hope the lion offered his flank and the sheep offered hers and that you slept a million years to awaken to a different life, a different womb. I hope the greatest of mothers gave the gentlest of births and that she cradled you closely, offered the sweetest milk and that when you’d had your fill she let you drift. I hope that you found four dimensions in your drifting and that you move through them all at your leisure. 

I hope that your mother glows for you, wraps you in her endless arms, keeps you warm, keeps you fed. I hope that the greatest and the smallest come to delight you and that they sing you songs of their travels. I hope that you grow slowly in your wisdom (there is nothing so scarce nor so abundant as time). 

I call you Saint, patroness of the innocent in a guilty world, a surfeit of luck is owed to you and may you claim all of it.

Skinheads at the Turn of the Century, Skinheads at the End of the World

I do esketamine and/or ketamine once a week. I consider this to be a consolation prize in a life that’s been entirely cleansed of illicit drugs, the one great and consistent love that I’ve known. It happens in a busy unit of a psychiatric clinic where the rapid fire emissions of transcranial magnetic stimulation marry with the furious typing of the administering psychiatrist and the hum of the machine that monitors my vital signs.

Administration varies based on the substance. Esketamine comes in sleek little two shot bottles that emit a measured vapor. It takes four of these devices to produce an effect that would be considered therapeutic. Therapeutic in this case equates to a breakthrough psychedelic experience. 

Ketamine is more temperamental. It comes from a compounding pharmacy rather than whatever sleek production process births esketamine. The bottle is prone to clogging as it empties. Sometimes it takes several sprays before an adequate mist emerges. The doctor sprays it up my nose in 11 sets which equates to 22 instances of another person placing an object in my nostrils. 

It’s not terrible. I like him. We make small talk as he places what amounts to a flonase bottle into my nose. We talk psychiatry. I wonder sometimes if he’s humoring me, that I may know a measure less of the topic that dominates my life than I think. It gets progressively more difficult to speak, or at least to speak intelligibly as things progress. 

When the medication has been administered I lean back in a recliner and wait for the altered state to take hold and wrest my consciousness from its usual circuit. 

Drugs have their own spirits, a kind of collective ethos that reverberates across the entirety of the range of experiences they engender. Psilocybin is a storyteller and a funerary celebrant, powerfully human and profoundly alien, capable of inducing a cosmic collapse into the whole of being or a terrifying chronic confusion about where one stands on the narrow threshold between life and death. 

Dimethyltryptamine is a cosmic trickster and a rocketship that slingshots off the lens of God’s eye. Joy, terror, confusion melt into a golden spike that lances your heart. It can reveal to you the hidden rhythms to which the universe moves its feet or the faultlines of your life, more heartbreaking than it is possible to bear. 

LSD is a dissolving into intellect, an immersion in the moment, either an acceptance or denial of where you stand as a human being at the end of the age of man. 

These drugs all have a political history, an association with people, their own cultural milieu in which they’ve given instruction, been revered, been outlawed, but through it all the common thread (aside from the neurotransmitters that they bind to) is that they stand outside the bureaucracy and clinical ministrations of the 20th century. If there is anything that can be said about them it is that they have avoided commodification in the classic sense. 

Not so for ketamine. It struggled out of the birth canal of formal medicine in time to facilitate the treatment of flesh wounds in the Vietnam war, continuing a button-down career as an anaesthetic into the 2000’s at which time it came into use as an antidepressant. It is denied the honorific of psychedelic. It seems lonely to me. It seems lost. It has yet to find its voice. 

This is not to say that it is not visionary. It most certainly is. It is just that these visions are scattered, unable to reach the rungs of emotion, always struggling and failing to signify. Perhaps it will find its way. I call its name as the trance state descends and talk to it like an unbroken horse. 

While I have taken breakthrough doses of this substance once a week for six months it is only in the last several weeks that there has been a tint of emotionality to the experience. The most recent was the first time I felt gifted with the insight usually dispensed by the serotinergic drugs, those substances held sacred by societies targeted for extermination. 

This signification requires some introduction. It encompasses three distinct thematic periods of my life. 

Upon the advent of adolescence I pivoted from the quiet repression of the good kid to a creature that became progressively more venomous as time went on. I hated the world and knew that the world hated me. This played out in the kinds of skirmishes with authority that I lost even when I won. The aesthetics and music of punk culture meshed well with my emotional bearing. Everything was stark contrast and jagged edges, unabashed ugliness issuing an invitation to conflict.  

After delivering a brutal beating to a classmate I was placed on probation and ordered to attend a group for troubled teens. It was as useless an overture of intervention as any I’d seen. It was raucous and when the social worker left the room we traded the unimpressive war stories of people who had only just begun on their sad and doomed trajectory as social scum. 

There was a kid in the group with a mohawk and we became fast friends. Haircuts were very focused signifiers in the late 1990’s, communicating your affiliation with a definitive subculture. To immerse yourself in it was essentially a ‘fuck you’ to normalcy, a line in the sand that disallowed back-stepping. He and I became drinking partners, getting shitfaced with people much older than ourselves, stumbling our way home as the sun rose. 

This social scene coalesced around a band as punk cliques tend to. We went to their shows and celebrated the wholesale flouting of social norms that this scene embraced. We huffed gasoline and drank cheap forty ouncers of malt liquor until we fell down face first. The kind of trolling that occurs on the internet now we did in person then. Our very appearance summoned hostility and in the drunken near-psychosis of early morning I felt like a being apart, not human. Something more free than that.

There was an odd phenomenon in the street punk scenes of the time. Right wing skinheads would often attend the shows of their political enemies and dispense a beating to anyone foolish enough (and there were plenty of us) to wander off alone. This happened in the city too, but on the Island it was worse. The downwardly mobile (and none of us knew the half of it) sons of raging Reaganite parents still reeling from the shutdown of the defense industry had nothing to do and so they made their own fun. The historical affinity between skinheads and the bleached out ska of the time turned skater kids into something darker, an alcohol soaked and violence fueled crew of dumbasses.

There’s an historical precedent for this spanning two continents. Skinhead culture was born among working class English youths who became fans of the first-wave ska that the Jamaicans that they worked alongside brought with them to their new, dreary home. It was only a matter of years before hard-right groups began to recruit from amongst this set. The fashion of this scene (tightly laced Doc Marten boots and bleach spotted jeans held up with suspenders), its music and its politics crossed the Atlantic and no one at all benefitted.

The suburban skins of the 1990’s were most likely unaware of the political geography of their affectation. They had their own terrible bands with bad reputations and so their weekends revolved around the creative output of people who were marginally better than themselves. The tension simmered below the surface until my crew announced the inauguration of open hostility.

We challenged them to fights that rarely materialized as direct fist-to-mouth combat. We got their bands kicked off of shows. One of them was the brother of my best friend of a few years ago and I drunkenly called their house at 2AM, announcing to the family that their son, Joe, was a dedicated racist. There was a profound incongruity here. His mother was Jewish, his father a Croation immigrant, his brother just embarking on a lengthy negotiation of his sexuality. But it is rare that you find a fascist who is free of these kinds of contradictions. 

Several of them had perpetrated a hate crime in which they beat a gay man into a coma. They disappeared from the scene as they tried to toe the lines of their bail conditions but there were plenty of them left and as time went by the conflict deepened. 

The epicenter of this rapidly bifurcating youth culture was a bar in Suffolk County, the Roadhouse Pub. It’s a mystery why the owner allowed weekly street punk shows- they had to be more trouble than they were worth. There were enough drunken minors getting soused in the back parking lot that he couldn’t have missed the peril this put him in. Perhaps he simply didn’t care. I passed out underneath a car once. On another occasion I got punched in the back of the head while taking a piss on the chain link fence that bordered the parking lot. The skinhead who did this was named Andrew and he was a recurring antagonist in my young life.

I loved the fighting. I craved violence in the same way I craved alcohol and the latter was my suit of armor. While being trashed does nothing to improve your ability to dole out violence it is an absolute wonder in terms of your ability to absorb it and I truly didn’t care whether I lived or died. Or perhaps I simply wanted to die. 

I went away for a while and in my absence this conflict continued. The frontman of one of the bands I was affiliated with was living in a van behind the thrift store he worked at and one day one of the skins came in. With some concern, as if things had gone farther than he wanted them to, he told him that that a faction of them had stated that they knew where he slept and that they planned on killing him. At the next show his band played he appeared in a t-shirt with a bullseye over his heart.

On another occasion there was a fight where the numbers were overwhelmingly against them. They ran, leaving behind one of their cars and it got beat to shit, windows smashed, tires slashed, upholstery pissed on and burning trash thrown inside. 

When I arrived home from my time away I mostly kept my distance from my old friends.  I spent my free time in Alcoholics Anonymous soaking up the zeitgeist of another subculture for damaged people. Just as punk had been an island of misfit toys so too was the place they went to dry out. 

There is an emphasis in AA on welcoming the newcomer. They are the most important thing in the room. Your own sobriety hinges on your willingness to help them. This is the twelfth of twelve, the culmination of the process of recovery. 

My ‘home group’ was a shit show. Seriously working class and seriously fucked up, whiter than white but with dirt under its fingernails. These weren’t bank executives who ran over the neighbors’ dog or day traders whose wife threatened to leave them. These were orphans, foster kids and the parents who made and lost them.

People died all the time. They ‘went out’ and got found blue with a spike in their arm, or maybe they wrapped their car around a tree. Some killed themselves outright, dangling from a rope but mostly it was more ambiguous. Who knows what’s in the hearts of the dead? 

Freaks and weirdos were the rule. It wasn’t out of the ordinary for a shambling mass of tattoos to walk through the door. Me and a friend were among them.

He was another wreck, transitioning from various stages of homelessness to a punk house where I hung out, a place where there was less drunkenness and reckless disregard. I came to hate him over time. I spit in his face once. But for years we were joined at the hip in a toxic platonic marriage. When the drummer for one of the odious skinhead bands, the one whose brother I was so close to years before walked through the door I didn’t know what to do. So I shook his hand and welcomed him to AA.

People only come to AA when the chips are so down they’ve fallen on the floor. They are desperate. Things are irredeemably fucked and they are so sick of themselves, so horrified by the life they’ve led that they are willing to molt- to shake off the skin of who they used to be. Part of them dies. And so I learned to love this certifiable, dangerous madman who was a mortal enemy until he raised his hand and said “I’m Joe and I’m an alcoholic”.

The three of us fit snugly together. It wasn’t like we went out in mixed company though. He was a secret to be kept. The logic of AA and the logic of left wing punks wasn’t likely to translate well.

He told stories of his crazy and violent life. The local keystone pigs in a town trying to wipe off its blue collar grime told him and his friends that they would look the other way as they loitered and harassed passers-by if they would repay them by beating up the homeless men who camped in the woods. He talked about travelling to the Lower East Side of Manhattan to drink and start fights. And he told me about the hate crime. 

Three of them had cornered a man on a late night train home from the city and beaten him to the ground and proceeded to stomp on his head. The queer community called for their heads on stakes and they deserved it. Had the man died they would have been charged with murder but somehow they got off with plea deals, scarcely spending a day in jail.

My newfound friend, still covered in the little known insignia of white power skins told us of his fear that one of the three, Andrew, was going to sell him out to lessen his own sentence. Andrew had no real home at the time, no parents worth staying with and so he slept in a house under construction. My friend stated that he’d gone to this house in the early hours of morning with a pistol, intending to kill him while he slept. But he lost his nerve and I can’t really say that it was for the best. 

Andrew, homeless and alone in the world, was someone that I would encounter throughout the early years of my sobriety. We were always running up to those windows of violence, a fall threatening both of us. I would get word that he and his crew were at a show and I would arrive with a bat, 17 years of nastiness unconcerned with my own well-being. There is an intimacy to this kind of hate, an intensity not unlike love.

On one occasion I stopped at a 7-11 after work. He was inside with a friend and insults and threats were exchanged. There was no way I was going to win a fair fight against two of them and so I filled a cup with steaming water. As I approached the door they lurked outside and I pointed to the security cameras, laughed in their faces. When I stepped outside they asked if I planned on throwing the water that had been boiling mere moments ago in their faces and I said that I did indeed. They followed me in their car for a good while. I pulled into a driveway and they sped off. 

Joseph had removed himself from contact with these people but he spoke in generalities about what he knew. That Andrew was especially in love with violence and had been trained for it from childhood, brutally beaten by his father until he was old enough to escape. I dated a girl who was with him for a time and she said that he liked to hurt her during sex. 

In AA other aspects of his life came into relief. AA is a catch-all. It’s rare that you encounter a drunk that doesn’t do drugs just as it’s rare that you encounter a drug addict who doesn’t drink to excess. Perhaps unfairly AA is considered to have ‘better sobriety’ (whatever that means) than Narcotics Anonymous, and so people show up there hoping to avoid the heroin slinging that supposedly occured in the parking lot after meetings.

I found myself giving lots of rides to people with heroin problems. One of them had grown up alongside Andrew and seemed to have the kind of love for him that two people who experience intolerable childhoods together develop. When I expressed my hate he countered with love, with sympathy, perhaps girded in the sort of racist milieu from which they emerged but nonetheless I heard more about the brutality that he had survived. This person overdosed and died some months later.

You grow up and you grow away from these things, punk and AA alike. You move, you get jobs, life takes you away from the people that you grew up hating, people who are perhaps more formative than those you love. Still though, you get word of them. The circles that the doomed and despairing travel in are small and word travels fast. A race riot broke out at the bar that once upon a time catered to punks, in which a black veteran and his two friends had to barricade themselves inside as beery morons tried to storm the building to kill them. It shut down not long after. 

A story emerged about Andrew picking a fight with two hispanic men. He got stabbed in the stomach and chased them down the road as his intestine began to find its way outside his body. I heard that he married a Mexican woman and I hoped he had grown, heard he had a roofing business and I thought ‘that figures’, but again, maybe he’d left behind his life of inflicting horror for a kind of middle-aged resignation. I didn’t know how much of this was rumor and I still don’t.  

I didn’t hear about him for years. I was a different creature, still wild, rearing and crashing down, nostrils flaring, but in a different place where the footsoldiers of the far right seemed even more dangerous, and they were.

In 2010 a woman named Shawna Forde and two accomplices murdered a child, Brisennia Flores, and her father in an attempted robbery, the proceeds of which were intended to fund their border militia. In 2012 an avowed neo-nazi and one-time protege of Republican troglodyte Russell Pearce shot four people to death, including an infant child, Lilly Mederos, before swallowing a bullet himself. Inside his home police found a cache of weapons garnished by two dozen grenades. And I had my own run-ins with fascists that butted up against violence. Andrew was a decade in the past and thousands of miles away. He might as well have not existed. 

I returned to New York and I tried to kickstart friendships. It worked and didn’t work because some of them weren’t worth having. One of the better ones lived next to a former skinhead. He was on suboxone to kick a heroin habit and was addicted to xanax.

Where my younger self would have exploded with swinging fists at such a person the older vintage felt a more interested detachment. I wondered who these people were, but already kind of knew the answer – they were the crazy, sad and irredeemably broken outcomes of our culture’s white masculinity, an identity that’s wilting, that won’t survive another generation. They were economically and culturally useless and they knew it. And no one loved them enough to tell them that they could be something different. 

But I am not Jesus. Dogs that bite get put down but extending that mercy to these wretched ones isn’t something we do. We lock them up and make them something even sadder and more threatening before depositing them back in the dustbins of America where they hate and stew and simmer. 

There is a saying amongst the white power set that they sometimes tattoo upon themselves, “14 Words”. This is shorthand for a mission statement: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.” There are a million ways that this can be lampooned, but the sad and obvious truth is that none of this is about saving any kind of child. It’s about nurturing the misery that for lack of a suitable womb gestates in a series of drunken nights and rageful days, never born. Not completely. There is nothing more dangerous to a child than a rageful parent. 

In 2017 Andrew appeared on the local news. He had been pulled over (and I’m sure that this was no accident- more than likely he was under some sort of surveillance) and police found a pistol and knife in his possession. Upon searching his home more weapons were found along with a cache of ammo.

His mugshot brought me back to stare-downs of the past. His is the kind of face that makes one wonder whether one of his distant ancestors was hit with a brick so hard that it became a heritable genetic trait. It’s the kind of face that looks as though it’s been carved into a potato. He was thicker, older, his nose had been broken a few more times but he still looked furious and disgusted, although whether with himself or the situation he found himself in was unclear.

I dug into him on the internet. He was sufficiently affiliated with the far right to have earned a benefit concert organized by the aging fascist hangers-on who were still making shitty music for shitty people. And I found that he had a child, a little girl, and I thought about Brisennia Flores and how his daughter would be about the same age that she was when she was executed by a grown man as she begged for her life.

In my most recent esketamine vision I saw an image of this lost and angry man, this biting dog. His face was in a gilded frame, hung in the gauzy haze of pink shifting to salmon shifting to yellow. It was a soft light, delicate, and I saw beneath and below the furrowed brow that scarcely killed the gloss of his flat, dead eyes. There was a child there. So hurt and so lost, buried in an archaeology of damage that perhaps no amount of healing could excavate. He was a person who fate and bad choices had made into an animal, a process that he may have embarked on willingly but not without a firm push from behind. While any blood that he has spilled in his life is on him it is on society as well. We have to own our monsters.

Diagnosis in the Age of Reason

On the whole I think that psychiatric diagnoses don’t mean all that much. They simply describe a constellation of affects and behaviors that occur in a cluster that are in total a deviation from the norm (whatever that may be). Diagnosis is an act of production in which the edges of an unknowable state are rounded out so that they can be hammered into a round hole. 

As someone who has spent time on psychiatric units as both a patient and in a professional capacity it is obvious that there is no one thing at play for any of the people contained within, leaving aside poverty. 

From direct observation the mental health that the impoverished receive exists on a continuum of inescapable and unnavigable experiences.  People transition from the crowded housing of the family members who are still willing to deal with them to the street to emergency rooms or jail cells and then back to the psych ward. This is a cycle that continues until their deaths, lonely affairs where harried healthcare workers perform the labor of caring with brusque precision. 

Adherence to a regime of treatment is impossible when you don’t have any money. The quality of Medicaid coverage varies from plan to plan and place to place but can be astoundingly shitty. Many practitioners won’t accept it at all. Combine this with inadequate transportation and the astounding price of medication and the impossibility of modeling the behavior of a ‘good patient’ comes into stark relief. I will forever remember a young woman on the forensic unit of a state hospital asserting that she was a job creator, a necessary object of labor in the neoliberal economy without whom the locomotive of society would grind to a halt. 

I think she was right.  

I am lucky. I do not have a psychotic disorder. There are no voices that ring in my mind and no delusions of terrors less mundane than the task of existing on this planet. My only struggle with behavior is to exhibit some. I can’t say that there are many upsides to living with Major Depressive Disorder but at the very least it allows me to divide my life into digestible slices. There are times when I am sick and times when I am less sick. The former has a clear temporal edge on things. 

Yesterday my psychiatrist stated that he thinks a diagnosis of Bipolar II is a more appropriate framing of my misery. My limited understanding is that this is differentiated from Bipolar I by manic states that do not result in hospitalization coupled with lengthy periods of depression. On its face it is a curious label to place on a person. How are you supposed to distinguish happiness from hypomania? Is the entirety of your life a manifestation of madness?

This is not something that has been suggested at any time in the past and it is difficult to think past the endless period of depression that descended four years ago. There is so much scorched earth, still smoking, between 2016 and now that it is hard to see what lies on the other side. I do have memories of a time when I was well, but this diagnosis has cast its shadow over everything that has come before. It is no longer easy to draw boundaries between sickness and wellness. Instead everything I’ve ever done has become enmeshed in a fluid dance between different manifestations of a constant illness. The times that I remember as happy are suspect.

I will state freely that there have been times in which I felt chosen by the secret spirits of the earth, bestowed with invulnerability and magical charisma. In exchange I was to act in the world in a way that was pleasing to them by playing the role of trickster. Encounters with authority? Undermine them. Chance meetings with minor agents of fascism? Run right to the edge of violence to entrap them. An encounter with a fellow traveler, someone who wanted the earth turned upside down? Aid them with whatever resources I had. I loved to live that way, tapped into the roiling flow of an unstable universe with a great sense of humor that had, at least for a time, pulled up a beach chair to check out what I was up to.  

None of this felt like an illness to me no matter how close I sailed to the shoals of disaster. It felt like freedom. Life was immersion in a nietzschean ideal. I took lots of drugs and never worried about looking down. As a PhD candidate I taught classes with blistering talent, weaving a web of charisma that seemed inescapable, and all of it bestowed by ethereal agents of chaos. I had mastered the tightrope. 

Then I lost my balance. I don’t know why. Romance is anathema to the agents of chaos and I kept falling into it, knowing that I was being gridded and that it was stealing my power. But what do you do? Sexuality is both a driver and murderer of the minor magics available to the wild. I slipped in and out of relationships because of this charisma, a brazen asshole with no compulsion to apologize who walked the wire strung between birth and death with grace and a sense of showmanship.  Eventually I fell. 

Falling always happens faster than you expect. Sometimes, for some people there’s a net. I was lucky in that way. And I climbed back to the rope and tried again, not realizing that once you’ve fallen you will continue to fall, getting weaker and less confident every time. By 33 I had fallen all the way onto my parents couch. Even then I wasn’t done. I had ideas about how my life would go that felt actionable. I was excited about them and I worked at them with a dedication that would be impossible now.

Sure, there were blow-ups, explosive moments where I told people in coffee shops that they were bigots or approached blows with my father. But I was in life instead of gazing up at it from a dirt floor and uttering the old refrain of “I could have been a contender.” 

That all ended around this time in 2016. Frantic depression flattened out whatever tie to the sublime that remained and I turned into an ashen-faced and wide eyed creature, retreating into myself physically with my head down and my shoulders slouched. Over the course of four years I failed to find any relief. 

Things are somewhat better now. I have good hours and bad hours. Early morning is for lying awake and wondering how the fuck I’m going to get through another 30 or so years on this planet as whatever song that happens to be stuck in my head plays on repeat. I’ve been lucky recently in that it’s all been Propaghandi’s “Failed Imagineer”. Sometimes the playlist is far more awful. I had a week and a half in which it was “Camptown Races”. 

When I finally pull myself out of bed I get coffee and catch up with the children. That’s always good. They youngest repeatedly toddles up to me to deposit a toy in my hand, something she’s very proud to have like a matchbox car or a stuffed animal. My nephew says hello and then barrels through the house, engaged in a game of one that I don’t understand. 

After this it’s back to the dark of the basement. Most days I sit on the couch and write while my mother snores and asks what time it is every ten minutes or so. This is okay too. 

Sometimes I make the error of looking for work. It’s not like I can actually do any. When one applies a formula of Attention span x Depression x Anxiety x Rage the result of the equation is totally unemployable. In some ways this is a relief. Working holds a stethoscope up to the heartbeat of the meaninglessness of existence. 

But I’m getting off track. I was writing about a diagnosis and have veered into symptomatology. 

As with any rubric of knowledge in our society psychiatric diagnoses cast a grid over one’s life that doesn’t simply parse out symptoms but creates them. Where in the week prior I was pining for the days in which I rushed from thing to thing and did all of them well now I see a more sinister picture emerging that asserts one universal truth: I have always been unwell. I will always be unwell. Perhaps with the proper calibration of sedation and mood stabilization I will be just sick enough to require less attention, but that’s about as good as things are likely to get. 

This is the peril of pathologization. We all fight our battles against its incontrovertible logic. Some reject it outright and insist they are not sick. I suppose I respect this approach more than others. Of course this denial has another clinical maneuver it runs up against in which the person is suffering from anognosia, an insistence that one is well when a physician insists otherwise.

Then there is blind acceptance. You throw yourself at psychiatry’s feet and plead that they cure you over and over again in a process that is never complete. You take whatever medication is dispensed and accept that the next prescription, the next cocktail, the next intervention will finally save you. You disregard the fact that this approach has failed to save you over the months or years of treatment that you’ve endured. 

Most of us operate on a middle path between these two poles. Just as the pain of no treatment becomes intolerable we turn to the myriad pills that are hurled like darts in a bar room. After months or years of this monthly rite of submission we decide we will emerge from the ashes of this paradigm and taper down to nothing. Then when the pain of withdrawal becomes impossible to stand we are snapped back to the prior position. It is a perpetual motion machine of misery. Never sick, never well, over and over again. 

For now I will insist that if my periods of wild-eyed happiness are hypomania then please, please universe, allow me to be sick in that way again and let me stay there where at least I can make decisions and take action, regardless of the danger this may pose. 

Once in the state of trance that psilocybin engenders I saw in my mind’s eye a figure etched in blue and gold in a feathered cape and crown who took flight to do battle with a serpent of roiling darkness. The serpent swallowed this winged king but he was simply too large and it choked as they plummeted to the ground. I felt that this scene was of me, two agential elements of one human- the part that soars and the part that covets flight and freedom. This battle still rages inside me. They have yet to hit ground. They are still locked in combat.

An Open Letter to Jane Mulkerrins

September 21, 2020

Dear Jane Mulkerrins, 

I read with interest your article published in the Telegraph on September 19, 2020 entitled “How My New York Dream Has Turned Into a Violent Nightmare.” I frequently flip through the innocuous news feed on my phone as I migrate between the spaces that comprise my painful and disappointing life as one of the psychiatrically disabled. What pops up in this digital space is occasionally interesting and frequently banal, but of all the objectionable things that rubbed sand in my eyes this morning the most offensive was your article about the perils of being rich in Manhattan. 

I should preface my criticisms by stating that I do not live in New York City. I cannot afford to. Instead I live in Suffolk County and sleep on a couch in a basement apartment that I share with a relative. Poverty is much easier to hide in the suburbs. The luckiest of us occupy couches, closets and spare rooms. Otherwise we sleep in cars. When that’s not an option it’s simply a matter of sleeping rough, spending nights in shelters or the woods and the days hiding in public libraries.

 I don’t travel to New York City anymore, not out of a fear of violence but due to the exorbitant cost of making such a trip. And leaving aside COVID-19 restrictions, I cannot enjoy the cultural amenities you mourn. They are too expensive. I am not living anyone’s New York dream.  

With all that said, your references to violence visited upon friends and acquaintances seem rather overstated.  Getting spit on is a far cry from being choked to death or shot in a stairwell, and even a good solid punch in the back of the head pales in comparison to being sodomized with a broomstick. 

I think your lack of perspective might stem from the sea change this represents. Until recently such encounters were an unthinkable peril for the upper classes. First Guiliani and then Bloomberg had effectively cleansed the city of the poor and the implicit danger they represent. You speak of an air of permissiveness that “commentators” reference, but I have to make an assertion that permissiveness runs both ways. In a city where brutal inequality is upheld by brutal police why would anyone feel incentivized to adhere to an unstated social contract?  

When you reference your New York dream I wonder if you have ever considered the dreams of the mangled poor beneath your feet- that they may awaken without a police officer prodding them with a nightstick, ready to run their name for any outstanding warrants. Or that they wake up at all as the cold of winter descends. Or perhaps that they be allowed to access healthcare that would help them to avoid lapsing into the psychotic states that offend you. In fact, it seems to be the case that your overall objection is that you and your class have to see these people at all, and that they have not been locked away in Riker’s Island for your convenience. 

Your reference to observing protesters ‘kettled’ in the park that your apartment overlooks fails to identify who was doling out violence in this scenario. You’ll have to forgive this reader for assuming that you were speaking of the protesters, the hooligans who dared litter the sidewalks with glass from the posh restaurants and ‘corporate-lite’ storefronts where you enjoy your well-deserved brunches and purchase commodities that are wildly out of reach for most of us. Are the culprits in these “running street battles” the protesters who had the nerve to bruise the fists and truncheons of the NYPD as they beat and pushed and bullied those objecting to the shooting deaths and violent assaults that are perfectly acceptable as long as they’re committed by cops? 

And let it be said that there is something particularly offensive about your references to jet setting. A sit-down with George Clooney? Heli-skiing with Navy Seals? How lovely for you. I guess violence can be celebrated when it’s perpetrated by a handsome American who doles it out overseas. It’s as though you’ve been placed in the midst of an action movie fantasy as the leading lady, ready for capture by the terrorist hordes, ready for rescue by the leading man. 

There is a bit of an intermezzo in your article when you discuss your efforts to cram not only eggs but your own humanity back down your throat (with assistance from a mimosa or two) as you ponder, seemingly with some shock, the idea that your lifestyle might be disgusting as you observe families utilizing a food pantry operating out of one of those pesky eye-sore homeless shelters. I wonder how the waitstaff and cooks feel about the New York that you love. Is it possible that they look less than charitably on their posh overlords as they take public transportation back home to one of the outer boroughs that they and their families have been relegated to? I hope you tipped them enough to not have spit in your drink.

You speak of an escape to the Hamptons and Catskills by the wealthy, as if this will somehow allow them to hide from the poverty and desperation that they have created. As someone who has served in the reserve army that makes the miserable trek East every morning to all but wipe the asses of the rich I have to assert that you’re just as hated on Long Island. You simply don’t have to look at us when you’re dipping hors d’oeuvres in bowls filled with Gwyneth Paltrow’s self satisfied cluelessness. In fact, one of the poorest places in New York State lies on the automobile route to your upper crust enclaves, the Shinnecock Nation’s Reservation, a place where your lament for the passing of the invisibility of the poor would echo as if shouted down a well. But it’s possible that you travel by helicopter.

Without a bit of irony or an attempt to name the Upper West Siders for Safe Streets fiasco you discuss residents’ reports of increases in “drug dealing, prostitution and assault.” Leaving aside for a moment the hypocrisy of those making these ‘reports’ I’ll take a moment to challenge yours. You make mention of the fact that on your sojourn home from brunch you were struck by the bleak economic situation that has descended upon us. Why then the surprise that people would turn to the use and selling of drugs or to prostitution? I would posit that these are activities that should be legal, and that effectively are legal for the wealthy. Serial predator Jeffrey Epstein and his professional groomer Ghislaine Maxwell hail from the pool of human turds that you consider yourself so lucky to hobnob with. It is only when the poor and the desperate fall back on these survival activities that it becomes offensive to the tut-tutting bourgeoisie. 

And circling back around to the hypocrisy previously referenced, the increase in assaults that was ‘reported’ omits the spirited calls to violence by the West Siders for Safe Streets themselves, which include incitements to kicking people in front of busses and spraying them in the eyes with insecticide. And since we’re all so sensitive to quality of life issues it bears mentioning that one of these internet warriors urged people to smear public benches with dog shit to discourage shelter residents (and literally anyone else) from sitting on them. 

It is interesting that you end your screed against those people who are surviving the unsurvivable by bemoaning your recent encounter with cockroaches and rats and the satisfaction you derive from ending the lives of these other unfortunate survivors. It is almost impossible to miss the equivalence implicit here- that you view those people forced to battle their demons on street corners as nothing more than vermin to be poisoned or bludgeoned to death.  But I assure you with a fair degree of certainty that despite whatever campaigns of violence your class visits upon them the immiserated masses will continue to survive, mostly by the skin of their teeth. I wish I could say we’re coming for you but the reality is that for now at least we’re too busy surviving. 

In closing, please decamp to London or whichever other metropolis you feel has been successfully remade to provide you with emotional stability and condominiums from which to view the forces of law and order as they  assault those who object to a world that is grinding them into slurry. But don’t forget the events of 2011 in your country of origin when the amorphous and unknowable masses enacted their brief but furious revenge on a society that cares nothing for them. And please consider the possibility that the upper class with whom you identify must either submit to a thoroughgoing redistribution of wealth or live with the possibility that it is only misery and violence that will be subject to redistribution.  

Sincerely, 

Nobody

Post-script: On the day following the publication of your article William Barr designated New York City, Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington as “Anarchist Jurisdictions” and threatened to withhold federal funding unless police agencies are granted complete impunity. This sends a clear message from the Trump administration to lesser branches of government that any objection to the current paradigm must be crushed or the targeted municipalities will be financially strangled. Maybe you will get your New York dream back after all, a dream built on the nightmares of the poor. 

Roadkill

I ride a bike a bunch. I am not one of the unsung heroes of cycling who make their way to work in all kinds of weather and at all hours of the day with nothing but a rusting Huffy beneath them, but I’m not a spandex clad hammerhead either. 

I ride a modest touring bike that might have been an object of envy a decade ago and I ride it for whatever modest benefits it might bestow upon my unfortunate brain and midriff. If any kind of class analysis can be derived from a close look at cycling it is this: The strongest cyclists ride their shitty bikes to work every morning while the weakest cyclists ride their vanity projects to the coffee shop for Saturday brunch. 

As with so many things I find myself outside the entire paradigm. I ride several times a week. It takes me an immense amount of time to get out of the house. I hate changing my pants and I have no idea why. This is the major barrier to getting started. 

It always feels good at the beginning. I like climbing and I live in a low spot so there’s one waiting for me no matter which direction I choose. Cars rush by. I live in a place that could be considered ‘bike unfriendly’. This should bother me more than it does but when I crunch the numbers my earning potential is maximized by riding in wealthy neighborhoods. 

The best year of my life followed on the heels of a near-fatal car accident in Southern Arizona. I was riding eastbound on a road that marked the southernmost boundary of a university and was left-hooked by a student ogling young women rather than paying attention to traffic. My memory of this event consists of the moment of terror that preceded my front wheel making contact with his truck. 

I can’t remember however many fractions of a second it took for my ass to leave the seat or my head to connect with his passenger door. Those moments are lost to me. Then there was the peculiar feeling of surfacing from the type of unconsciousness a head injury produces. It is like being born. Light and sound begin to coalesce into sensation. It takes a while. 

I remember a bit of the paramedics cutting away my shirt. I heard a young woman say “It says ‘fuck’ on that guy’s chest,” which is true and also another story. It wasn’t until I arrived at the hospital that I truly regained consciousness. 

I was in a great deal of pain. In addition to the head injury I had separated my shoulder and gotten road rash all over my face. I demanded morphine and it was given. It felt a lot less awesome than I thought it would, producing nausea instead of blissful nothing. Then, because I lacked health insurance, I was released into the hands of my roommate of two weeks with a prescription for vicodin.

Being as industrious as I am I contacted a lawyer the next day. All told it wasn’t much of a windfall. I got about $10,500 from his insurance carrier and they paid my $50,000 hospital bill. For me that was a tremendous sum of money and between the settlement and student loans I lived a luxurious life in which I indulged my two greatest loves: Not working and second hand bikes. 

But the joys of personal injury litigation are not really what I hoped to write about here. Instead it is the profanity of the American suburb as it plasters the remains of the other-than-humans who scurry between sad patches of second growth forest in a relentless visitation of insult upon injury.  

Roadkill is one of those atrocities that we witness and forget. No one needs to think about it. It’s simply an accident, and not one that requires an exchange of insurance information. Really it’s the animals fault, too stupid to follow signs or observe red lights. 

They are unworthy of a burial. That would be a ridiculous thing to do, to stop and watch the life ebb out of a raccoon’s eyes. To put your massive hands around it as it leaks blood and lift it into your car. 

What would your spouse say? Leaving aside the matter of parasites that riddle these lower order creatures, what order of logic would you be succumbing to if you were to work a spade into the dirt of a suburban backyard under a motion sensing light? What would it say to cradle that tiny body and beg for forgiveness as you laid it in a patch of earth  somewhere between the above ground pool and the aluminum shed? And what of the children? No one wants them to grow up weird. 

As I rode uphill today I neared a train station. A raccoon lay ahead, fallen where the curb meets the road. Curbs are rare where I live. Roadkill less so. Denied the dignity of death in the forest where funerary bugs and keratin eating fungus do their work the corpses can sit for days or weeks by the side of the road. I gave it a wide berth to avoid the smell. This is at once a futile and a dangerous thing to do. Too far off the shoulder and I might end up in a similar position to the creature up ahead and the stink of death would still be in my nostrils. 

As I passed it slowly lifted its head, the rest of its body still splayed on the asphalt. It stared at me and followed my passage with what I can only imagine was dazed and confused terror. I rode on for another quarter mile and stopped. I felt sick and I felt wrong. There are quandaries that one encounters in life and how you reconcile yourself to them can say a great deal or perhaps nothing at all. One is faced with all the actions that the broader society prescribes for the alleviation of suffering, none of which are adequate or even defensible. When the one who is suffering can’t speak or understand what is said the dilemma is amplified. Animals aren’t afforded the luxury of DNRs.  

Should I have gone back with a sense of manly duty and an appropriately sized rock to enact the dubious mercy of bludgeoning a scared and dying thing? This would afford me cover to humbly and regretfully tell the people who’ve accepted my narrative about myself that I put it out of its misery, painting a thin veneer of responsibility over what appears to be sadism. All things are put out of their misery given enough time. There’s really no need to assist in this momentous inevitability. 

There are other dubious kindnesses that I could have visited upon this creature. If it had survived, if it was not merely casting its gaze about at the purple twilight of the forest of the dead with me as interloper perhaps I could have rushed home for a towel in which to wrap it securely and then ferried it to the wildlife rehab. But it is likely that this would just force it into a half-life in an enclosure where it would serve as an imprisoned ambassador for all the wildlife that are already in the crosshairs of the great extinction. 

Finally, I suppose I could have left it in the cool cover of some relics of an effort at landscaping that were regularly rendered futile by the encroachment of weeds. This is what I would want for myself, to stare at the sky as everything transitioned to blinding white light, cradled by grass prepared to accept my flesh as it melted off my bones. 

I didn’t do any of these things. The purpose of such minor heroics seem to only whitewash the overwhelming testament to our folly as a species. The suffering of that creature was unavoidable and mundane, a tiny sum deposited in the ledgers of capitalist society’s tally of neglectful cruelty. 

I rode on. At the boundary of a nature preserve I passed a fox flattened by the rush hour procession, too small to garner the interest of the highway department, a grisly stole that would be nothing but fractured bones by next spring. Another year and it wouldn’t even be that, just shards of calcium washed downhill. 

I thought about all the classes of schoolchildren that would likely visit this preserve. No doubt a docent and a teacher would try to impress on them the fascinating interdependence that allows any kind of life to flourish. What will they make of the deer lying bloated on the green of an adjacent golf course, intestines bursting from its stomach in deep purple loops? I think very little. They will have no one to explain to them that they have been bequeathed a world that is doomed. 

Any grade school teacher with self-preservation on their mind will studiously avoid veering into the horror that is running these children through the chutes of this fucked up rodeo. The deliberate blindness and denial that is required to lift oneself out of bed is what is actually being taught. It is a training regimen that demands that they not notice the animal rotting before their eyes and that if they do that they be incapable of generalizing the implicit logic of such a thing. Always, always deny the violence of speed. 

I ended up on one of the major thoroughfares that connects east to west. I rode past yet another golf course, this one clearly unable to scrape through the six months of the coronavirus’ assault on the dubious sociality of middle-class America. The grass was tall, the trees all dead. It was curious, this uniformity. As though they had forged a suicide pact. 

I was pleased with the end of the golf course. There are few things more offensive to me than the persistence of this game, the origins of which lie in the earliest colonialist impulses of the British empire, a test case for the horrors yet to come.  As I rode past at my usual sluggish pace I noticed a box turtle so flattened by traffic that it could have been a leaf pressed in the pages of a book. 

There was a Walmart across the road. As I passed it I could feel the square become a box become a tetrahedron. A dead animal that could have lived for a century catty-corner to a temple to the dead labor of the suburban poor from whom a well-defined black line was drawn to the sweatshops of Southeast Asia. From there a thinner and more amorphous tendril finished the perimeter of suffering with a perennially despondent outsider as the final node.

The profanity of death cultures is rarely adequately punished. The amount of rope required doesn’t exist. The earth can’t drink all the blood. Truth and reconciliation gives neither. We just have to teeter on the landscape that the past has created and try not to think about the bodies beneath us and the implicit threat that they portend. 

Social Work and its Discontents

From September of 2019 to February of 2020 I pursued an MSW at a large state university. That I got into this program at all seems anomalous. My work history is laughable, my participation in life on a voluntary basis non-existent.  The only reasons I can think of for my acceptance were a well written admissions essay or perhaps simply that they wanted my money.

In retrospect my desire to attend this program was a profoundly bad decision. I have a friend, loving and well-intentioned, from whom I accept as biblical truth any suggestions for improving my station in life. But what works for him is generally not what works for others and in this instance were especially ill-advised. My efforts to participate in bureaucracies both large and small have not worked out to my benefit. I drown in them. 

I had misgivings about the program from the start. The winter of 2019 was not kind to me. It was my third year of profound depression and I was realizing that this might be something I would experience forever.

I had been accepted to the program and was wrestling with it. Mental illness had sapped any enthusiasm I might have felt for what I was about to do and smashed my confidence like a fleet of wooden ships. The amorphous horror of the whole endeavor was upon me before I even began, but I have a foolish penchant for trusting in the benefits of forbearance.  

After attending a series of orientations to the program I was tweaked. The word ‘professional’ has a filthy smell and I was about to bury my face in it. The suggestion that I might very well be expected to drug-test other human beings and that I needed to have a degree of enthusiasm about it horrified me. 

Following this orientation I panicked for days, my body on fire in that way that is particular to overwhelming anxiety. I took a camping trip to Vermont with a close friend, mostly out of a desire to prove to myself that I could still function, and spent the entire time searching for a cell signal so that I could talk to my mom or taking enough Klonopin to put me to sleep. I was desperate to go home but found no relief there either.

The first semester was an endless procession of doctor’s appointments in which I tried in vain to be given a diagnosis rooted in an observable physical problem. I went to endocrinologists, had sleep studies, got MRIs and not one of them revealed anything abnormal. This is the misery of psychiatry. There are no tests, scans or samples that can reveal a cause for the crushing weight of the illness. It’s just there, unwilling to reveal much about itself, a presence that suggests a moral failing or a defect of character. 

The difficulty I experienced in navigating coursework cannot be overstated. Even if I were a person with a normal brain and constitution I think I would be hard pressed to care about the assignments. The classes were so painfully normative, so divorced from any immersion in the actual experience of mental illness, addiction and poverty that I felt my suspicions were validated. Though I know people who have escaped this role the ultimate purpose of the profession as a whole seemed to be to act as an extension of the state and to enforce the particular form of biopolitics that this moment in history demands. 

Ultimately to finish this degree would have placed me in the position of some sort of cop and I wanted none of it. Even the most innocuous positions that I could have attained would have been horrid. The fact that America offers mental health counseling and drug rehabilitation services to the homeless is a sick joke. As if the extension of some victim blaming talk therapy would be a balm to the trauma of being completely divested of resources. As if taking away the only comfort a person has, regardless of how it’s destroying them isn’t an act of cruelty. 

Towards the beginning of the second semester I took a medical leave of absence. It wasn’t a hard argument to make. I was crying constantly, enduring the strange discomfort that emerges in my limbs when I am stressed past my breaking point and was unable to pry myself away from these experiences to do my coursework. I took my leave, which freed me up to swirl in the endless vortex of my body and mind. I haven’t gone back.

Recently a friend invited me to attend a concert. It was after work and I was tired, stewing and bubbling about my poor life choices and the fact that I had sold a bike that cost more than I would make in wages en toto at this inadequate part-time job. I deliberated for a bit but decided to go. He texted me the flyer, a flavorless advertisement for music in a park. 

When I arrived I saw no one that I recognized. I saw no one period. It was one of those events where the only people in attendance were the ones who organized it or were performing there. This used to be a phenomenon that bothered me. I would find my atheism challenged by the feeling that someone was watching and judging me for my attendance. It’s changed for me in recent years. I feel comforted by well-intentioned efforts that amount to nothing. That’s the story of my life. 

As I walked off in search of my friend I heard someone call out my name. Female, Unfamiliar. A young woman walked towards me and gradually recognition dawned. She was a former classmate from the social work program. I felt surprised that she recognized me out of context. I try not to be memorable. It feels safer to me. 

I think the proximity of my departure from school was so close to the COVID-19 shutdown that no one noticed I was gone. I could have taken this as a point of departure before we communicated further but there is an honesty in me when it comes to my own faults that is probably a virtue and definitely a liability. So I told her that I had left school and that it had to do with my mental health. 

She inquired if I would be coming back to the program and I promptly vomited up all my critiques of social work on the ground at her feet. That I saw it as a mechanism of control. That it is another way of pathologizing poverty and disciplining the poor. That it was essentially a strange tertiary instrument of violence and I wanted no part of it. That as someone who is mentally ill I found it to be incredibly paternalistic, endlessly attempting to relocate sickness in the individual instead of in the profoundly sick and wildly violent society we are forced to live in. That any work performed upon human beings ultimately reduces them to raw material, from which the laborer is completely alienated. And that the product of this labor, a more perfect human, is unattainable.  

This was a lot to take in I’m sure. She maintained some grace in the face of my diatribe. She said these were all interesting critiques and that the program we were both enrolled in would be improved by hearing them. 

This was kind of her but the truth is that even if I were to return armed with these criticisms they would never be heard. This was a program meant to spew out social workers as if they were ground beef. Any assault on the ideological pillars of the profession would simply fall off the side of the ship as it headed for the iceberg that is the future. 

I said goodbye to her and I don’t think it is likely I will ever see her again. If I do, it will most likely be as a client than as an equal. I hope that if this is the case some small part of her will remember this conversation and recognize me as less of a product and more of a human being. 

But this is unlikely. From what I observed of what passes for ‘social work education’ it has been completely colonized by the neoliberal impulse that manifests very clearly in the non-profit sector. Firms churn out services with the same blind logic of accounting that Chinese manufacturers and African goldmines adhere to. The product in this case isn’t a pallet of product or a weight of metal and is instead the convoluted metrics of healing that are always imposed on the poor: Are they able to work at Dunkin’ Donuts? Are they numbing their pain with the right sorts of drugs? Are they allowing society to mete out violence upon their children or are they intervening in the process?

Perhaps this is sad, perhaps it is heroic, and it is unavoidably a fact: I will not do these things. I will not lie and tell someone there is a future for them. I will not exert myself to convince them that anyone cares, and the only way I can accomplish this is to absent myself from the process altogether. 

There is a cost for this refusal. I have been paying it down my whole life. I’ve not encountered a cog in this society that I haven’t tried to throw a wrench in. When there isn’t a wrench available I simply shove in my arm. My spirit wanders around on stumps like a Mellvillean whaler crying out for alms, and perhaps too late I’ve realized that I have indeed placed myself in the position of ‘client’ in Social Work’s sloppy division of the world into recipients and providers of services. 

Fear of Falling

I can’t imagine that it is a universal experience to stare down at your proverbial feet and find that the very tips of your shoes extend over a gulf that has no discernable bottom.

And I can’t imagine that many, looking down, don’t feel the pull of the fall- to allow the force of your own descent to cradle you. 

Perhaps you fall face first, wanting a last glimpse of solidity, a final reminder that you are nothing but meat casually animated by an accident of ancient chemistry. 

Or perhaps you turn around to survey the life behind you, a reminder that there’s really very little that ties you to the elevation you’ve grown so accustomed to. 

You fall. 

Perhaps it’s exhilarating, perhaps it’s terrifying, but there’s no returning. Any regrets you might have are finally rendered futile. Your loves as well. There is only the friction of speed and then terminal velocity. You might be free or maybe you’re tragic but the only thing that can really be said is that you’re over. 

This doesn’t have to be a discussion of suicide, though it is that. But it could also be an analogy for the tremendous moments that every life involves, those points from which there is no return. 

I think there is an outcome to the analogy that we rarely entertain in which a leap is made and there is no bottom. We don’t hit water at such a speed that it may as well be concrete or scatter ourselves on rocks once obscured by distance. We are certainly not held and cradled by a loving god. We just keep falling, past bathtubs in which prospectors scrub themselves clean and farmers wrestle with broken tractors. Roots, dinosaur bones, treasures that would make you a millionaire had you not left everything behind, you pass them all as you explore the degrees of freedom of effortless flight.

Another iteration of this scenario is that you jump and you scarcely fall. Maybe four feet down there is another precipice. After a period of exclamatory leaps your knees are skinned and your palms are bloody and down is still the only direction that makes sense. 

I don’t know where I fall in these scenarios. I’m alive, so clearly I never really embraced the art of falling. I know some people who have and their loved ones would probably be unhappy with my admiration for the finality of their departure. So I don’t say in mixed company that I think there’s something truly brave about a willing departure from a state of existence that most of us cling to desperately.

And I hope against hope that I didn’t leap into a descent that has no end. I’ve met some of those and they are sad creatures. They summon images of sickbeds bathed in grey and late night parking lot scuffles- estranged children, marriages that keep happening and keep failing. Smoking indoors, falling asleep in an armchair with the television on, some pills and some beers arrayed around their body as it refuses to die. 

Perhaps it is the last of these that is the closest parallel to my own life. At some point in the last ten years I ran towards an obvious precipice and leapt without looking down. I spread my arms like they were wings. They never materialized. 

After an endless moment I met ground again, grit and blood in my mouth, my knees skinned, the wind knocked out of me. Hurt, but a million miles from dead. The thing that felt like a final decisive choice turned into a new sort of unfreedom. 

Perhaps this is the fate of all things that live. Perhaps some of us see this and some of us don’t. I wish I didn’t. 

I’ve probably been sick all my life. My brain has never truly accepted the world, feeling that it was either very much more or very much less than it claimed to be. The failure to confirm either suspicion drives me to rage or despondence or both depending on the day. 

I thought that I glimpsed something in the populist spirituality of Alcoholics Anonymous, a glimmer of the vastness of things in the sadness of drunks who no longer drank. It was an easy place to land really. Despite any failings it may have it remains one of the oldest existing non-hierarchical mutual aid societies created by caucasians. But people drift away from things. They jump again and ignore the hard ground ten feet below.

My next leap was onto and into the glorious figure of who I wanted to be. He was standing. I fell face first behind him. I was beaten up at this point. My split lip had never healed. There was still gravel in there. I had sand in my eyes. But I could see him. He was brave and free and believed in himself to a degree that was hard to bear but he looked like such a comfortable vessel that I stepped right in, hoping that he could find his way down. 

He didn’t. He just jumped. It was an interesting leap. He ate an ounce of mushrooms, smoked three spliffs, fell asleep after smoking a bowl of changa and upon waking took flight again. He landed in a suburban household that looked remarkably like my childhood home. People that looked just like my parents were there, but if they were my parents then how in the world did they get so old? 

We had landed on a couch. Just to be sure of its solidity we lay there for quite some time. When it was time to leap again it was September of 2016. I knew this because everyone was talking about the presidential election, and since my life was spent in the downwardly mobile middle class white enclaves of New York I was reminded many times of the ill-placed resentments of the East Coast cracker. 

The next time we jumped it was out of the way of the impending co-homicide that my father and I had been planning, unbeknownst to either of us. I landed in Vermont. There was no distinguishing me from myself anymore. The shock of hitting ground two times had smashed us into one thing.  Terrified me lived in terrifying me, locked in a stalemate of superimposition until one died and the other was tasked with lugging around the dead one’s spirit. 

There have been no further leaps. I feel done with jumping. I know it hurts. I circle the precipice and hoist the corpse of my other self, but then he twitches and cries out weakly, reminding me that he is not dead yet. I hate him. I love him. I am him and I am not. 

In the next month it is very likely that I will undergo Electroconvulsive Therapy. This seems like the last leap before the final plummet and this is the most frightening thing about it. 

I don’t fear memory loss or brain damage. The idea of seizing on a hospital bed with electrodes pressed against my mind doesn’t begin to encompass the terror of realizing that there is nothing left after this. Instead of the basement of the river valley that I have been throwing myself into for so many years, finally reaching bottom and following the water to the sea, I will be confronted with the option that was there all along, a final hopeless plunge into unknowable nothingness. 

I want to live. I want to die. I have to hold both these truths in tension and learn to exist within the liminal space. Jump? Or don’t?