Kondocano

If I was supreme dictator of the whole entire universe, I guess I’d start with cargo shorts. I find them distasteful. I know it’s pretty low on the scale of societal malignancy, but it seems like a waste of fabric, and honestly, when you’re supreme dictator, you ought to start somewhere benign before you start chipping away at the big stuff. It’s the foot-in-the-door method of totalitarianism.

The thing about cargo shorts is that they’re ugly and only seem practical. People don’t walk around with things in the pockets of their cargo shorts because physics dictates that the contents of the pockets would flop around on one’s leg and pull the shorts down, exposing one’s Fruit of the Loom brand underwear. Cargo shorts haven’t been fashionable in a decade but people buy them thoughtlessly in the same way they buy the brand of margarine spread their mom always bought even though it tastes like wallpaper paste. No one would be sorry to see cargo shorts and margarine spreads thrown into an active volcano.

So I’d definitely start small. I’d find other things to throw into the active volcano, things that people wouldn’t really miss after a few days. Car fresheners that hang from the rearview mirror? Volcanoed. Anything that bears the likeness of Bob Marley? Vaporized. Home decor that has inspirational wording on it? Incinerated. You’re welcome.

You can get rid of those kinds of things and people won’t really fuss too much, and no one would call you an evil dictator if you paired your megalomania with one of those minimalist philosophies that people like Gwyneth Paltrow champion on lifestyle blogs as they hawk rose gold bonsai trees. “Does it bring you joy?” I would ask, dangling a Blender Bottle over the gaping mouth of a gurgling volcano.

The next step is more difficult; the more obvious I am about my loathings, the more people will call my character into question. Window decals that memorialize the dead – my approval ratings would plummet if I threw the In Loving Memory of Chad factory into the bowels of the Earth. “You think a sticker remembering my dead child is distasteful?” they would ask. I wouldn’t really have a good answer; I guess I would subsidize garden plaques.

Halos of Camera Flashes

Ariana Grande’s whistle tone chirps over a symphonic refrain – “imagine… imagine… imagine…” The song culminates abruptly in an upswing of modern gospel – a life cut short. Throughout the song, in spite of by-now nauseating cultural references, like “skrrt skrrt” and “click click click and post / dripped, dripped, dripped, in gold,” the song manages to fuse the balladry of mourning – that keening whistle note and the cathedral-sized interludes – with R&B and well-placed silence and sultry verses.

It’s the fusion of the light-hearted appeal of Hollywood and Tragedy; the compassion and chatter on Twitter, the tributes and the triumphs and the trials of The Known Class – they’re versions of ourselves but with more money. But the personal life of a celebrity is something that’s immortalized on a Wikipedia page. It’s something that can make or break a person’s career; it can be a boon or a bust, and there’s no stepping out of it like there is in other industries. They’re branded for life, their own names and faces either haunting them or making paychecks.

That inseparability – of the public and the private life – has transformed pop music into a goldmine of genuinely personal work.

The pop music of the late 90s and early 00s was filtered through record execs and management teams and paparazzi and stage parents. The music was infectious and remains memorable, but the fact remains that teams of producers and songwriters and hordes of industry buffs were in collusion churning out radio-friendly, semi-salacious, auto-tuned bullshit, much of which was a blatant and bad reinterpretation of the hip-hop that the decade was blessed with several years prior.

Today, the genre is sprouting YouTube and Soundcloud talent, and that competition is driving the big names to capitalize on not just their music but their stories as human beings. An album is equal parts spin-story and sound. Artists like Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande and Drake have at once capitalized on and suffered within their music, their lives exposed, during vulnerable moments of heartbreak and tragedy and scandal.

How could the music not address it? They, and the industry at large, directly capitalize on folly and downfall and death. A catalogue that doesn’t address the tabloid fodder would be inherently dishonest.

Is this the idolatry of our time – the myths behind the art, fallible and suffering but untouchable and divine, in halos of camera flashes? Consumption culture riding as disembodied Gucci Tennis Shoes on the back of a line about Cane and Abel. Tiffany’s and “red bottoms.” The smiles and pap walks, the pouts and press and ever-presence.

Beyoncé is perhaps the master of the untouchable pop culture goddess — one recalls a recent video of she and Jay-Z standing in front of the Royal portrait of Meghan Markle, actress and duchess, thanking fans for honoring them with a Brit Award for Apesh**t. That was itself was a callback to the music video for the lead single from their collaborative album THE CARTERS, the third installment in the Carter Family saga (the first being Beyoncé’s Grammy-nominated Lemonade, the second Jay-Z’s 4:44). The trilogy addressed the rumored marital problems between the untouchable couple in art, nullifying the cultural value of the infamous elevator scuffle that sparked the rumors.

There are now enough celebrities to epitomize virtually every positive and negative personality trait; and it should perhaps come as no surprise that, in a cyclone of reality TV and politics, we’ve been smited by a Charybdis posed as a pseudo-dictator. The noxious side of pop culture, with its Twitter clarion calls and capricious tantrums, has been crystallized on the head of a spray-tanned and unclothed emperor.

Merch is a wearable anointment, a garment; the concerts and interviews and rallies and speeches are churches made available in our pockets and purses. Legions of worshippers watch as their rulers, their idols, take up arms online, in verse, in real-time. The feuds and failures turn the lens back around on us – the viewers, the consumers, the supporters, the followers. The followers.

Follow. It’s a word that succumbs easily to word fatigue, but it’s a term commonly applied to Christ Himself. It’s been turned into a monetized button, a tithing, and a near-perfect barometer of public interest.  “I’m so successful,” boasts Ariana Grande. Follow. It’s a measure of clout, an accomplishment in and of itself – to be known, to be heard. To be heard. One of the latest phrases in our cultural back pocket is just that: “I hear you.”

It’s infectious, isn’t it? The music, in its accessibility and the personas in their imperfection – but most of all the idea that a single human life is something that ought to be heard by others. The clout so easily begets, in a PR shitstorm, notoriety; the fame begets infamy; the fortunes ride the coattails of indiscretion. But their worst-of-times croons nevertheless echo our own.

Our expectations of pop music now reside in our expectations of its makers, and our demand is reversible and forever at-odds – humanity and perfection; a tug-of-war between the self and the icon.

I am Felicity Jane. I am a tornado.

He used to call me Felicity Jane and ask me if I was a tornado. “I’m a tornado. Why do you call me Felicity Jane?”

“That’s what your parents should have called you. They should have called you Felicity Jane. Felicity Jane Crane.”

***

He took baths on Sunday mornings in something that smelled like evergreens and he was particular about the kind of margarine and marmalade that he scraped across his half-charred toast each morning.

He’d let me turn off the burglar alarm when we’d come back from a trip to the countryside. “Do you remember the code? 4428.” 4 April 1928. His birthday.

He notoriously painted the kitchen a near-fluorescent color called Lemon Ice once after having been tasked with choosing “just a soft yellow, Ewart.”

“Granny’s cross with me,” he said with a grin, admiring his work.

***

“Good heavens!” he’d say about the news or about how much I’ve grown since he’d last seen me.

“Blast!” was for when he hurt himself or forgot where he’d parked the car when he picked my brother and I up from the airport.

“Shall we get some ice creams?” was for when we went on holiday. He’d buy Magnum ice cream bars and we would sit on a bench in Portscatho or Beaulieu or in the garden of some National Trust site.

***

The last time he bought me ice cream, the cancer had spread far enough that sitting and standing and walking was painful and he gritted his teeth. We still had a pub lunch like we always did but it was cut short by his pain.

“Would you like an ice cream Emily?” he asked on the way home. I said no but he stopped the car and hobbled into the shop and got me a Magnum ice cream bar. That was in late August of 2012.

On the evening of December 11th, hunched over my laptop finishing a term paper, I had another.

At 6:30 the next morning, my Dad called me. “I’m afraid this is the call.”

***

I am Felicity Jane. I am a tornado.

***

Dirge Without Music by Edna St. Vincent Millay

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely.  Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.

 

Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains,—but the best is lost.

 

The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love,—
They are gone.  They are gone to feed the roses.  Elegant and curled
Is the blossom.  Fragrant is the blossom.  I know.  But I do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.

 

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know.  But I do not approve.  And I am not resigned.

On Teachers

It had been one of the great mysteries of my lifetime – one day she was there, the next she was “sick.” Days went by, then weeks. Lincoln Logs rose and fell, and before we knew it the year was over and our substitute teacher had become our real teacher. She even appeared at the top of our yearbook page.

I never knew what happened to my Kindergarten teacher until many years later when I was ringing up my boss’s wife’s soy milk at the health food store I worked at during high school. She was a veteran Kindergarten teacher at the same gradeschool I’d attended, from the days before the peanut butter sandwich was a chemical weapon. “Oh wow, you had Mrs Gerber? Huge scandal; the poor old woman had a pill problem.”

And just like that, the greatest mystery of my lifetime had been solved. I felt a deep sense of loss; life ought to be full of mystery and wonder and pointless conjecture. In the time it took to apply a paltry employee discount to a dairy substitute, I’d been robbed of fodder for my wayward imagination (a feeling which lasted until 2014, when my conspiratorial gears creaked into motion again following the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight 370.)

I recall the ceremonial meet-and-greet before the first day of school. I was staring at the kind of linoleum that would serve as the stage for the next 17 years of my life. My mother pried me off her leg and made me “say hello to Miss Gerber!” Miss Gerber was old, her skin mottled with sunspots, her hair an unkempt space helmet affixed to her head by gaudy geometric earrings. Her left arm was in a cast slung across her matronly midsection. She looked at me with glassy eyes and tightened her features across her face in one of those closed-mouth smiles that kind old women make.

Ms. Gerber had been in a car accident and broken her wrist and had subsequently been prescribed opioid painkillers. She was positively swimming through the first 6 weeks of the school year. She spent most of her time doting on us rather than teaching. “Oh, you’re all so special,” she would say. “Just wonderful.” I’m sure we did seem like an awfully special class since every other class for the past 30 years of her career had been presided over in a state of dull sobriety.

Then one day Ms. Crock showed up. “Ms. Gerber is sick,” she said. “I’ll be your substitute teacher today.” Ms. Crock was nice enough; she was younger and seemed – well, sober. She did a good enough job reading children’s books and disciplining Christopher Suppelsa, who had a habit of cutting off his shoelaces with safety scissors. The administration offered Ms. Crock a permanent position. By the end of the year, our inquiries about Ms. Gerber had slowed to a weekly occurrence rather than hourly. Still, the mystery loomed over us. It reinforced the youthful delusion that the adults in my life lived only in the moments spent in my presence – if Ms. Gerber was no longer in my classroom, she ceased to exist. Matters of object permanence aside, a goodbye would have sufficed.

Constance Blair’s character flaws were obvious enough that there could be no conjecture about her status as a basketcase. She was my second grade teacher and an absolute sadist. If you had the misfortune of having a birthday between August and May, you were liable to find yourself braced against the ledge of the chalkboard, ass facing the class while “the Blair Witch” delivered “birthday spankings” using a wooden ruler. She didn’t cause any physical harm, just the kind of emotional trauma that starts as a salty burn deep in your eye sockets and spreads to the top of your skull and down to your sternum until all 40 pounds of you is hot and inside-out and and inflated from holding back the confused rage for which, by second grade, you feel you’re too old.

One day, I spilled a drink and I found myself kneeling on the cold floor and swabbing ineffectively at the spill, using dozens of shitty recycled paper towels while the entire class watched. Mrs. Blair stood over me and criticized my technique, which was to push the mess around and wait for this defining moment in my childhood to be over. My face burned and my eyes started leaking into the mess. The saving grace of this memory is that I and my peers had not yet reached the stage of pure sociopathy – that would come in a few short years. We all understood on some level that she was deeply flawed and emotionally unstable. Their sympathy aside, the feeling of smallness stuck with me and worsened with each of her many acts of classroom sadism.

My middle school employed an elderly woman who occupied a useless administrative position that left her with enough free time to “watch” us when a teacher had to step out of class unexpectedly. She would amble in and spend the first few moments threatening repercussions before plopping down at the teacher’s desk and slipping into a sound sleep. Her head would tilt back, falling away from her jaw to reveal a quivering uvula. We behaved, for the most part, but tested the sonic limits of her unconsciousness – if the noise level got too out of hand, she would come to and claim to have been watching us the whole time. Had we been a few years younger, we might have believed her to be some kind of mystic, but we were old enough to know that she was suffering from a health condition that made it impossible for her to be fired.

My memories of school are these supercuts of wonder and embarrassment, lunchroom laughter and tears choked back; fresh pine woodchips in the fall and honeysuckle nectar in the spring. As for teachers, I remember the good, the bad, and the weird. The good teachers are the ones who love their jobs, who give a shit about their kids. The ones who cultivate a sense of wonder in us.

In elementary school, Mr. Avery handed out oil pastels and made Van Goghs of us. In middle school, Ms. Smith demonstrated her love for her job that I all but forgot that I hated math and, for once, felt capable of it. In high school, Mr. Glenn, aware that I was perpetually stoned and disinterested, woke me up by blasting the Grateful Dead’s Box of Rain and launching into a lesson on transcendentalism. The common denominator among these teachers was this intuition about what exactly it is that makes a kid feel capable and cared-about. They knew how to ignite our curiosity and make our failures feel less like failures and more like learning.

As a new teacher, I fall somewhere on the spectrum of utter mediocrity. At this stage, I’ll likely be forgotten completely, as are most average teachers. Maybe someday I’ll be good enough that I’m remembered the way I remember the good teachers in my life. In any case, I’m not a sadist, a narcoleptic, or otherwise afflicted with something that will forever etch me in their memories as a whackjob. For now, I’ll probably forgotten like yesterday’s breakfast. And for now, that’s okay. I’m happy to leave each of my lessons having learned more than any of my students.

Lunch in Katy, Texas

Viewed from space, Houston, like all cities, very nearly resembles a malignant cancer or a slime mold. But it’s different somehow; it’s a pernicious kind of mold unique to the green prairies of America. Houston is a prime example of induced demand – the highways always reach capacity no matter how wide and plentiful they are because humans will always move in on empty space. It’s the microeconomics of Manifest Destiny.

You scream or sputter along the arteries of this megatropolis on massive freeways, flyover interchanges supported by beams emblazoned with a star of Texas, and for miles you see a landscape heaving with big box stores and fast food restaurants and malls and megachurches; strip malls of culture; retail space measured in football fields, parking lots big enough to land jetliners; consumable, retouched, gas station tchotchke faith. It’s a vast Mecca of a particular kind of consumerism unique to America – doubly evocative in that Houston is built beneath the burping smokestacks of oil refineries.

I stopped for lunch in the suburb of Katy. Katy is a place where the earth is systematically scraped clean of all vegetation and replaced with the empty promise of happy families. Pine scaffolding and insulation and sheetrock and a facade encase the promise and massive tracts of land are geometrically organized in such a way that streets lined with mailboxes and trash cans wind gracefully into cul-de-sacs. Once a suburb has been carved into the earth, a landscape designer will plop tiny little saplings onto the earth and adorn The Promises with visions of the fully grown tree. “It’s a new build!”

I stopped for lunch just as Church™ got out and stood haggard and underdressed among the faithful in line for overdressed salads. At the register, Manicure thumbed through her patent leather pocketbook as her flailing blond-haired son flung his limbs and farted his armpits. Behind me, a floral skirt flitted just above a pair of diabetic ankles crammed into orthopedic pumps. The woman living above the skirt looked down in purse-lipped judgment at the flailing limbs and then at my shoes then my pants and then my shirt and then my unmade face. I smiled. Her pursed lips creaked into a small smile. Her nose crinkled. There was a geometry even in the way our gazes had started at each other’s shoes and met at each other’s self-righteous smiles.

I sat at a table in the corner and watched heads bob up and down to meet forks and spoons. Each head was attached to it’s body by a necklace or a collar. Up and down. They were swans. A Russian ballet of head bobbing, pecking at You-Pick-Two™ specials, jaws churning, adams apples floating up and down on strawfuls of sweet tea. Broken crayons and defrosted french fries accumulate under swinging bobbysocked feet. “What did you learn in Sunday School?” Her tongue stuck out as she tried to color inside the lines. She broke her crayon.

An hour before they had been an audience, a congregation, each of them a pastel-colored scaffolding around which promises are built. An hour before their single-family homes had sat empty while they sat by the thousands in multi-million dollar stadiums of Osteenian faith. Pressure-washed faith; stripped of last millenium’s gothic pomp in favor of clean lines, light shows, and showmanship. At 606,000 square feet, it’s a formidable display of American values – Big Box Glory of God.

Impossibly Cool

Please refrain from looking impossibly cool on the stairs in case there’s a fire. You may look impossibly cool in the pit or at the bar or in the designated smoking area but not on the stairs. The stairs are for sauntering up and down while your long, neglected, perfect hair moves on your shoulders like a heavy curtain in a light breeze.

Please ensure that the walkway remains unobstructed at all times so that patrons can move freely to and from the bar carrying three plastic cups full of beer in two hands, froth cascading over the sides, eyes darting from the cups to the crowds, shoulders level, gliding ballerino with a backwards cap.

In the interest of maintaining an impossibly cool environment for all guests, we ask that you please abstain from erupting in Whoops and Yeahs. Sir, if I hear another exuberant throatsong I am going to have to ask you to leave. You are to be stoic and unaffected, your eyelids at half-mast, you are a fog moving in or a storm that dies on the brim of a mountain ridge.

If you begin to feel buoyant, there are stoned baristas stationed throughout the venue who will be pleased to remind you that you’re oppressed and poor and uninsured and shot like a cannon from a womb to a tomb.

In an effort to elicit a string of profanity from the eccentric frontman, one and only one motherfucker is permitted to throw an empty cup at the flamboyant mutton-chopped percussionist.

We are pleased to announce an exclusive VIP section for guests over forty. Designed with the salty wisdom of the rapidly-aging in mind, this spacious area nestled between the restrooms and the bar offers a comfortable respite for our patrons who would like to reminisce about the mid-to-late nineties while making hostile remarks about millennials with their thrift stores and their mobile devices. Guests to the VIP area must show proof of at least one bitter divorce at the entrance. Please note that while you are free to leave at any point to victimize disinterested young women wearing plum-colored lipstick, the venue is not responsible for the total deflation of your masculinity with one withering glance.

Youthful faces that have yet to desiccate from prolonged exposure to toxic chemicals are encouraged to smoke natural hand-rolled tobacco in designated areas only. The designated areas are all of the empty spaces between other people. Health-conscious guests who prefer emitting mighty clouds of Glade PlugIn vapor from their smug lungs are asked to please stand near the stage as this creates a pleasing psychedelic ether around the musicians whose arms all move up and down at the same time as if connected by fishing lines to a puppeteer.

We appreciate your help in maintaining a brooding, self-conscious environment in which concertgoers can hear live the exact same songs they discovered from a single earbud threaded up the sleeve of a baja hoodie in chemistry class ten years ago. Please bring yourself and two sulking pre-anesthetized friends to the benefit party after the show in a clawfoot bathtub at 220 Waller Street. Free drugs with your donation of 20 damp dollars. All proceeds go to some guy with neck tattoos.

The Blighted Crevices of Anywhere

Boca Raton, 2003. You’re in one of those kind of shitty beachside hotels that’s 5 years overdue for a renovation. The white vinyl upholstery on the booths is grimy and the watercolors on the walls are faded by the sun. The waitstaff are forced to wear visors and white denim shorts and they are being bossed around by a drunken Cuban and sexually harassed by sixty-seven years plus three Coronas at each table every night.
Your sweaty, sunburnt thighs are sticking to the vinyl and the water is treated with sulfur and tastes like flatulence. You’re picking at dry flakes of what is allegedly Mahi Mahi and it’s drenched in bright green Zinger Sauce and served alongside a pitiful salad garnished with clementine wedges. There is utter silence and a fallen army of cocktail glasses between you and your spouse.
A voice bellows from across the half-empty dining room. He didn’t order this. This wasn’t what he asked for. Besides it looked like it came out of the freezer and no he knows what good steak tastes like and that wasn’t it. He doesn’t want an apology he wants it to be taken off the bill and so what if he ate it all he didn’t order it and it was your screw up not his – what’s your name – it was your screw up Chad not his so you can take this bill and shove it up your ass. Can he speak to the manager, you’re a zero Chad, where’s your manager. Go get your manager and quit making excuses he’s a very powerful man and he’ll make sure you never get another job in Boca Raton again and go get your goddamn manager he said he doesn’t wanna hear another word out of you Chad
The voice is ejaculating from a tawny plump mole-rat of a man. A Hawaiian shirt billows on top of the loose skin that flaps with his gesticulations; the whole thing seems to begin in his combover – which looks as if it were plucked off of a corn husk and placed atop two quivering jowls – and end in the defeated hand-wringing of the waiter. The manager arrives and deflects a barrage of the kind of racism that only spews out of those who move reckless through the world without a shred of self-awareness or empathy. The manager grabs the sweaty wrinkled receipt from the sun-mottled hand of the Hawaiian Shirt and begrudgingly removes from the bill the Surf N’ Turf, which is now being dissolved by a half-gallon of bile beneath a single layer of cotton-polyester blend and 40 pounds of subcutaneous fat.
The neural pathway from his brain to his mouth is an absolute colostomy and you wouldn’t trust him if he tried to sell you a wilted carnation from a plastic bucket outside of a Chinese restaurant in the blinking neon lights of the blighted crevices of anywhere. But he did manage to sell you the fantasy of destruction once, wrapped in a flag.