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.