Sunday Reading

 

“Lilies on Black,” oils on 40 x 50 cm stretched canvas (web store). 

 

As performed live tonight at the inimitable Sunday Slips—my favorite open mic in Berlin. 

 

“Sunday Reading”


“He said to David, ‘You are more righteous than I; for you have dealt well with me, while I have dealt wickedly with you.’ ” —1 Samuel 24:17


In the blindness of
          what is a blindness if you can name it?
     how bad can the pain be if you know where it is?

Anger, then. Bleeding like a fire
          in my brain through time, and my heart out-pacing
     itself, like the minds of the powerless outpace the powerful.

Nothing to be done. Everything destroyed
          by evil men who loved the pain they caused.
     Before or after, in the timelessness of panic, I am lost.

Stumbling through darkness, directionless, cold,
          I come to a long line of foreign men with suitcases
     who want to know if I’m looking for work.

I go back the way I came, less and less able to tell right
          from left, to tell right from might, to tell right from
     wrong things have happened so quickly all week,

some of them outside my head. Yesterday the border patrol
          told legislators they were working for the President,
     and hung up. It will do no good to say I tried to tell you.

Besides, the woman sent back from the airport to anywhere else
          even though she had her Congresswomen there
     even though she had her papers
                    show me your papers
                    stay in the car
                    step outside the car
                    step outside your body
                    this is not your body
                    this is not your life
                    you are no longer real, you are no longer human
                    and I myself should have died long ago,
                    who am I to bear witness?

Sometimes then a silence overtakes me
          in which the whole world seems stilled
     and all is well because I am a child of God.

And I wonder, is this a trick? My brain was bathed
          so deeply in anger, and I was lost, as we are lost.
     Do I need like my ancestors to tell stories just to stay alive?

To rest in some kind of certainty that,
          although we lose, we lose with love.
     In that damn desert in that damn time, there was no other solace

to be found in powerlessness. There was no comfort
          no hope for justice, no hope for change.
     So we made one up. That kind of faith got us through.

It’s a different time. Still, any peace will do.

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February Art Opening Flyer

In one week, I have a solo show of new work beginning at Galerie Kupfer in Berlin Mitte (event page, Facebook event page). Today my ridiculously hot sweet man made this lovely flyer for the opening on Sat. Feb. 4 at 20:00.

V: These are the most beautiful flyers I’ve ever seen.

R: Nah. The more I look at them, the more I see things I could’ve done better.

V: Just because you’re working in a class all your own, doesn’t mean you’re not kicking ass.

Please join us then for art, drinks, and merriment. Bring your friends… See my new art in person… Talk, meet more artists/expats/hackers/friends, and have a good time.

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Dictator for a Day

Oils on 40 x 50 cm stretched canvas (web store). After Henry Moore. h/t Thomas Hasel for poetic inspiration and Meghan McAteer for painting inspiration.

Are we having dictators now?
I want to play!
If I could be dictator for a day—
All would be fed.
All well-rested and clean.
Or covered with paint or flour, happy,
making art and meals for families.
I’d dictate clean water and air for all.
Demand education and peace,
not build a new wall.

You! Need to lose weight,
quit your job, have that kid.
You! Need to be outside more,
walk it off, talk it out, get rid
of the cobwebs but remember:
What were your dreams?
Pursue them.
What were your plans?
Do them.

I’ll brook no excuses
nor harbor dissent.
Anyone who’s unhappy
can leave or get bent.
Anyone who’s happy
must get happier still.
For tomorrow,
someone else will be dictator.
They will.

 

(h/t Thomas Hasel)

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Tube Shelter During The Siege Of Aleppo

Tube Shelter During The Siege Of Aleppo

Oils on 40 x 50 cm stretched canvas (web store). After Henry Moore

 

Empty shelters in this latest Blitz
point the finger at us, but for this:
ordinary people don’t know what to do.
Some keep their heads down. Others are blue.
Write letters, march marches, try to be true
to the idea people matter. But that won’t save you.
Empty shelters in this latest Blitz
point the finger at us, hit or miss.

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Wild Geese

Wild Geese

Oils on 40 x 50 cm stretched canvas (web store).

 

“Wild Geese”

by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

 

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The Federal Week in Review

Armchair Scream

“Armchair Scream,” oils on 40 x 50 cm stretched canvas (web store). After Munch

 

This is a public service announcement.
There is no cause for alarm. No one is in danger.
Please proceed to your next life immediately.
You may pack your baggage, but it’s better to leave it.
Leave it all behind, and don’t look back.
Stop reading the news and start learning a new language.
Languages don’t make sense, but at least they are useful.
The grammar of bread and milk holds from week to week,
Although their substance, too, falls apart.

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One Hour

“The Tree of Desire Grows Out of Her Chest,” oils on 40 x 50 cm stretched canvas (web store). With thanks to KN and RG. 

As Walt Whitman says…

O something unprov’d! something in a trance!
O madness amorous! O trembling!
O to escape utterly from others’ anchors and holds!
To drive free! to love free! to dash reckless and dangerous!
To court destruction with taunts—with invitations!
To ascend—to leap to the heavens of the love indicated to me!
To rise thither with my inebriate Soul!
To be lost, if it must be so!
To feed the remainder of life with one hour of fulness and freedom!
With one brief hour of madness and joy.

Or, as I say…

“The Tree of Desire Grows Out of Her Chest”

The tree of desire grows out of her chest.
The door of light overflows without rest.
The well of healing draws you better and best.
And I am just learning to laugh and let laugh.

The shadows of mountains grow out of the sea.
The smell of honey wafts from the buzz of the bee.
The length of the days from the earth whirling free.
And I am still picking the paths off the path.

The fire of love is consuming the moon.
Dawn’s own birds are still singing at noon.
The radio of now is still searching for its tune.
And I’m sinking and smiling with friends in the bath.

Where there is no planning, only now.
When you cannot sow, only plow on and plow.
Why we cast faces in bronze—and not math.
And I have nothing left but this love-flashing wrath.

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For the Consideration of Poets

“The Muses Visit Hesiod,” oils on 40 x 40 cm stretched canvas (web store).

“For the Consideration of Poets”

By Haki Madhubuti, h/t B.R. Cohen

where is the poetry of resistance,
the poetry of honorable defiance
unafraid of lies from career politicians and business men,
not respectful of journalist who write
official speak void of educated thought
without double search or sub surface questions
that war talk demands?
where is the poetry of doubt and suspicion
not in the service of the state, bishops and priests,
not in the service of beautiful people and late night promises,
not in the service of influence, incompetence and academic
clown talk?

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Prayer

“Laurel Staff in Bliss,” oils on 40 x 50 cm stretched canvas (web store).

“Prayer”

By Francisco X. Alarcon, trans. Francisco Aragon, h/t B.R. Cohen

I want a god
as my accomplice
who spends nights
in houses
of ill repute
and gets up late
on Saturdays

a god
who whistles
through the streets
and trembles
before the lips
of his lover

a god
who waits in line
at the entrance
of movie houses
and likes to drink
café au lait

a god
who spits
blood from
tuberculosis and
doesn’t even have
enough for bus fare

a god
knocked
unconscious
by the billy club
of a policeman
at a demonstration

a god
who pisses
out of fear
before the flaring
electrodes
of torture

a god
who hurts
to the last
bone and
bites the air
in pain

a jobless god
a striking god
a hungry god
a fugitive god
an exiled god
an enraged god

a god
who longs
from jail
for a change
in the order
of things

I want a
more godlike
god

 

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Hacking Despair: The Politics of Marginalizing Distress

The Kiss in Heat

“The Kiss in Heat,” oils on 40 x 50 cm stretched canvas (web store). After Rodin’s The Kiss.

 

Who among us has not thought: “Fuck this shit”? The Germans have a word, of course, for that tiredness of life with which we long occasionally to give up existence—LebensmüdeMost people think about suicide at some point; despair is a normal part of human experience. But the holiday blues that send some people drinking or packing can drive others to suicide. And although violent crime including suicide tends to peak in the heat, caring people often suppose the winter holidays are a period of heightened suicide risk for lonely people. And these caring people keep posting suicide hotline phone numbers on Facebook as a result. Facebook itself encourages people to report suicidal posts to law enforcement.

Stop. This actively hurts acutely suicidal people, punts them off on strangers instead of opening your own door, plugs them into a system that ignores the empirical research on what works (and doesn’t work) for the main drivers of suicide (depression, alcohol abuse and its reasons, post-traumatic stress disorder, and lethal means access), and contributes to the overall societal mistake of criminalizing despair and medicating away what might be perfectly rational, appropriate distress—and necessary pain. What if blunting the pain of reality on a mass scale is stunting revolution?

Reality sucks. We’re told we live in an age of a clash of civilizations, but we’re really riding towards a crash of civilization. Without coordinated global action addressing climate change, income inequality, arms trade, corruption, and mass surveillance as the existential problems they are, we are likely to see hundreds of millions die in the coming decades. But instead of nation-states, corporations, civil society, and other groups working together in a coordinated global campaign like the WWII-scale mobilization effort—but for climate change—we see the resurgent rise of fascist populism worldwide. That is to be expected, since we know right-wing authoritarianism rises across the board when people are exposed to threats like those of our increasingly unstable world. That makes instability loop in historical moments like this, with perceived threat feeding political attitudes and behaviors that magnify threat perceptions and threat… So this is bad. If you care about people, it’s depressing.

Do not adjust your sets—or your brain chemistry. This is upsetting, so get upset. And do something about it.


Why no hotlines?

1. Getting people in trouble makes their lives worse.

U.S. hotlines are subject to U.S. law, under which suicidal intent is a threat to harm yourself—on par with threats to harm others. Under this legal regime, suicidal intent is criminal intent that doctors, counselors, teachers, college RAs, and even supposedly anonymous and confidential hotline workers are required to report to law enforcement. This might deter people who need help from asking for it at all. 

Sure, suicidal people can skirt the reporting requirements by saying they don’t have specific plans to harm themselves at a particular time or place, or in a particular way. But it’s not ideal for a person with lethal means on the table in front of him to have to choose between lying while asking for help, and having his door beaten down by armed police authorized to take him in handcuffs to a hospital where he may be forcibly drugged. This is a particularly stupid response in the context of gender violence, with distress a common response to sadly common sexual assault and domestic violence problems—and gender imbalances in law enforcement and medicine creating ample opportunities for revictimization. 

You may be thinking this is actually too horrible to be true.

Where are you getting your information? asked one of the people I already talked at after he posted a hotline number on Facebook. Please point me to the US law that requires them to report callers to the police. But the practical question is not about the letter of various state and federal laws. The question is: Do hotlines in America report suicidal people to the police? Let me Google that for you: yes

The U.K. Samaritans‘ anonymous email line (jo at samaritans dot org) presents one relatively safe alternative to hotlines. You can use an anonymizing browser like Tor and an anonymous email created via Tor to further protect your identity, but that’s unnecessary. A serious attacker who already monitors your communications can still compromise your endpoint no matter what alias, anonymizing tools, encryption, or other information security practices you use. Meanwhile, the U.K. Samaritans aren’t trying to figure out who you are. Within the U.K., they’re bound by U.K. reporting requirements, which involve keeping confidentiality rather than answering despair with coercion. (But within the U.S., the Samaritan hotlines are bound by U.S. law just like the others, and act accordingly.)

Some prefer tea and sympathy… Sicking men with guns on people who are crushed and crying out for help is not my idea of help. 

2. Punting isolated people who feel bad about themselves off on other people probably doesn’t help.

Suicide has correlated with social isolation since Durkheim. People without families are more likely to kill themselves. People without strong social networks are more likely to develop at-risk problems like depression and post-traumatic stress in the first place. These are social problems that require social solutions.

That means it’s your job, as a non-asshole in the world, to talk to people. Sit down with them for coffee or tea. Give them your number. Help them make other friends. If you have the means, have an orphan holiday dinner for people who might not have somewhere to go. Open your door instead of Facebook posting a toll-free phone number for a hotline under-staffed by inadequately trained volunteers who are legally bound to report acute despair to law enforcement, and then patting yourself on the back like an upstanding citizen. Post your own damn number. 

How else does one do this community-building thing? One of my new year’s resolutions is doing this more… In creative, fun ways. Taking poems to bars, performing (stand-up, mostly—also poetry and music and dance, oh my) even though I always think I am not prepared, and having more life drawing/move night sorts of things at our place. Those were some of my favorite kamikaze, artsy community-building events last year. But probably the most important community-building cannot be planned or brainstormed. Probably it is about reaching out in the moment to other expat/artist/hacker/LGBTQIPWTF/assorted misfit types, and being there when they reach out.

Probably a lot of people will reach out for a lot of reasons this year. Please be prepared to be a human being with them, with us. This is really not rocket science. Being there is just… Being there.

And it does not take special expertise. To the contrary…

3. Medical practitioners are getting despair all wrong.

There is basically no recognition in quotidian medical practice that for many, the usual drugs don’t work or backfire, exercise seems to beat other treatments, and the gold-standard non-pharmaceutical treatments like cognitive-behavioral and exposure therapies also don’t work or backfire for many long-term. This means chronic depression and traumatic stress are chronic, if you report for the usual suspect treatments and see what happens. No wonder then that, despite supposed advances in treatments for them, the number of people suffering with such disorders seems only to grow

Psychedelics might cure treatment-resistant depression and PTSD, but we don’t know yet. The consistently promising research in this area should tell you something: A radical perspective shift beats daily soma. 

It is the ultimate hubris to believe you can standardize such a shift. Life-changing conversations do not fit the cookie-cutter standards of randomized controlled trials. Art is not factory work. Forced singing and dancing don’t work out any better for the soul than forced affection. Getting off pain meds and back to music after a terrible accident may have been the only way forward for jazz singer-songwriter Melody Gardot, but we can’t run that experiment both ways to see—and I don’t care, because I get to listen to Melody Gardot. Maybe people have to find more right lives for themselves in order to have higher quality of life.

Much of positive psychology points this way, toward getting unstuck by building out from bright spots with gratitude, for instance. But the replication crisis affecting all social science, especially psychology and medicine, suggests we should be cautious in buying what they’re selling under the auspices of science. Maybe this means letting go of the idea that the scientific method can be employed on questions of how we care for our souls. Or maybe it just means if you want it done right, you have to experiment for yourself.

 

Radical anti-depression

Changing your mind—or your life—or your whole society, because it fucking sucks—is not standardizable. It does not come in pill form. It will not give you impotence or a beer belly. And it may hurt like hell in the short-term instead of lessening pain. But the pain of articulating reality and actively solving problems instead of medicating away symptoms and talking has a hell of a lot better chance of actually banishing distress.

And the sizable chunk of the U.S. population that currently drags their sorry asses to dead-end schools that don’t get them jobs, and dead-end jobs that don’t make ends meet, with the aid of drugs that keep them compliant without making them happy—what if they just stopped tomorrow? Stopped taking mind-altering meds that don’t radically shift perspectives, and don’t cure what ails them? Stopped going to work? Stopped paying into a system that preys on the weak for the benefit of the strong? What if a bunch of weird, honest, and deeply unsettled people dropped out of the rat race to hang out with like-minded people and shake shit up? That would look like some radical anti-depression. People have gotten in big trouble for suggesting as much before. 

To paraphrase Orwell: In a time of universal crisis—met with the enforced compliance of keeping calm and carrying on, or else—taking time to go through the pain and change is a revolutionary act.

(Sometimes I am more aware than at other times of how we are all one big cultural consciousness soup—and in that soup, good artists borrow but great artists steal. Here I am acutely aware of having gotten farther in this talking with my partner Rop, who has spoken at 32C3 and other places on related ideas, and may or may not one day accidentally write a book with me on something like this.) 

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