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14 Days: Palace

“I like my songs to be reminders of certain things that I don’t want to forget.”

—Adrianne Lenker

Yesterday, I compared memories to ghosts and described how returning to a physical place often brings out these ghost-memories. Walking the city becomes a way of remembering.

A map of the city can bring out memories too. Two lines cross, representing an intersection. The intersection holds a memory, holds several memories: a first date, a late night, a big game, a dance party, a shouting match, a crime. The eye follows one a line away from the intersection and the mind conjures the quiet of the street outside the noisy bars, the smell of fallen leaves and earth in the cool air under a full moon. The next intersection conjures a holiday party where you talked to a colleague you hadn’t seen in years, now married with two children. And the memory map goes on and on.

The ability to remember a place and what happened there in the past is not unique to humans. It’s useful for any animal to remember where food is, where danger is, where members of the opposite sex know the breeding grounds to be. Humans have exploited this ability in abstract ways since ancient times. The construction of an imagined “memory palace” to walk through with in the mind is a trick used in memorization that is described in writing as early as the 5th Century B.C. by the Greek poet Simonides. It is likely humans used these techniques to remember stories and other important knowledge long before Simonides time.

Stringing together actions and details in a series of sentences is another way of walking through a landscape, re-living a memory. A paragraph or a story is a map in another form. A linear route from beginning to end with landmarks along the way.

I have written some of the personal stories in this series multiple times in the past, in journals and in unpublished fictionalized accounts. Publishing a version of these maps, of these memories here where they are public, is different. Other people can compare it to their own maps, their own memories. You readers can annotate the map and add your own landmarks, or suggest that the map is off, is an unreliable guide. Putting your thoughts in public nails down memory and contributes to public knowledge, to a collective map.

Reading Amanda Petrusich’s profile of singer/songwriter Adrianne Lenker in the New Yorker, I was inspired by the way Lenker works, sometimes recording songs the same day she writes them, in isolated and socially intense settings. Her quote up top, that her songs serve as “reminders of certain things that I don’t want to forget” is as primal and ancient an instinct as writing has.

In the case of a songwriter touring with her band Big Thief, the spontaneously written lines are repeated and sung night after night (or would have been before the pandemic), just like the ancient bards reciting poetry from their memory palace. Is there a more intense way to relive a memory? A more intense way to put your map out there for others to follow?

What if I’d written 100 songs this season instead of 100 meandering entries like this, and what if I sang them for 100 people in 100 cities? How much more direct would each of those maps’ routes be?

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15 Days: Hauntings

On August 11, I received an email from La Colombe announcing, “pumpkin spice draft latte is back!” At the time, I was sweltering in my 90-degree apartment. My air conditioner had been broken for two months. With two fans pointed at me at all times, and a constant refill of ice cubes and cold drinks, and my windows open, all I could think about was staying cool and hydrated (and the beeping trucks and pounding noises at the construction site directly outside those open windows). The beginning of pumpkin spice latte season was a welcome sign. I imagined autumn sweaters and crisp walks under changing leaves. It was comforting to think that even if the repair delays from my landlord, the HVAC contractors and the air conditioning manufacturer continued, temperatures would eventually drop. Perhaps that is how I somehow managed to write a post about the truth found in poetry that day.

I just finished reading Amy Shearn’s Unseen City. We learn early on that the novel is set during pumpkin spice latte season. Our hero Meg is a Brooklyn librarian. She is secretly tempted by PSL, but maintains her steadfast dedication to her black coffee order. I haven’t been to a coffeeshop since February. I have no idea if my favorite baristas are still employed at my favorite café, but I identify with Meg’s desire to maintain the identity she presents to the near-strangers behind the counter by resisting that sweet seasonal temptation.

I have much more than coffee in common with Meg: a bike is her preferred way to get around the city; she geeks out on maps and urban history; takes pride in knowing how her neighborhood came to be; and she is haunted. Unseen City is a ghost story.

I don’t believe in ghosts, but I do believe in hauntings. When I walk streets I know well, stories tied to buildings and houses and shops come alive: memories of past relationships, stories family and friends tell, and scenes from histories and memoirs I’ve read. Most of these stories do not concern dead people, but the moments, feelings, associations are only alive, can only be re-lived through memory. And these memories are strongest when triggered by the physical spaces where they occurred.

Meg is haunted by the ghost of her sister Kate, and for the most part, this haunting is the kind I identify with. Landmarks and mental associations bring Kate to life. Kate comes back to her as well when Meg is alone in her apartment. But the city is changing. The restaurants and shops Kate knew are changing. Meg learns she must move out of the apartment Kate knew. Will the forces of real estate untether Meg and Kate’s connection?

Another ghost is more substantial in Shearn’s narrative. Iris is a nineteenth century Black orphan in Manhattan who is adopted by a family in the free Black enclave of Weeksville. The book takes us back and forth in Brooklyn’s history to show us how the past remains present in the street grid, in buildings, and perhaps in spirits who are just as upset as Meg about having the physical evidence of their lives and memories erased by the forces of urban change.

Meg and Iris’s stories come together when a handsome library patron shows up to search for information about a haunted house his family owns. He is haunted by his own ghosts, as we all are. Sharing these hauntings becomes a way for the two to trust each other.

Unseen City draws parallels between the present and the past, the time of the old ghosts and newer ones. Civil War-era draft riots in which Irish immigrants lynched free Blacks and burned their homes are paralleled by Brooklyn’s racial tensions of the recent past and present-day. New ghosts created to cohabit the city with the ghosts of the past. A 150-year timeline is condensed and layered into a single present-day.

• • •

Wandering and haunting are tied together. Virginia Woolf’s Street Haunting, an essay on her wandering mind as she meanders the streets of London comes to mind:

The sights we see and the sounds we hear now have none of the quality of the past; nor have we any share in the serenity of the person who, six months ago, stood precisely where we stand now. His is the happiness of death; ours the insecurity of life. He has no future; the future is even now invading our peace. It is only when we look at the past and take from it the element of uncertainty that we can enjoy perfect peace.

Virginia Woolf, Street Haunting: A London Adventure

When I visit Minneapolis or Philadelphia, it is tempting to drive or walk past all the places that conjure my favorite ghosts — ghosts of old relationships or of friends I rarely hear from. These are living people I could invite out for coffee (and sometimes do). But neither I, nor they are the person who haunts these places. We’ve changed far more than the buildings and streetscape have, so it makes sense that these physical places conjure the ghosts of memory. Much of my writing over the past few years has been inspired by these kinds of memories bound to geography (this is how I wound up owning the URL ). Chapters from my fiction are now as likely to haunt me at certain street corners as events I’ve lived through.

Even here in D.C., hauntings surround me. I’ve written about some of these in this series. U Street, where I now live and write from, contains ghosts of the joy of Obama’s victory in 2008, parades and music festivals, the 1968 uprising, and more. A bus shelter in Mount Pleasant is haunted by Trump’s win. I had walked late into the night contemplating Trump’s win. A friend’s text as I came to that bus shelter finally broke the spell, “what is going to happen? Is it going to be O.K.” she asked? The next morning, I walked to an art residency north of Georgetown. There were frustratingly few signs in the cityscape that helped make sense of the news. The sky refused to stay gloomy. The city went on. But now, that walking route and the hardware store I stopped at along the way are haunted by Trump’s win. What other hauntings will stay with me from the Trump years? Scott Circle filled with signs from the Women’s March. Boarded-up buildings and slow chanting and singing Black Lives Matter marches on my empty and quarantined street night after night.

What ghosts of memories will I carry from November 3? From the next two weeks? This weekend I made some fresh memories, bicycling and walking and talking of a possible small socially distanced backyard Halloween party. Will that backyard’s Halloween ghosts come to me as ghosts of memory in the future?

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16 Days: Get Some Sleep

Today is a Sunday. On Sundays I’ve been writing shorter posts that offer one simple thing you can do to end Trump. One reason for this is that I like to spend less time on my computer on the weekends. It is a lot easier to write up a quick recommendation about someone else’s tool or resource than to mine my memories for deep insights when I want to be out enjoying the autumn air. These Sunday posts also come from a desire to have some efficacy and impact from this project. From the start, I debated whether it was likely that 100 rambling blog posts would be the thing that finally sinks Trump, would have any impact at all. That isn’t entirely fair. I believe that writing honestly, publishing, and building community builds a better world. It may not be as effective as calling voters in Pennsylvania (which you should totally do), but in the long run, art, expression and community are how the culture changes. In the meantime, I took a good long Sunday nap today. I recommend you do the same, or go to bed early. Don’t be 2012 me, working too much, refreshing political blogs and filling yourself with busy self-destructive anxiety. We have 15 more days. Pace yourself.

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17 Days: Loser

Yesterday, I engaged in some speculation. It felt good to imagine what comes next. It isn’t a certainty that Biden wins. FiveThirtyEight put it in dice-rolling, probability terms, as I did the other day. Trump’s chances are “a little worse than the chances of rolling a 1 on a six-sided die and a little better than the chances that it’s raining in downtown Los Angeles.” The odds of the latter are one in ten. None of that matters if we don’t follow through, show up, vote.

After superstitiously worrying if I’d jinxed everything by writing a version of Trump’s next few months and years, I was surprised to read this morning that Trump had done the same. Late last night, Heather Cox Richardson wrote:

Tonight, at his Georgia rally, Trump outlined all the ways in which he was being unfairly treated, then mused: “Could you imagine if I lose?… I’m not going to feel so good. Maybe I’ll have to leave the country, I don’t know.”

Heather Cox Richardson

Early in Trump’s political rise, I read about the influence of Norman Vincent Peale, author of The Power of Positive Thinking on his life. For a time, Trump was even associated with Peale’s Manhattan church. I have understood many of Trump’s most outrageous statements to come from a twisted adherence positive thinking at all costs. He will only say things out loud that he wants to happen in the world. If he says something inexcusable — “Russians, if you’re listening,” or “one day, like a miracle it will disappear” — I can point to his adherence to positive thinking to rationalize it, to understand how his brain works. The same goes for his stubborn unwillingness to say inconvenient and unflattering facts out loud. He is incapable of letting facts impede positive thinking. It is the inverse of my reluctance to publish yesterday’s speculation.

Peale’s philosophy is dangerous to the degree that its adherents allow faith in positive thinking to get in the way of rational thought and action. It is the same thread of belief that kept my spiritually inclined Grandmother from seeking medical treatment as her health declined in her later years. Eventually, my parents and uncle intervened and persuaded her to see doctors. She had diabetes. With this help, she successfully managed it in her last years.

The fact that Trump uttered the words, “could you imagine if I lose” — putting the image in his followers’ minds, in his own mind — is an uncharacteristic crack in his positive thinking. That he is describing a need to leave the country is even more alarming. What are the circumstances he images will require him to live in exile? It’s a path typically reserved for corrupt authoritarians when their reigns come crashing to an end.

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18 Days: Prognostication

Somehow I’ve gone all day without hearing any sound bites from last night’s dueling town halls. Biden and Trump appeared on separate networks because Trump rejected the perfectly reasonable precaution of a remote debate amid his treatment for Covid-19. I read a few reports about the evening. They tell me Trump was an embarrassment to the country. They tell me he lied. They tell me he refused to disavow the conspiracy that inspired a gunman to show up at my favorite punk rock pizza shop. YouTube has just this week banned the conspiracy; the F.B.I. has labeled it a domestic terrorism threat.

The president professed to have no knowledge of the group, and as a result could not disavow it, but then demonstrated specific knowledge of one of its core conspiracy theories.

The New York Times

In the days after his 2017 inauguration, Trump’s bizarre outbursts would take over the news cycle day after day, outburst after outburst. Now the world barely takes notice.

I am trying not to get ahead of myself, but in my morning writing I began to picture Trump after Biden wins.

I imagine him aging rapidly, leaving the White House the next day for Mar-a-Lago without waiting for January 20 and Biden’s inauguration. The Republicans in Congress and in Trump’s cabinet will continue with their machinations in the remaining lame duck weeks. They may send bills for Trump to sign in hiding in Florida.

Trump will continue to Tweet at odd hours in all-caps rants. But we will ignore them, especially after January 20 when they are no longer the words of a man who can blow up the world.

It feels wrong to imagine this before Election Day and to put it in writing. All effort needs to go into getting out the vote. But these are just words. And perhaps superstition runs the other way. Perhaps imagining and insisting on another world is the more powerful superstition?

Will Trump’s tweets from Mar-a-Lago maintain their power over the Republican base after he’s out? Will he run again in 2024 out of spite and for vengeance? Would he block a less-insane Republican from getting the nomination next time around? Nobody has the stomach for more of him in politics. Except, possibly, the people who vote in Republican primaries.

Four years from now, all the legal tactics, bureaucratic stalling and excuses will have churned relentlessly forward. We will all be sick of hearing about Trump’s scandals, but journalists and government investigators will continue to track down the answers to unresolved questions. Trump must know that reality T.V. doesn’t end with loose threads unresolved.

And then I thought about Biden. He is up for the job. He will right the ship. He is not young, but he’s been there before, he knows to surround himself with experts, to trust scientists, to take problems seriously and show empathy for people who can’t afford an Acela ticket (never mind a private jet, a golden escalator). And Kamala is sharp and ready.

I pictured this coming January 20. A solemn inauguration day without crowds because of the pandemic. Will they even build the stands on the capital steps? Instead of attending, Trump will not attend. He will tweet from Mar-a-Lago bragging about the size of his small inauguration all over again. At noon we will be done with him.

I thought ahead to 2028 and 2032. The Trump empire’s tax scandals and other misdeeds have forced the sale of Mar-a-Lago. All the towers that bear that name have been sold and rebranded, or stand in neglect, birds’ nests obscuring the gold lettering. The ex-President still uses Twitter, but social media users have moved on to other platforms. Trump is paying back his debts by selling personalized Tweets at a dollar a pop.

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19 Days: One Simple Trick

”One’s life has value so long as one attributes value to the life of others, by means of love, friendship, indignation and compassion.”

Simone de Beauvoir

When I started this series, I wasn’t sure what direction it would take or if I could sustain it for 100 days. With 19 days remaining, I have far more than 19 half-written drafts, notes, and ideas. And the next 18 days promise no shortage of news that will inspire outrage and trigger memories. But tonight I have no top issue in mind, instead I’m thinking about how this wraps up, what the concluding argument is, and what comes next. If the final days are as crazy as the rest of 2020 have been, there will be very few nights like this to pause.

If I have tried to get at one political idea through my art and writing, it is the idea that local matters, individual relationships matter, and that the sum of those relationships is what changes the big picture. Art critic Jillian Steinhauer put it well in her newsletter this week:

In the realm of politics, the macro view has always superseded and messed with my micro view. I look at the big picture—this country was founded on genocide and the brutal enactment of white supremacy—and I feel hopeless. But increasingly, thanks to talking to and reading the words of people smarter than me, I am maybe finally starting to understand that, in a way, the micro IS the macro—that, as much as writing letters to voters in Florida may feel meaningless, it’s what we have. We have personal relationships, we have conversations, we have the places we live, and we have the actions we take, which are often shots in the dark with unknown outcomes. I’ve long held back from doing things that didn’t feel like they were enough, but it turns out I was raised to believe nothing was ever enough. And if nothing is ever enough, then why would you do anything?

Jillian Steinhauer

It’s only natural that these big national presidential elections capture our attention. And this one more than any past election. The media focus on the Presidential contest is intense, and the power of the office is huge. But, if everyone who is engaged in Biden vs. Trump would place even a fraction of that engagement on local issues, we’d be in a very different place. I’m heartened by what I see around the country and here in D.C. on local issues, especially Black Lives Matter and ending the reliance on police and incarceration to solve problems. I think the longstanding gridlock in national politics between the inherently conservative Senate and relatively progressive House and a back-and-forth White House is helping more people see that change is most powerful and most possible at the local level.

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21 Days, 20 Days: What’s In A Name?

Monday was Indigenous Peoples Day. I found myself thinking about the hard-fought wins Indigenous activists have earned in the past year: a judge ordered the Dakota Access Pipeline shut down and drained for further environmental review, tribes in Oklahoma won a major sovereignty case at the Supreme Court, and the Washington football team finally dropped its racist name.

Having lived in Washington for the past 12 years, the constant presence of that team’s logo and name has been a nuisance. The name was (and is, and will be for years to come) on the walls of nearly every bar and restaurant in town, on t-shirts and bumper stickers, on the sides of delivery trucks for wholesome family brands proud to sponsor the team. I’ve never followed the NFL closely, but the name would still pop up on my phone in news alerts when the team was playing important games, or when a star player was injured. Seeing the awkward and absurd use of Football Team, capital F, capital T, as Washington’s nickname across sports media in recent weeks has been a welcome reversal (though the team owner and his corporate culture still have major issues to confront).

• • •

I grew up in Minneapolis, which has the largest urban Indigenous community in the United States. As an adult, I’ve learned that this is due to a policy of forced assimilation by the colonial white government starting in the 19th century, around the time of the city’s founding.

We don’t use the words colonial or colonization when we teach the history of the west and midwest. The U.S. has its thirteen original colonies, but the rest of the country was settled through territorial expansion like a drop of oil naturally pushing outward to cover the surface of water; an inevitable force of nature. Colonization is something those terrible and oppressive nations in Europe did. We heroically asserted independence, the story goes.

I remember the days at the beginning of each school year when I would be issued a new history or social studies textbook. One of the first things I would do is turn to the index and look for mentions of Minnesota and Minneapolis. I suppose I was looking for relevance and meaning, an understanding of my place in the world and the story of where I lived. Often there were no entries. One textbook’s only reference was a quote from a Texas rancher, “there is nothing between the North Pole and Minnesota but fence posts.” Other books would mention the enslaved Dred Scott’s case before the Supreme Court. Scott was enslaved in the south and travelled north with his captor. He met his wife and married in free territory that would later become the state of Minnesota. The court effectively decided that Scott, his wife and child were not human, not worthy of standing before the court, was not who the framers of the constitution had in mind when they said all men are created equal. The textbooks mentioned this, often using fewer than I just used. They might also mention that Walter Mondale and Hubert Humphrey were Minnesotans and Vice Presidents. The textbooks never mentioned the U.S.-Dakota War that took place in Minnesota at the same time as the Civil War. The atrocities approved by President Abraham Lincoln against Native tribes were inconvenient to our learning why the kind bearded man in the stovepipe hat was on the five-dollar bill. And so, the names of territorial officials like Alexander Ramsey and Henry Hastings Sibley who violated treaties and orchestrated racist violence continue to be honored in the names of streets, cities, counties, hospitals, high schools and more. For more on this, I always recommend This American Life’s Little War on the Prairie episode.

The presence of Native American classmates and neighbors in Minneapolis masked for me the true extent of the Indigenous genocide. It wasn’t until I moved to Philadelphia in 2001 that I realized Minneapolis was not representative of the rest of the country.

In Philadelphia, Native Americans were not visible to me as people actively struggling for dignity in the present, as they were in Minneapolis (there are activists from the Lenape and other tribes indigenous to the region who are carrying forward that work). When I saw evidence of Native people in those years, they were solemn parts of the past: one of Earth’s four ancient races carved into stone on City Hall sculptures; a disembodied head on manhole covers on East Passyunk Avenue; anonymous reclining mythical figures in the fountain at Logan Square (a particularly egregious association, given James Logan’s involvement in the land swindle known as the Walking Purchase).

• • •

I learned how to draw by copying things I loved, the visual language around me. I copied Charlie Brown. Snoopy, Garfield the cat and Opus the penguin out of the newspaper’s comics page. I learned the basics of graphic design the same way. I copied the distinctive elements I was most excited about: baseball logos and lettering. What could be more wholesome?

When I learned that the logos of rival teams were repositioned in our air-puffed modern stadium according to the daily standings each morning — something old ballparks like Wrigley Field do using flags — I decided I would do the same on my bedroom wall. I used a full sheet of paper for each team, enlarging the tiny logos in magazines and baseball cards by drawing carefully in light pencil and then coloring and filling in the linework using markers.

Most logos were simple interlocking letters, or a nickname in distinctive lettering with a swoosh. But one team had a stylized grinning dark red face with a feather as its logo. It was just one of the symbols of the game I was growing obsessed with as a kid. Every team had a symbol. This was Cleveland’s. It wasn’t so different from the cartoon Indian that represented the local gas company, or the one on the butter and milk cartons. I copied it out like all the team logos and hung it on the wall. A mundane acceptance, repetition, normalization of racism.

A few years later (1989), the movie Major League came out. Cleveland had been a losing team for decades, and wacky sports comedy made fun of that legacy. The grinning racist logo appears throughout the film. A high school friend, enamored of comedy and sports, adopted the team ironically as his own, going so far as to have the logo shaved into his head. By then, we were old enough to be aware that the logo was “controversial,” but not so self-aware to know that an ironic endorsement was the same as an enthusiastic or intentionally hateful one. A further normalization.

• • •

Under pressure, Cleveland retired the grinning “Chief Wahoo” logo from its uniforms before the 2019 season. This year, around the same time that Washington changed its name to Football Team, Cleveland put out a statement announcing that it was reviewing its use of the name Indians. Now Cleveland’s 2020 season is over. Baseball’s World Series will be over in two weeks. I’m hopeful a name change will follow not long after, and that kids will no longer grow up learning to draw by copying racist caricatures.

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22 Days: Goth

I’m not usually drawn to the gross-out, macabre elements of Halloween and goth culture (though I wear plenty of black and will dance to The Cure any day of the week). I have been seeing and writing about creepy body horror films during the first half of October (Eraserhead, The Elephant Man, The Fly). Horror films always seemed less serious, more predictable, the craft of their filmmaking less studied than the “serious” classics. Granted, the above trio are from established auteurs in a canon separate from pop slash flicks like Friday the Thirteenth or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but I’m wondering if there is something about 2020’s many-layered apocalypse that makes me more open to horror?

In each of the three films I mention, the monster is human, is ourselves. In The Fly, hubris and incomplete scientific knowledge is the downfall of Jeff Goldblum’s character. In The Elephant Man, body dysmorphia is a rare and uncomfortable fact of our fragile biology, frightening to civilized “normal” people. In Eraserhead, the world seems to be manifested by the subconscious; a mundane and bleak world coexists with biology gone wrong, out of control.

The pandemic is an invisible enemy. It is in the air. It turned ordinary social happenings and communal experiences like dance parties, concerts, and crowded movie theaters into dangers. So much simpler to look at a monster, know it is a monster, and run away, defend yourself, or kill it with a flamethrower or silver cross. Our other relentless crises: racism and authoritarianism are also impossible to get a handle on in quite the same way as a zombie attack.