Friday, October 31, 2014

Drunk Bay

Hope you're enjoying The Descent of Winter. If anyone is tuning in sporadically and wondering what the heck is going on, here's an explanation.

In September I took a trip to the Virgin Islands to visit my lady friend at her new digs on Saint Thomas. (I'll probably join her in January.) It was my first time visiting the Caribbean (or going so far south, for that matter), and I kept feeling like I'd stepped into Chrono Cross. I have a theory—and I've completely convinced myself of it—that the Virgin Islands inspired the game's setting. There probably isn't any way of substantiating this (and I'm probably mistaken besides), but I do find it interesting that there's a resort condo development on Saint John called "El Nido."

We passed a sign for El Nido during our 24-hour lap around Saint John. Would that I could remember the names of all the other places we visited or passed by—bays, peninsulas, plantation ruins. It's all become a blur since my return to the mainland.

Drunk Bay is an exception. That place stuck with me.

I can't imagine a place where the disparities between the Caribbean and the Atlantic could be laid out with greater clarity. One moment you're standing on the beach of Saltpond Bay, looking out west towards the Caribbean. The surf is clear as bathwater (and almost as warm), and it laps benignly at the white sand. Then you turn around, take a trail into the woods, walk less than half a mile along the bay's brackish namesake and scrubland trails, and arrive at the shore of Drunk Bay, the Atlantic inlet on the peninsula's eastern edge. The opaque blue waters pound incessantly against the rocks. The air is heavy and brackish. A four-foot borderline of drying and decomposing seaweed at the shore's edge is attended by dense clouds of flies, the only visible animal life. No plants can grow here. There's nothing on the horizon but more ocean.

The Atlantic. Moody, melancholy, uninviting.

Drunk Bay is situated such that it becomes a repository for whatever flotsam the currents are dragging around. The shoreline is strewn all about with driftwood, shells, and sun-baked coral. I can't even guess when how long ago it began, but for years now visitors to the site have been arranging these materials into desultory sculptures of human figures. Visit Drunk Bay on any day—provided it isn't immediately after a storm—and you'll find dozens of crude anthropic portraits splayed out across basaltic canvases.

Of all the images we could reproduce here—why people?

The bay is among the 5,000 acres on Saint John under preservation as a national park. Even though you stand less than a mile from the nearest commercial space, Drunk Bay feels like the edge of the world. The Atlantic desolation is palpable, even when the sun shines. There are no human-made structures in sight. Nothing grows among the stones and sea drift. The powerful currents, relentless waves, and jagged rocks make swimming a treacherous venture. It is pure, aphasiac nature, no edges blunted. It has the atmosphere of a dreadful sacred place, so austere and lonesome that one can easily imagine the tiny human figures waving their arms on the boulders had been left bey nomads and medicine men instead of moneyed sightseers.

People. Not birds, not fish, not lizards or trees. Little flotsam people.

I dislike the word instinct—it usually professes to explain causes when all it does is note tendencies—but the presence of human images in such an austere landscape suggests the exercise of some fundamental human motive.

A mutation of the reproductive drive. We don't just make more humans everywhere: we make everywhere more human. Where there are enough of us the landscape becomes an image of our desires. Flat surfaces. Straight lines. Right angles. Ironed out and regulated. The flux of nature denied and beaten back. Anthropic virulence.

But in the lonely, diminutive wilderness of Drunk Bay, we settle for leaving tokens of our image. Peopling the desert. As though the scrub and cliffs and cacti and hermit crabs and geckos and sandpipers cheeping and racing by the undrinkable pond are any less without us.

A kind of basic religious instinct might be at play, too. By "religious instinct" I just mean the behaviors representative of human beings' responses to that which they cannot control, understand, traverse, or profit from. Drunk Bay is a cold shoulder on a tropical island. What it inspires must be something like reverence. Sacredness is the issue of impenetrability. We are content with what accepts us. We revere what does not.

When facing an inexplicable and uncongenial event or existence, we tend to etch a human figure over it. Unless we can turn away from it wholly, we have to find some way we can relate to it, or make more explicit its relationship to us. Thus: animism. Or the king in the desert sky.

Plenty of rocks, sticks, and shells everywhere else on the island. The solitary shore of Drunk Bay is the only place you're sure to find them arranged into human shapes.

There seems to be a kind of spiritual acknowledgement in the production of these rude little people, as there is in cave paintings, bone carvings, and stone circles. These are the estuaries where our dreams make their ingression into raw nature. And our dreams are of . . .

Graffiti in the canticle of stone and sea. From profanities our gods were born.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Descent of Winter: 10/30

Bohumil Kubišta, Train in the Mountains

To freight cars in the air

all the slow
   clank, clank
   clank, clank
moving above the treetops

   wha,  wha
of the hoarse whistle

   pah,   pah,   pah

   piece and piece
   piece and piece
moving still trippingly
through the morningmist

long after the engine
has fought by
              and disappeared

in silence
           to the left



Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Descent of Winter: 10/29

Georges Braque, Woman with a Guitar

 The justice of poverty
  its shame its dirt
are one with the meanness
  of love

its organ in a tarpaulin
  the green birds
the fat sleepy horse
  the old men

the grinder sourfaced
  hat over eyes
the beggar smiling all open
  the lantern out

and the popular tunes——
  sold to the least bidder
for a nickel
  two cents or

nothing at all even
  against the desire
forced on us



Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Descent of Winter: 10/28

Gregory Kerkman, Autumn Tree
in this strong light
the leafless beechtree
shines like a cloud

it seems to glow
of itself
with a soft stript light
of love
over the brittle

But here are
on second look
a few yellow leaves
still shaking

far apart

just one here one there
trembling vividly



The Descent of Winter: 10/28

a flash of juncos in the field of grey locust saplings with a white sun powdery upon them and a large rusty can wedged in the crotch of one of them, for the winter, human fruit, and on the polished straws of the dead grass a scroll of crimson paper——not yet rained on


The Descent of Winter: 10/28

    On hot days
the sewing machine

    in the next room
    in the kitchen

and men at the bar
    talking of the strike
    and cash



The Descent of Winter: 10/28


  born, September 15, 1927, 2nd child, wt. 6 lbs. 2 ozs. The hero is Dolores Marie Pischak, the place Fairfield, in my own state, my own county, its largest city, my own time. This is her portrait: O future worlds, this is her portrait——order be God damned. Fairfield is the place where the October marigolds go over into the empty lot with dead grass like Polish children's hair and the nauseous, the stupefying monotony of decency is dead, unkindled even by art or anything——dead: by God because Fairfield is alive, coming strong. Oh blessed love you are here in this golden air, this honey and dew sunshine, ambering the houses to jewels. Order——is dead. Here a goose flaps his wings by a fence, a white goose, women talk from second-story windows to a neighbor on the ground, the tops of the straggling backyard poplars have been left with a tail of twigs and on the bare trunk a pulley with a line in it is tied. A cop whizzes by on his sidecar cycle, the bank to the river is cinders where dry leaves drift. The cinders are eating forward over the green grass below, closer and closer to the river bank, children are in the gutters violently at play over a dam of mud, old women with seamed faces lean on the crooked front gates. Where is Pischak's place? I don't know. I tink it's up there at the corner. What you want?——

  Here one drinks good beer. Don't tell my husband. I stopped there yesterday, really good. I was practically alone, yes.

  Some streets paved, some dirt down the center. A Jew has a clothing store and looks at you wondering what he can sell. And you feel he has these people sized up. A nasty feeling. Unattached. When he gets his he'll burn it up and clear out in a day. And they do not suspect how nicely he has measured them. They need stuff. He sells it. Who's that guy I wonder. Never seen him around before. Looks like a doctor.

  That's the feeling of Fairfield. An old farm house in long tangled trees, leaning over it. A dell with a pretty stream in it below the little garden and fifty feet beyond, the broad fence of the Ajax Aniline Dye Works with red and purple refuse dribbling out ragged and oily under the lower fence boards. No house is like another. Small, wooden, a garden at the back, all ruined by the year. Man leaning smoking from a window. And the dirt, dry gust. No grass, or grass in patches, hedged with sticks and a line or cord or wire or grass, a jewel, a garden embanked, all in a twenty-foot square, crowded with incident, a small terrace of begonias, a sanded path, pinks, roses in a doezen rococo beds.

  Knock and walk in: The bar. Not a soul. In the back room the kitchen. Immaculate, the enameled table featured. The mother nursing her from a nearly empty breast. She lies and sucks. Black hair, pencilled down the top flat and silky smooth, the palmsized face asleep, the mother at a point of vantage where under an inside window raised two inches she can govern the street entrance.

  Who's that?
  A woman. Oh that old woman from next door.

  The father, young, energetic, enormous. Unsmiling, big headed, a nervous twitch to his head and a momentary intense squint to his eyes. She watches the door. He is in shirt sleeves. Restless, goes in and out. Talks fast, manages the old woman begging help for a bruised hand. A man who might be a general or president of a corporation, or president of the states. Runs a bootleg saloon. Great!

  This is the world. Here one breathes an the dignity of man holds on. "Here I shall live. Why not now? Why do I wait?"

  Katharin, 9, sheepish, shy——adoring in response to gentleness so that her eyes almost weep for sentimental gratitude, has jaundice, leans on his knee. Follows him with her eyes. Her hair is straight and blond.
  On the main river road, a grey board fence over which a grove of trees stick up. Oaks, maples, poplars, and old fruit trees. Belmont Park, Magyar Home. For rent for picnics. Peace is here——rest, assurance, life hangs on.
  Oh, blessed love, among insults, brawls, yelling, kicks, brutality——here the old dignity of life hold on——defying the law, defying monotony.

  She lies in her mother's arms and sucks. The dream passes over her, dirt streets, a white goose flapping its wings and passes. Boys, wrestling, kicking a half-inflated football. A grey motheaten squirrel pauses at a picket fence where tomato vines, almost spent, hang on stakes.

  Oh, blessed love——the dream engulfs her. She opens her eyes on the troubled bosom of the mother who is nursing the babe and watching the door. And watching the eye of the man. Talking English, a stream of Magyar, Polish what? to the tall man coming and going.

  Oh, blessed love where are you there, pleasure driven out, order triumphant, one house like another, grass cut to pay lovelessly. Bored we turn to cars to take us to "the country" to "nature" to breathe her good air. Jesus Christ. To nature. It's about time, for most of us. She is holding the baby. Her eye under the window, watching. Her hair is bobbed halfshort. It stands straight down about her ears. You, you sit and have it waved and ordered. Fine. I'm glad of it. And nothing to do but play cards and whisper. Jesus Christ. Whisper of the high-school girl that had a baby and how smart her mama was to pretend in a flash of genius that it was hers. Jesus Christ. Or let us take a run up to the White Mountains or Lake Mohonk. Not Bethlehem (New Hampshire) any more, the Jews have ruined that like lice all over the lawns. Horrible to see. The dirty things. Eating everywhere. Parasites.
  And so order, seclusion, the good of it all.

  But in Fairfield men are peaceful and do as they please——and learn the necessity and the profit of order——and Dolores Marie Pischak was born.



Saturday, October 25, 2014

Correspondence with the Theologian: N,N-Dimethyltryptamine

Alex Grey, Oversoul

It was very good seeing you, and I was glad to walk and talk with you a while. One of the reasons it's taken so long to get back to you is that I wanted to describe my "religious/mystical/something" experience, but I haven't been sure how to begin—not the least because it might as well be titled "Patrick and the Schedule I Drugs He's Admitting to Having Done," and because I'm not sure as to the credibility of a chemically-induced mystical experience where the convinced faithful are concerned. 

Well—during prior psychedelic experiences (LSD, psilocybin) I'd often be struck by a notion that Spinoza must have elaborated on at some length (I wouldn't really know; Spinoza is still on my to-read list): that everything must be of a singular origin and in fact of a single fundamental substance. The times it seemed most arrestingly clear were those occasions I ingested the drugs on a fairly clear night and had an opportunity to sit quietly and look up at the arabesques of clouds and stars and feel alternately staggered by the facts of absolute unity in all things and of their unfathomable multiplicity.

Everything is one, everything out of one. This line of thought probably comes off sounding like a tautology, a vapid philosophical point, or an "ain't that neat" bullet in a chemistry or physics class in most cases. But during these experiences it affected me on heart-and-stomach level. It was as though I'd stumbled into possession of some transcendent truth, but we could probably attribute this to the basic characteristics of the psychedelic experience. It's common to feel as though the blinders have been taken off and everything has become clear and all makes perfect sense, the inexplicable, the ineffable—although you stammer to articulate what you suddenly seem to understand so well, and the bits of it you're able to write down usually read like gibberish the next day.

One is inconceivably much; much is inconceivably one.

With DMT things went a little bit further than that.
My friend [name], who has been my guide into the world of chemically expanded consciousness, explained DMT as "the businessman's trip." Whereas the effects LSD or psilocybin last for six to twelve hours of sequentially rising, plateauing, and falling degrees of intensity, DMT is five minutes or so of pure psychic crescendo—followed by everything snapping pretty much back to normal. (I've elsewhere heard it called "the spirit molecule." Hippes and new-age types have given lectures: "Is God Trying to Communicate with Us Through DMT?")

I exhaled the smoke and BOOM. I shut my eyes and watched the variegated mandalas revolving behind my eyes, completely insensible to my physical surroundings and unable to move or speak. For some moments I revisited the now-familiar contemplations of the all-in-one, one-in-all paradox, but this time—this time it became a dialogue.

I can't describe how it began. Maybe I can venture that the patterns and forms I lost myself in were the same I was accustomed to seeing in the sky and stars under similar circumstances, and they'd come to represent the cosmos itself. And they seemed to be communicating with me through my own thoughts.

What was it? I wish I'd had the sense to write a few things down while it was still fresh in my mind. There were intimations of a presence beyond myself. I can't remember the exact words of the exchange—
because it was a verbal exchange, and I don't want to attempt to repeat or paraphrase it for risk of getting any little part of it wrong. We could just say it was a hallucination and that I must have been talking to myself in my own mind. But I was convinced at the time (and I'm not wholly unconvinced now) that the other "I" in the conversation wasn't really myself, but the Over-Soul (as Emerson calls it) deliberately plucking at the strings of my mind. My beliefs regarding the divine remain what they are, but I can neither deny nor disavow what I experienced. I can't say that it doesn't count.

I can only sum up the most basic parts of the overall message. I existed as nothing but a part of everything, and that any boundaries between myself and the whole were born from my own imagination. Everything is one, and everything is as it should be; no matter what happens, however I live, however I die, it's all going to be okay, and there is nothing to fear.

At some point [name] prodded my shoulder and asked how I was doing. And just like that, it was over.

You asked what it means to me now, what influence it exerts on my everyday life. Well...I wish I could affirm something useful coming from it, or from any of these experiences. They're not always at the forefront of things for me, and I think things would be much improved if they were. I let so many things get me down and I have the tendency to let them pin me to places where I can't be much good to myself or anyone else.

Another friend of mine is of the opinion that more widespread use of psychedelic drugs would be a boon to society because nobody ever comes out of the experience with a reinforced ego. I'm not sure that's true in every case—I've known some very solipsistic hippies and party kids, certainly—but in his case and mine, our experiences have given us a profound awareness (perhaps less profound and pressing after the conclusion of the experiences) that nothing exists but in relationship.

I guess it would be easy enough to read "it's all right, nothing really matters, it's all going to work out" in what I heard/thought/received, but I'd like to think what I could take from it is that I have nothing to fear, or no reason to be ashamed of who I am.

I'm not going to change the world. Right, right I'm a millennial—and there's some kernel of truth to the rumor that all of us grew up banking on becoming superheroes and superstars. I'm not in any danger of ever winning the Nobel; I'm not going to be a Charles Dickens, an Alan Moore, or a Herman Melville. But my lifetime amounts to a lifetime, just the same. My bubbling up into the world came about the way anyone else's does, and this form that I am will become something other,
like any transient pattern in the general flux of things.

It doesn't change my desire to make a contribution. But I've wondered before then, and perhaps more since, if it isn't worth thinking more rigorously about what I'm capable of doing, given who I am and what position I'm in, and who I can be useful to.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Descent of Winter: 10/23

Fernand Léger, Composition (Le typographe)

I will make a big, serious portrait of my time. The brown and creamwhite block of Mexican onyx has a poorly executed replica of the Aztec calendar on one of its dicefacets the central circle being a broadnosed face with projected hanging tongue the sun perhaps thought why the tongue is out I do not know unless to taste or gasp in the heat, its own heat, to say it's hot and is the sun. Puebla, Mexico, Calendario Azeteca, four words are roughly engraved in the four corners where the circle leaves spaces on the square diceface this is America some years after the original, the art of writing is to do work so excellent that by its excellence it repels all idiots but idiots are like leaves and excellence of any sort is a tree when the leaves fall the tree is naked and the wind thrashes it till it howls it cannot get a book published it can only get poems into certain magazines that are suppressed because because waving waving waving waving waving waving tic tack tic tock tadick there is not excellence without the vibrant rhythm of a poem and poems are small and tied and gasping, they eat gasoline, they all ate gasoline and died, they died of——there is a hole in the wood and all I say brings to mind the rock shingles of Cherbourg, on the new houses they have put cheap tile which overlaps but the old roofs had flat stone sides steep but of stones fitted together and that is love there is no particular portrait without that has not turned to prose love is my hero who does not live, a man, but speaks of it every day

1. continued (the great law)

  What is he saying? That love was never made for man and woman to crack between them and so he loves and loves his sons and loves as he pleases. But there is a great law over him which——is as it is. The wind blowing, the mud spots on the polished surface, the face reflected in the glass which as you advance the features disappear leaving only the hat and as you draw back the features return, the tip of the nose, the projection over the eyebrows, the cheek bones and the bulge of the lips the chin last.


  I remember, she said, we had little silver plaques with a chain on it to hang over the necks of the bottles, whiskey, brandy or whatever it was. And a box of some kind of wood, not for the kitchen but a pretty box. Inside it was lined with something like yes, powder, all inside and there was a cover of metal too with a little knob on it, all inside the wooden box. You would open the outer cover and inside was this lid. When you would take that off you would see the tea with a silver spoon for taking it out. But now, here are the roses——three opening. Out of love. For she loves them and so they are there. They are not a picture. Holbein never saw pink thorns in such a light. Nor did Masaccio. The petals are delicate, it is a question if they will open at all and not drop, loosing at one edge and falling tomorrow all in a heap. All around the roses there is today, machinery leaning upon the stem, an aeroplane is upon one leaf where a worm lies curled. Soppy it seems and enormous, it seems to hold of the sky for it has no size at all. We eat beside it——beside the three roses that she loves. And an oak tree grows out of my shoulders. Its roots are my arms and legs. The air is a field. Yellow and red grass are writing their signatures everywhere.



Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Descent of Winter: 10/22

Arthur Wesley Dow, In the Salt Marshes

that brilliant field
of rainwet orange

by the red grass
and oilgreen bayberry

the last yarrow
on the gutter
white by the sandy

and a white birch
with yellow leaves
and few
and loosely hung

and a young dog
jumped out
of the old barrel



Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Descent of Winter: 10/21

Paul Klee, Death and Fire

In the dead weeds a rubbish heap
aflame: the orange flames
stream horizontal, windblown
they parallel the ground
waving up and down
the flamepoints alternating
the body streaked with loops
and purple stains while
the pale smoke, above
steadily continues eastward——

What chance have the old?
There are no duties for them
no place where they may sit
their knowledge is laughed at
they cannot see, they cannot hear.
A small bundle on the shoulders
weighs them down
one hand is put back under it
to hold it steady.
Their feet hurt, they are weak
they should not have to suffer
as younger people must and do
there should be a truce for them



Thursday, October 16, 2014

A reminder about comedians and journalists.

During my lunch break at work the other day (before I was stricken with some miserable rhinovirus that seemed to all but confirm the veracity of the rumors regarding hushed-up Ebola cases in DC) I was sitting in the back room and reading The Washington Post, which featured a story about police using civil forfeiture laws to confiscate cash and property to help subsidize their transformations into paramilitary gangs.

"Holy shit," I said (or something like it) before even getting to the third paragraph. A coworker who was passing through glanced at the paper and asked what I was reading about.

"Yeah," he said after I gave him the gist of what I'd read so far. "I heard all about that on John Oliver the other night. I don't know what to call it but but pathetic that a television comedian is breaking more stories than the 'real' news."

Since I hadn't seen the John Oliver piece and hadn't even finished reading the article, I couldn't offer much more than a nod and a grunt in reply to what seemed like a pretty unfair swipe against journalists. But now I'd like to offer my colleague a corrective fact check—and since our shifts probably won't overlap again for another couple of weeks (and by then he's unlikely to remember what I'm talking about), I guess I'll just throw it up here.

So: the Oliver monologue. Somehow my associate failed to notice that Oliver, like any good comedian/reporter, follows the good practice of citing his sources.

Right out the gate, Oliver begins with a clip from Al-Jazeera. Moments later he says "and if you think that sounds bad, just wait [till you see] how it looks, because The Washington Post recently published a major investigation..." (He's referring to this article from September 6, and the over-the-shoulder graphic even displays the date of its publication.) as a source. At around the three-minute mark is a clip from an interview with Sarah Stillman, who wrote an extraordinary piece on civil forfeitures for The New Yorker which was published in August of last year. (Her story mentions the ridiculous names of civil forfeiture cases, like "United States v. Approximately 64,695 Pounds of Shark Fins," which was probably what inspired Oliver's writers to trawl the public records for some other silly names.)

Then we come to the video clips of cops blatantly attempting to extort cash from motorists. Most were aired by local television stations to begin with; you can track most of them down via Google (examples A and B).

Actually, I'm not sure why I'm bothering to do this. It will suffice to say that yes, a lot of "real" news outfits were reporting on this story months before Oliver picked it up.

An open message to my coworker: don't bash journalists when they don't deserve it. John Oliver broke no news here. He just put the news in a place where people who can't be bothered to read a newspaper could see it.

None of this is to say John Oliver isn't a great talent, that he's not doing a fine job as this decade's sequel to Jon Stewart, or to deny that the phrase "civil forfeiture" wouldn't be on nearly as many people's minds if he hadn't done a piece about the practice and its abuses. But let's give credit where credit is due. Oliver and his writers weren't the ones with their boots in the mud during the effort to expose this rotten practice.

Let's please not mistake the DJ for the musician here. The person who does the compiling relies on the people who do the composing.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Descent of Winter: 10/13

a beard . . . not of stone but particular hairs purpleblack . . . lies upon his stale breast



Friday, October 10, 2014

The Descent of Winter: 10/10

Christian Rohlfs, Red Canna Indica

       the canna flaunts
its crimson head

crimson lying folded
crisply down upon

                     the invisible

darkly crimson heart
of this poor yard

the grass is long

                    October tenth



Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Descent of Winter: 10/9

and there's a little blackboy
in a doorway
scratching his wrists

The cap on his head

is red and blue
with a broad peak to it

and his mouth
is open, his tongue
between his teeth——



Wednesday, October 8, 2014

On the Death of Adulthood

Mayumi Otero, Brave New World

I recently read an article in The New York Times titled "The Death of Adulthood in American Culture." Some excerpts:

This slow unwinding has been the work of generations. For the most part, it has been understood—rightly in my view, and this is not really an argument I want to have right now—as a narrative of progress. A society that was exclusive and repressive is now freer and more open. But there may be other less unequivocally happy consequences. It seems that, in doing away with patriarchal authority, we have also, perhaps unwittingly, killed off all the grown-ups.

A little over a week after the conclusion of the first half of the last “Mad Men” season, the journalist and critic Ruth Graham published a polemical essay in Slate lamenting the popularity of young-adult fiction among fully adult readers. Noting that nearly a third of Y.A. books were purchased by readers ages 30 to 44 (most of them presumably without teenage children of their own), Graham insisted that such grown-ups “should feel embarrassed about reading literature for children.” Instead, these readers were furious. The sentiment on Twitter could be summarized as “Don’t tell me what to do!” as if Graham were a bossy, uncomprehending parent warning the kids away from sugary snacks toward more nutritious, chewier stuff.

It was not an argument she was in a position to win, however persuasive her points. To oppose the juvenile pleasures of empowered cultural consumers is to assume, wittingly or not, the role of scold, snob or curmudgeon . . . .

In my main line of work as a film critic, I have watched over the past 15 years as the studios committed their vast financial and imaginative resources to the cultivation of franchises (some of them based on those same Y.A. novels) that advance an essentially juvenile vision of the world. Comic-book movies, family-friendly animated adventures, tales of adolescent heroism and comedies of arrested development do not only make up the commercial center of 21st-century Hollywood. They are its artistic heart.

. . . .

What all of these shows [Girls, Broad City, Masters of Sex, Bob's Burgers] grasp at, in one way or another, is that nobody knows how to be a grown-up anymore. Adulthood as we have known it has become conceptually untenable. It isn’t only that patriarchy in the strict, old-school Don Draper sense has fallen apart. It’s that it may never really have existed in the first place, at least in the way its avatars imagined. Which raises the question: Should we mourn the departed or dance on its grave?

. . . .

[W]e can see that to be an American adult has always been to be a symbolic figure in someone else’s coming-of-age story. And that’s no way to live. It is a kind of moral death in a culture that claims youthful self-invention as the greatest value. We can now avoid this fate. The elevation of every individual’s inarguable likes and dislikes over formal critical discourse, the unassailable ascendancy of the fan, has made children of us all. We have our favorite toys, books, movies, video games, songs, and we are as apt to turn to them for comfort as for challenge or enlightenment.
Y.A. fiction is the least of it. It is now possible to conceive of adulthood as the state of being forever young. Childhood, once a condition of limited autonomy and deferred pleasure (“wait until you’re older”), is now a zone of perpetual freedom and delight. Grown people feel no compulsion to put away childish things: We can live with our parents, go to summer camp, play dodge ball, collect dolls and action figures and watch cartoons to our hearts’ content. These symptoms of arrested development will also be signs that we are freer, more honest and happier than the uptight fools who let go of such pastimes.

I do feel the loss of something here, but bemoaning the general immaturity of contemporary culture would be as obtuse as declaring it the coolest thing ever. A crisis of authority is not for the faint of heart. It can be scary and weird and ambiguous. But it can be a lot of fun, too.

And a friend of mine talked about it over Gchat for a bit. Some excepts from that:

P:  ...i guess if that article disturbs me, it regards the implications vis-a-vis, say, the climate crisis

P:  it's a civilization-threatening problem that rather requires adults to solve

P:  "The world is our playground, without a dad or a mom in sight" suggests a worldview in which rising oceans, failing crops, and resource wars are someone else's problems to deal with

L:  i dunno, i am always skeptical of such views because i wonder how much of it is just a lack of the expected manifestations of adulthood

L:  vs. a lack of responsibility itself

L:  and any analysis that doesn't take into account how people under 35 or so have been royally fucked over by economic pressures is delusional

L:  and there is so much implicit "why aren't you getting married and pumping out kids" involved in this article

P:  i guess the article hit a bit of a nerve because of some of the people i work with

P:  i wish fewer of them were get up/go to work/smoke weed/watch cartoons/sleep/get up/go to work/smoke weed/watch cartoons/sleep people

L:  thats always the example. but again, i think it's a lot of surface-level analysis

L:  so i go to work/drink nice wine/read depressing existential literature/sleep//repeat// what's the fucking difference

L:  same pattern, "adult" content

L:  the history of the modern age is a history of apocalyptic thinking and self-reflection on the "depravity" of the present moment

I chewed on what she said, and then wrote her an email.

So you asked (rhetorically) what the difference is between two sorts of people and their routines—the "work/smoke weed/watch cartoons/sleep" loop and the "work/drink nice wine/read depressing existential literature/sleep" loop—and I was mulling it over, and I had a thought.

I have a coworker in his early twenties who cleaves to the games/toons/weed regimen. He's pure pleasure principle. His view of the world is somewhat askew. He believes that aliens must have secretly influenced the growth of civilization: one of his arguments is that the idea that human beings could have invented stuff like the microwave oven without the intervention of extraterrestrial intelligence is absurd. He is very poor at perceiving nuance: government is categorically bad, freedom is absolutely good. He doesn't know very much about history. He once had to be reminded that more massive objects exert a greater gravitational force, and not the other way around. He expresses some pride at never reading any books that don't have pictures. He comes to work, goes home, smokes a lot of weed, watches cartoons, plays video games, hooks up with random women, goes to bed, repeats.

On the face of it, between the abstract you (who reads extensively, goes to art galleries, etc.) and him, in terms of how each of you might be expected to act as people living in relation to other people, as consumers, and as voters in a (putative) democracy, I'd certainly prefer more people were like you than him. I would trust (the abstract) you to be a mother more than (the abstract) him to be a father. To what extent are your habits the provenance of your characters?

What Hannah (and B.F. Skinner, for that matter) might suggest is that most of the differences in character are the consequences of education. You've got a masters; you seem to have been a fairly conscientious student, and you apparently expend some fair effort to continue to refine your understanding of the world. My coworker didn't go to college; he considers it a waste of time and money, and seems confident he's got a grasp on what he needs to know.
I wonder to what extent his video games/weed habits were present during his high school years? Could they have fostered his disinterest in education? (I myself was too preoccupied with spliffs and Street Fighter to be a very responsible or effective student, and look how I turned out. Bleh.)

Hannah and my other friends working in education would also consider the parents, who are responsible for creating the environment of his upbringing: were they more similar to the abstract you or more like the abstract him? If he reproduces, how might we expect his kids to think and behave?

For me, the Times piece aroused some concern (not new) about the transmission of culture. The supposed extinction of the traditional tokens of adulthood doesn't necessarily mean a practical infantilization must be in its ascendancy, but it's a prospect that worries me all the same. If the invisible mechanisms of society consistently acculturate masses of people who facilitate and reinforce the most deleterious components of the mechanism, a collapse does become possible.

I'm not saying I'd like a return to puritanism; I'm saying I don't want a slouch towards Brave New World.

You did say that the modern epoch is a 500-year history of announcements that society is rotting and ready to crumble. True: but the people in the mid-twentieth century who were convinced the world would end in a nuclear holocaust or were wringing their hands about the influence of television upon society (fun fact: Marshall McLuhan himself was telling his friends TV was a "vile drug," and if they wanted to preserve any part of Western culture, they'd better grab some axes and go around smashing sets) had as much cause for concern as people in the present day who react with consternation to the reports that we're burning through natural resources almost (well, rounded up) twice as fast as they can be renewed.

I do hope I'm not being ridiculous; I'm totally not saying that dudes playing video games and getting high and women not rushing out to have children are going to be the cause of some impending crash. (After all, I smoke weed, occasionally play video games, often watch cartoons, etc. BUT PERHAPS I AM A SYMPTOM OF A PROBLEM.) But I'm in the habit of wondering about the sorts of people we've been conditioned to become and the sorts of people we're conditioning to replace us, and the Times piece poked at a nerve.

Circuitous; maybe not very well argued. Obviously a tentative working out of something. But it was fun to read/discuss/write.