wax banks

second-best since Cantor

Month: April, 2020

Terry Pratchett, INTERESTING TIMES (1994).

Yes, Pratchett never quite figures out how to get beyond his broad-brush depiction of the Agatean (i.e. Jade, i.e. Chinese) Empire. There’s a superb but underutilized villain, a potentially wonderful apocalyptic ending that comes rather out of nowhere, a bit of a clumsy main plot…and of course Rincewind, Pratchett’s least interesting protagonist, plus Twoflower and the Luggage for a little trip to Memory Lane. It’s quite funny, particularly in the second half, but the jokes and the plot seem to come from different places at times.

The actual music in the last Discworld book (Soul Music, published the same year(!)) was undercooked, but Pratchett handled the mythic dimension of his ‘music with rocks in’ perfectly — and he doesn’t soar in that way here. Even Twoflower’s moment of bravery at the end, which should have gone through me like a lance, felt a little disconnected from the rest of the book.

Yet the bright center of Interesting Times is Genghiz Cohen, Cohen the Barbarian, and his wonderful Silver Horde. When Rincewind steps offstage and the old men move to the fore, Pratchett’s empathy and affection surge forth — his sense of time, its cruelty and compensations, is understandably less engaged when he’s dealing with his picaresque coward, but the Horde will die, and that knowledge is one of the animating forces of the ‘true’ Discworld. Cohen’s story sparks Pratchett’s humanistic imagination — I think Twoflower’s stand arrives out of the same impulse — and the result is a middling (though very funny) book with a pure heart.

Again, ‘minor Discworld’ in a sense…but this is still Pratchett’s ‘golden age,’ the man was still one of the great modern comic writers, and the next two volumes are Maskerade and Feet of Clay, by consensus some of his best work. I’m half tempted to jump right into Granny’s adventures in the opera. But there are so many book-books on my shelves, and what’s the hurry?

At this time in my life, Pratchett might be my favourite writer.


‘…a revolutionary idea in hallucinatory practice.’

Poking around in my Drafts folder, I see I wrote this in February 2019:

[Lately] I’ve felt nostalgic lately for premillennium, pre-WWW net.culture in all its text-based austerity and strangeness. As the contemporary walled-garden Internet grows more hostile and unlivable — more ‘accessible’ than ever, yet less welcoming than 20 or even 10 years ago — the frontier openness of Usenet and the MUDs/MOOs, the regional idiosyncrasies of place-based FTP and Gopher sites, are lost treasures whose vanishing is all the more galling for the fact that we knew all along how great they were. Mid-90s cyberculture was an intensely self-reflective, ‘adequately theorized’ field of new being; a shocking percentage of, say, LambdaMOO’s netizens were deeply invested not only in the practice of making our shared online community but in its status as a revolutionary idea in hallucinatory practice. Meanwhile everyone seems resigned to Twitter and Reddit being troll-filled shitshows, Facebook as a criminal enterprise, Google as a complicit Little Big Brother… On the MOO, words mattered because words were all we had — even ASCII art was frowned upon as too spammy! — but the power and value of the written word have diminished in the mobile-Internet era to the point where Usenet’s deliberation and MOO’s literary self-refashioning are now literally unimaginable. That’s one reason you keep seeing memoirs of 80s/90s computer culture popping up online, but the clock’s ticking. Soon we’ll be nostalgic for ‘early Facebook,’ and it will all be too late.

That last sentence was me flinching, I admit. What I meant to say was: ‘Soon, a concentration of media power will be in the hands of people young and myopic enough to be nostalgic for “early Facebook,” and it is already too late.’

The parliament.

The goddamn birds have returned, and I react well and otherwise.

They nest in a hole in the side of our house beneath our roof, fluttering and thank God not chirping too much, and have done so for — what, a couple of years now? It’s spring, springish anyhow, Cambridge weather: irritatingly chilly half the time, palatable the rest, with just a touch of ‘the whole world is in bloom’ stuff to remind you that Greater Boston’s tiresome changeable weather patterns won’t be hurried. I’m in a synth-down jacket on my nighttime walks rather than the hoodie that’ll see me through May.

The birds, at any rate, would appear to be back. I want to take this for a sign. ‘Nature is healing’ is the current boring punchline, but ‘nature’ is in here just as well and I’m fairly sure that what it’s doing is organizing and metabolizing just like always.

They are noisy, and I am stuck here in the house for who knows how long, and I’m glad they’re back — ‘Life, uh, finds a way’ — but wish they’d keep it down.

Wicked pack of cards: Death.

Continuing from our previous entry on The Hanged Man, N+1st in a series of shortish essays ‘about’ the Major Arcana. This entry is inappropriate and uncharacteristic of the series, and ‘misses the point’ of the card in its conventional interpretation. I hope you will take it as an honest attempt to respond, in relatively direct terms, to certain ‘philosophical’ issues raised by the cards. Temperance, up next, is another sort of thing, and we’ll burn that bridge when we get to it. –-wa.


Death, obviously and not.

But then why is it numbered XIII?

I laughed immoderately, as the Fool always does before the doors of Chapel Perilous swing shut behind him. (RAW, Cosmic Trigger)

Summer before senior year of high school, 1996, the principal called my mom and me into his office. I wasn’t first in our graduating class (of 54!), he told me, and I’d run out of classes to take. Weirdly, because of the grade-weighting system for class rank at my school, I needed more grades to be valedictorian.

‘I know it’s a big deal for college applications and all that, so you have a choice: you can take typing classes and whatever else we can come up with here, Earth Science, and be bored stiff, but graduate first in the class…or you can go take college classes at St Bonaventure and actually enjoy yourself, and be ranked third, and see how it goes.’

Mom and I looked at each other and laughed, and we called up St Bonnie’s to register for Calculus II, Intro to Logic, Metaphysics, and Comparative Religion — two of which turned out to be lifechanging experiences, or perhaps parts of one greater such experience, no points for guessing which.

I ended up third in our tiny graduating class, and one idea of me was replaced with another, which continues to animate and petrify me, though I’ve formed others since.

The Comparative Religion class taught me the word samsara, which would irritate me for years.

I was raised Catholic, i.e. taught that my sinful and virtuous choices in earthly life would stick with me during an eternal existence in some indescribable metaphysical realm. All well and good! Not at all weird or incredible. The professor, meanwhile, told me that Hindus and Buddhists believed in reincarnation, whereby their sinful and virtuous choices in earthly life would stick with them during an eternal cycle of death and rebirth, which was the stupidest thing I’d ever heard.

‘I could come back to life as a dog?’ That kind of boring thing.

‘Lifechanging’ but, let’s be honest, I really didn’t get what I was being offered until much, much later. I blame the American educational system and, uhh, lead in the water?


Meanwhile over in the other room we were learning Metaphysics, and the professor — Bob Amico, I still remember his name — asked us to think about what happened to a brain (or rather, a ‘mind’) whose corpus calossum could no longer transmit signals. I forget the details, but the point of the exercise was to get us thinking about where consciousness resides.

I hadn’t yet encountered the phrase ‘Minds are things that bodies do’ or dropped acid or done a damn thing, really. I instinctively identified myself, with a smart boy’s confidence, as a Cartesian dualist, and spent the rest of the semester telling various Great Metaphysical Minds to fuck off. I likely was not an impressive student, though I got a good grade. (I was an impressive writer despite my resolute pig-ignorance, which should’ve served as more of a warning than it did, w/r/t ‘impressiveness.’)

‘Lifechanging’ but, let’s be honest, I really didn’t get what I was being offered until much, much later.

I blame myself.

The natural transit of man to the next stage of his being either is or may be one form of his progress, but the exotic and almost unknown entrance, while still in this life, into the state of mystical death is a change in the form of consciousness and the passage into a state to which ordinary death is neither the path nor gate. (Waite, Pictorial Key)

Spring 1999, I’m in Professor Thorburn’s class 21L.015 at MIT. Forms of Western Narrative. Sixteen years later I will dedicate a book to him and finally know him for my teacher, but at this point I am a long way from recognition or gratitude; in the margin of my very first paper (on the brothers Grimm) Thorburn has written, ‘We both know you can write… Now stop trying to get by on fluency and charm.’ I got a B and was Convinced I Deserved Better.

Now Thorburn is talking about — Don Quixote? maybe — in a seminar room in building 16 or 56. And he stops suddenly and looks down at his papers, passes his hand over his eyes. He gathers the two halves of his copy of the Quixote, which fell apart years ago and is held together with a rubber band in a yellow envelope. He apologizes to us for several minutes.

‘My father has just died,’ he says.

He walks away and after a moment we students follow, and when we gather again for the next session Professor Thorburn apologizes some more for not having met his obligations, because in that room we are the most important thing in the world.

I realize only later what it meant that my teacher had shown up to be with us in class anyway, in such pain. I realize what he was giving us.


A moment ago, my 9-year-old son wakes up and walks into my room. ‘Did I hear sniffly boogers?‘ For some reason he pronounces this to rhyme with ‘cougars.’

I tell him I was thinking about my teacher.

With a mischievous smile: ‘Did you have a crush on her, like Xander?’ (We’ve been watching Buffy.)

I explain that my teacher was an older man, and that I was remembering the day he came into class and was too sad to teach, because his father had died.

My son puts his head down on my bed and starts crying, and wants to be held. I hold him and tell him how grateful I was and am for that experience. I realize that we’re sharing something.

I realize what it means that he is here with me, in such pain.

Chapel Perilous, like the mysterious entity called “I,” cannot be located in the space-time continuum; it is weightless, odorless, tasteless and undetectable by ordinary instruments. Indeed, like the Ego, it is even possible to deny that it is there. And yet, even more like the Ego, once you are inside it, there doesn’t seem to be any way to ever get out again, until you suddenly discover that it has been brought into existence by thought and does not exist outside thought. Everything you fear is waiting with slavering jaws in Chapel Perilous, but if you are armed with the wand of intuition, the cup of sympathy, the sword of reason and the pentacle of valor, you will find there (the legends say) the Medicine of Metals, the Elixir of Life, the Philosopher’s Stone, True Wisdom and Perfect Happiness. (RAW, Cosmic Trigger)

I treasure the memory of my teacher honouring his obligation to us, choosing our shared work over surrender to pain or loss. I treasure more deeply the memory of his heart merely broken, his willingness to leave, to be where he was, in the midst of death.

The reason this card is numbered XIII and not XXI is the reason samsara (or the Chapel) (or death) is bad metaphysics and good (accurate) metaphor. It’s only a card. It’s only a skeleton. You’re only afraid, or unafraid. ‘Neither the path nor the gate.’


My dad called me and said to come home; there was no need to explain why. We were and weren’t prepared. I was to have given my first lecture that night, to have presented my first conference paper that weekend. US Airways gave me a ‘bereavement fare.’ A stranger picked me up or a friend of the family and I was polite in the car and probably made jokes. I walked into the room full of machines and a window and a bed and my mother was not speaking, not smiling, not singing, not holding me, not misunderstanding, not reassuring, not embarrassed, not playing the organ in church, not the center of attention, not disappointed by my fingernails, not practicing with me for the Spelling Bee, not remembering, not drinking wine, not reading a book a night, not telling my brother and me to stop fighting, a human body and she’d be dead soon. I sat or knelt and cried. I told her things she couldn’t hear.

Dad said ‘Alright’ and took me away and we drove home. My brother arrived from school and didn’t have time to go see her that night. It was October and she died alone.

My son stuffs his mouth with breakfast and comes into my bedroom where I’m working (‘working’) and starts beating on the bed like a drum; he sees that I’m sad, smiles; he’s brave; I raise my voice and tell him that it’s really important that I write, and that if he ‘steals my attention’ then I may not be able get back to where I want to be, in the midst of death in life. He’s surrounded by my memories. He’s brave. I send him away.

Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends. (Moore, Watchmen)

I realize what it means that I can be here with him, in such pain.

He’s left his Monster Manual in the basket beside the bed. I write: ‘I realize what it means…’ And I don’t go to him. I call out, ‘Could you close my door?’ He’s small and quick and I hear his little feet count sixteenth notes across the second-floor hallway and my door creaks shut.


Pattern, repetition, variation. Binding. Unease.



Ego-death, obviously and not.

Which is why it’s numbered XIII and not XXI, and why just beyond lies a period of readjustment and recalibration (Temperance) and then the ascent to/through the Cosmic, until at the outermost limit is a restoration to the World — Merrill’s God B — and the binding together of the Errand in the Fool’s circle (return to the zeroth trump).

I say ‘ascent’ solely to keep with convention. ‘Up’ is a metaphor. ‘The further in you go, the bigger it gets.’

Maybe the opposite of death is freedom. Maybe we can always choose it. Maybe it isn’t over until it’s over.


Wicked pack of cards: The Hanged Man.

Continuing from our previous entry on Justice, N+1st in a series of shortish essays ‘about’ the Major Arcana. The variation in tone between entries is what it is. It wanders, it’s unpolished. For this subject, why not? –-wa.


It should be noted (1) that the tree of sacrifice is living wood, with leaves thereon; (2) that the face expresses deep entrancement, not suffering; (3) that the figure, as a whole, suggests life in suspension, but life and not death.

THE HANGED MAN.–Wisdom, circumspection, discernment, trials, sacrifice, intuition, divination, prophecy. Reversed: Selfishness, the crowd, body politic. (A.E. Waite, The Pictorial Key to the Tarot)

If he were instead ‘The Hanging Man’ or ‘The Hanging-Around Man’ or indeed ‘Suspension’ or ‘Fermata’ or something, the image would lose all of its potency but also shed some of its ambiguity (a liability distinct from the neutral quality of ambivalence). Alas, we have this lexical emphasis on the event: someone strung up our boy.

He seems to be taking it well.


Acknowledgement, resolution, pursuance, psalm. Four experiences which constitute not a path, a line, but rather a circle or circuit. The Hanged Man, twelfth trump, has his work cut out for him. First of all: where is he on the circle?

The hangman is generally understood to be an agent of Justice, though many an ordinary human has stepped up over millennia to do evil in that role on a volunteer basis: interposition and nullification… What appears to be a punishment appears, conventionally, to be a consequence — which was to be avoided. But it would appear that luck has run out.


Our poor Fool is hanged, and someone’s done it to him. But what if it’s him? Is his half-smile one of resolution, of acknowledgement — giving himself credit? Is he resting from the work, or enjoined from continuing?

Or perhaps this ritual sacrifice is the work itself.

The cycle doesn’t end, it can only break.

‘…intuition, divination, prophecy.’

I wonder what he sees.


Well, and needn’t wonder at all: dull insistence upon time’s linearity is a form of learned helplessness which, rejected in favour of some more complex (metaphorical or allegorical) topology, opens up visionary vistas. The Hanged Man sees his place on the Wheel, sees himself thrown off,1 and is granted by its/Time’s/everything’s circularity a view of past and future and their ceaseless becoming-one-another.

OK, a step back for a second.

The thing about the ‘divinatory tarot,’ as I get less and less enthusiastic about pointing out in these essays, is that it does not work in the sense in which tarot readers bet-hedgingly talk about it. The presence of a card in a spread doesn’t ‘mean’ anything except in conversation with the querent, and the ‘visionary’ aspect of tarot practice is at a certain level obviously nonsense — Justice turning up in the right spot in your Celtic Cross spread doesn’t mean you’re gonna date a lawyer. Tarot isn’t a magical time machine, it’s a storygame meant to prompt introspection, i.e. there’s a reason the one paying the fee is identified by the questions she’s asking. The cards prompt you to answer questions, and to raise more questions. That’s the game.

And time isn’t a ‘flat circle’ or whatever.

But divination (cartomantic not only) works when/insofar as it stops being about ‘What will happen?’ and moves to much much easier and far more important questions: What is happening? What is likely? What is possible? How do I tend, and what do I intend? What do I want, and how can I know? This strange deck of cards is a tool for analysis, a rational system of fantastic illumination, engaging a faculty of imagination and sensemaking (meaning-making) which other methods may not grant access to.2

So: what does the Hanged Man see? Not what will happen. You can’t know, though you can guess; indeed you’re sure to arrive at the answer in time. But clarity is possible, and there are methods — more and less rigorous systematic practices — which work to increase the clarity with which we perceive relationships in time.

Maybe the Hanged Man is putting one such system into practice. Why’s he smiling? Maybe he’s come to the threshold of something — like the Fool at his cliff-edge, Strength peering into a predator’s mouth, the High Priestess seated before the temple veil, the Hermit in his utter loneliness.

(And look who’s next in our parade of trumps…)

Divination doesn’t reveal the future, it clarifies choice and consequence. The ‘threshold of revelation’ isn’t a circumstance, it’s an act.


‘Throwing in the Tau.’

Cute, huh?

Firefly - well here i am

What is the path depicted by the procession of Major Arcana? Remember our loose premise or pretense: we take the cards to tell a sort of story, and to depict a (coherent, discontinuous, complex) movement. From what to what? ‘One measures a circle, beginning anywhere.’ The Fool undertakes an Errand, returns with something new in his bag to the edge of the cliff, changed. He begins a Work(ing) and comes to an encounter with the World.

(You can tell it’s magic cuz of all the capital letters.)

We proceed in a circle, not for cuteness’s sake but because there’s always someplace else to go. Acknowledgment, resolution, pursuance, psalm: not points on the circle but qualities or aspects of experience, which might be encountered/noticed/understood at any point. Is the Hanged Man seeing, naming, beginning, resting, celebrating? Is he frightened, relieved, suffering, resolute? Is he, after all, upside-down or right side up? (And what would that say about our more typical vantage?)

If the Wheel was an invitation to observe webs of causation, knotwork effects, and Justice was (could be, why not) a prompt to consider the way the self is constituted at the interface — site of a dynamic equilibrium — between inner action and earthly consequence plus vice obviously versa, it makes (non)sense to encounter the Hanged Man as a symbol of acceptance, of taking-in. Jubal Early floating in the black, obliged to wait for his death: ‘Well, here I am,’ an object in space. ‘Sitting is easy but sitting is fiendishly difficult.’

What is sacrificed? Our Fool isn’t, after all, dead — and Death isn’t the end of the Errand at any rate. Indeed, as the Errand is a cycle of interrogation and encounter it makes little sense to think of it as ‘ending’ at all. What is sacrificed? What’s renounced?


I wonder.


  1. …or the thrown-forwardness of his/Dasein’s b.-in-the-w. project, i.e. Heideggerian Time 
  2. Grammar pedants fuck off. 

AFRICA/BRASS briefly considered.

AFRICA/BRASS is an odd album. Trane certainly sought a ‘bigger’ more enveloping sound in his late (really 1964-67) period, but always as part of a freer improvisatory form; cf. the canonically difficult ASCENSION. AFRICA/BRASS, more familiar and so more welcoming, hearkens back to big band records with its tutti horn responses and rich low brass sound. It’s reminiscent of BLUE TRAIN, his first solo date (and only leader date on Blue Note), with its instantly recognizable warm trombone from Curtis Fuller — though that album has the feel of a close conversation among peers, while a laboratory uncertainty pervades AFRICA/BRASS. Trane’s extended solos don’t reach the ragged edges (or boiling cold stellar spaces) of his famous Village Vanguard statement, but his working band, particular Elvin Jones on drums, already generates a new kind of hookup that statelier rhythm sections, more closely wedded to the conventions of 50s hard bop, hadn’t yet given him him.

The key, for me, is that Trane in the 60s ended up disconnected from any popular concept of ‘cool’: while his great teachers Miles and Monk embodied thoroughgoing style and self-fashioning, something like Albert Murray’s idea of the blues as a ‘cultural technology of survival,’ of elegance and excellence, Trane from the time of his Five Spot residency with Monk was looking ahead to a period of mystic psychedelia that headed off at sometimes-ugly angles from Monk’s modernist refinement or Miles’s conceptual experimentation (which anticipated David Bowie’s). Trane’s ecstatic-virtuosic primitivism more closely connects him to Ornette, another soloist able to follow the moment to mysterious places because he’d assembled a series of working bands he could trust to follow him in jazz faith. Like Ornette’s harmolodic madness, AFRICA/BRASS isn’t elegant, though Tyner/Dolphy’s horn voicings are groovy as hell — but it is unquestionably intelligent, the way Prince’s carnal funk embodied a complex musicultural concept that took sex as seriously as anything (everything) else. AFRICA/BRASS’s animating idea, its soundworld, is never relegated to pretense or sales pitch; there’s a reason for the yelping and squawking and saxophone histrionics, as Trane always seemed to stalk the creatures he conjured, listening hard to what emerged from each musical moment and striving to replicate/complicate their unique intensities with the next note, bar, whorl, slash, scream.

‘Personal expression’ is its own end, but Trane was trying hard to accomplish something, and the fact that he wouldn’t quite give it a simple name or label — ‘transcendence,’ maybe? love supreme? ascension? Come to think of it, maybe he did — doesn’t mean his pursuit wasn’t in its sense intellectual. It just wasn’t what we recognize as ‘cerebral,’ Apollonian, measured by its reserve. Trane rationally built a system for antirational exploration, strange high ground for the most elevated sort of purposeful play, and his work should be understood as systematic ritual invocation, a form of (what a certain kind of nerd would refer to as) esoteric magical working whose side effect was a series of popular jazz records. Maybe I’m saying he’s like Tesla or Woz; maybe I’m saying ‘The act of transformation is the work; the music is its echo.’ Maybe the millennium doesn’t come unless we party like it’s 1999.

(Incidentally, writing this short piece was the first time I’ve listened with pure gratitude to a Pharoah Sanders solo in the context of Trane’s band. The sense-making that comes of close listening tends to ramify and resonate; thinking this morning about the comparatively reserved AFRICA/BRASS made it possible for me to hear the 1965 LIVE IN SEATTLE record with new ears. God is a poetic concept — Thank you, God.)

Wicked pack of cards: Justice.

Continuing from our previous entry on The Wheel of Fortune, N+1st in a series of shortish essays ‘about’ the Major Arcana. The variation in tone between entries is what it is. It wanders, it’s unpolished. For this subject, that seems sensible. –-wa.

With the Fool’s card bracketing his Errand zeroth and last, we come to the very middle of the pack. Behind us, the Earthly powers; yet to come, what we may as well call the Cosmic; around us and near to hand, the Inner trumps. And as Arthur Waite was who he was, in this spot that used to belong to Strength we find instead Justice. Or, er, not ‘find.’ I’m told there’s no justice, just…someone or other.


Our ‘world’ is constituted at the interface of sense organs and sense objects — it’s the envelope of our experience, what we’re able to project, to fill in, to connect with. The ‘world’ is an emergent property, a connection (kind of a hippie thing to say but let’s go with it). There are other things, other people, other vaguely tarot-related blogposts, I presume — but we constitute them imaginatively for our selves and can’t go much beyond presumption, even if (e.g.) the floor tends to be floorward most every time I look for it and I can reliably count on purple staying more or less purple from ‘day’ to ‘day.’1 Yet everyone who’s ever smoked any weed at all has had the ‘…but how can I know any of it is real?’ thought, which is one reason weed is good; and you can tip from that question toward isolation (devaluing the imagined real, reasserting the Self’s primacy) or toward proper humility (aware of the Self as a limit of knowing).

The movement from Earthly to Inner trumps, from institutional power to what looks like self-improvement, potentially brings with it a paradoxical narrowness familiar to anyone with, say, a crank uncle or limousine-yogini aunt: monomaniacal focus on one’s own perceptions and preoccupations, misperceived (by aunt/uncle) as ‘expanded consciousness.’ The red pill, the lotus flower. Self-regard and -satisfaction.

But Justice must be served.

This centerpoint of the Errand — the corner — obviously signifies balance, fairness, dealing out reward/punishment. ‘Justice’! Everyone knows what it means: the point where the Earthly cost of Inner choice is paid. The world is made where ear meets air and movement becomes sound (voice, siren, idiot fluting, graveworms crawling, ragged breath, a song, a lover’s breath, an ex-lover’s breath), and that is where Justice lives. Or doesn’t.

What else is there to say?


My nine-year-old son complains that I ‘turn everything into a punishment,’ i.e. that I too quickly shut down (what I dismiss as) certain pieces of bullshit and move toward (what I take to be) just resolution. I think to myself in my Dad-voice: Well, some acts merit punishment. And some merit reward, or encouragement, or a blind eye — I’m not a new parent anymore; I get that. There’s a system, is the point, or can/should be, and I think of this/myself as fair. I’m reassured that he’s the child, not me, damn it. That’s an important hierarchy to maintain. One way I maintain it is by passing judgment.

That’s what grownups do!


What can the harvest hope for, if not the care of the reaper man?

If the inward-facing coherent Self is an illusion, necessary or otherwise, then the goings-on on at the boundary of seeming-inner and -outer worlds, what lives in and on the skin, are the making of each of us, i.e. worldmaking. A world-version dreamt into being, ‘ours’ if there’s an us, consisting in vision.

And because rocks and foxes and cereal boxes are real (enough to be going along with at a minimum), self-fashioning must be understood as an act of reconciliation between Inner and Earthly: making sense of the senses. The action is at the border, or rather in the free movement of endlessly refashioned selves across a space that comes, through contestation and complex contact, to be understood as a border or boundary — but which is really (Really!) a site for negotiation, dynamic equilibrium, mutual revision. There are good reasons for deriding something/someone as academic, beyond the many bad ones: you can’t actually wish the world away, nor should you, since what would you replace it with?

Who passes judgment, who confirms the wisdom of your renunciation? There’s no outside-the-text, no cosmic Justice looking over the universe’s shoulder writing checkmarks and X’s — just a newlymade world every day, daily reimagined. Waite’s decision to switch the ordering of Strength and Justice seems mistaken if you continue to think of judgment as verdict (passed from where to where?) rather than as quality of ongoing engagement.

The card isn’t a threat, it’s a responsibility.


Hold on to me and step
Over the world’s thorns.
We shall soon be on
The yellow and emerald moss
Of the Penwith moor.
Are you all right beside me?
What’s your name and age
As though I did not know.
Are we getting older
At different speeds differently?
(W.S. Graham, ‘A Walk to the Gulvas’)

Reconciliation, meaning ‘integration.’

Meaning also ‘resignation,’ which is less pleasant.

The Deviant Moon deck is a little on the grimly creepy side at the best of times, but its Justice arcanum strikes me as a particularly black joke: instead of scales, Valenza’s Justice carries two swords in delicate hands, with a weirdly muscled third arm holding (though perhaps not offering) a hideous fish-creature. Keys dangle from a hidden hook; Justice’s moonface stares unblinkingly at whoever might glance over. Judge, jury, jailer — and if the day goes well, executioner. The house of justice is no safe haven.

Not actually a digression: the textures in Valenza’s digital art were taken from, among other sources, photos of headstones and an abandoned insane asylum on eastern Long Island. Most any purchaser of the deck will already know this; indeed, it’s part of the appeal of the thing. This metadata is something like the insufferable wall text at a gallery or museum — status-affirming bullshit for anxious bourgeois-about-town — and it should be irrelevant to the work, which is either beautiful or not, true or not. But it deepens the twilight colour of Valenza’s card to imagine the House of Justice in the background as an asylum, and the baleful three-armed Earthly/Inner power as the asylum-keeper. No justice, no peace. That’s the people’s verdict, right?

For many years I’ve recurred to an image of a me-shaped hole in the universe, a resting-place I’m seeking — and in moments of relief I realize (or the realization brings occasional relief) that my fantasy image has always been tied to an assumption: finding my assigned or destined place, I’ll inevitably discover what I’d always known, that I’m too big. Grotesque and misshapen. Don’t fit. Integration is impossible, which must be the reason why I think of myself as separate. Surely if there were any point to trying to make peace, I’d already have done so. It’s just the kind of guy I am.

‘The shut down was the inevitable consequence of a government not permitted to compromise…’

Integration is frightening because it means, or just is, concession: relaxing (expectations) enough to slip into the world in the world left open for you. Reconciling the self-fiction with everything else means recognizing and accepting their respective limits and affordances, their interpenetration, the impossibility of ever being truly alone or truly connected. Justice is compromise, which is the one thing that people who bang on endlessly about justice are most eager to forget. Everyone submits to a system, agrees to the fiction of collectively seeing like the system, which is how States work (Justice before Waite was an Earthly power, remember…) and how Selves work (…but is now an Inner trump, lessbeclearhear) and which sounds like the least hippieish thing in a procession that so far has been pretty goddamn hippieish, but it’s not a verdict, remember? If by choice or act we move toward justice, if we act or choose sustainably in service to something which interconnects selves without reducing to their sum, then that service is sanctified, it represents a step along the path. Toward what? Well, no, the grammar of the question is wrong. The path in the world is the path to the world. Its destination is authentic transit.

Which, again, is why sitting is easy (during plaguetime not least, you’re probably doing it right now) but sitting is fiendishly difficult. First of all it means finding an earth to sit on, and resigning to its sufficiency. A chair’d be better, in love or on a beach would be better, not to be wracked with coughing or guilt, vanished friends alive and happy (‘Somewhere gravity cannot reach us anymore / Somewhere you are not alone’). But to be here anyhow and yet not to dwell on ‘anyhow,’ to sit or walk or really to anything outside category or insistence or this goddamn editorial impulse

In his Dhammapada Glenn Wallis2 translates the Pāli term dukkha as ‘pain’ rather than the conventional English rendering ‘suffering’; they can’t both be correct, but neither version rubs me right. In his later collection Basic Teachings of the Buddha, Wallis alters his approach, and translates dukkha as unease, which has the neat effect of implying or embedding a precise opposite (antiparallel Pāli term sukha: ‘ease’) and which is free of the melodramatic English-language connotations of ‘suffering.’

‘Overcome suffering’? This is what’s known in the biz as a major ‘ask.’

But ‘Ease into it’…

I think of my hole in the universe. I think of how disappointed I’ll be if it doesn’t solve my problems, if I am not judged the right size. (And desperately sad, knowing that it’s my own judgment that’s passed, no One else’s…) I think of how important it is that it be a proper, narratively satisfying ending.

I think, then, of letting go of enough tension and anxiety to relax into whatever space is open, as if passing through a crowd on the way to another spot in the crowd. I imagine a tunnel ahead of me, a sense of flow. I move like water. Good or bad, noisy or quiet, this for a split second just feels…easy. You sink into your body, your body sinks into the universe.

It’s it.

This is no place to end, which seems appropriate.


  1. That’s one Buddhist (or rather ‘Buddhism’) paradox for you: its foofy metaphysics and overall weird vestigial mendicant-renunciation approach join hands with a pragmatic, epistemologically humble materialism. 
  2. Wallis’s two Modern Library volumes combine wonderfully readable, modern-vernacular English translations with playfully rigorous annotations and commentary. This winter I read through Juan Masacaro’s popular Penguin edition of the Dhammapada; Mascaro’s (apparently) famous introduction strikes me as a faintly embarrassing relic of its time, a distraction, and I found the text challenging in a way that didn’t draw me in. Wallis’s translations flow smoothly, that’s fine — but his notes are an exhilarating read unto themselves, making his two collections perfect for beginners like me: expertly clarifying without imposing. (Wallis’s various controversial positions/publications re USA Buddhism aren’t relevant to his early work as a translator or to this essay.) 

Terry Pratchett, SOUL MUSIC (1994).

A quick having-just-put-it-down review of the 14th-ish Discworld novel I’ve read. –wa.

I don’t know why I don’t read Pratchett every single day. He never fails to make me feel better — more alive to quiet music, to ordinariness, to pity and care — and I spend half the time laughing and half the time crying. Soul Music will end up being minor Discworld, I suspect, but that’s better than fine.

Death says more than usual here, and having crossed the threshold of Reaper Man (this is a series, as in ‘serial,’ after all) I find him less funny than before. I suspect Pratchett felt the easy jokes had worn thin by 1994, eleven years after The Colour of Magic and just three years after Reaper Man brought Death face to face with the meaning of his work, so Death plays a background role in Soul Music, and speechifies a bit. Well — just like a grandfather, innit. The focus is on the next generation, and Death’s absence and inhumanity are played in a little more biting register from Susan Sto Helit’s perspective.

This is Susan’s first star turn; she’s wonderful and I’m glad she’ll be back. Crucially, her presence alters the balance of the story: Pratchett has been telling multigenerational stories from the start, but Susan, like Magrat the young witch, lets him depict his older central characters not just confronting and recognizing and understanding change but, at a deep level, undergoing it. Death’s relationship to Albert has a weary familiarity, here, that I hadn’t detected before, and through Susan’s eyes we see him as part of an older order — made literal, in the book’s final pages, by her vision of his loneliness as she gives him the kiss on the head he’s asked for. Something similar happens with Ridcully and the younger thaumatologists, as a sort of sequel to Reaper Man‘s Ned Simnel, the inventor whose Combination Harvester plays a chilling-comic role, reminding Death and his newfound friends of what comes for all of us…

Soul Music‘s actual music stuff isn’t particularly deep or expertly drawn, I think, and is too reliant on puns and shallow references until the very end, when the melancholy ‘not fade away’ theme — Buddy’s humanity slowly fading from humanity to serve the unconvincing (because so abstract) antagonist’s need to create a Legend — suddenly dovetails with Death’s story and Susan’s in a heartbreaking little couplet:

You could choose immortality, or you chould choose humanity.

You had to do it for yourself.

As prose, OK. But in the context of this story, those lines — on the heels of Buddy’s triumphant final performance and Death’s struggle to preserve the life of the immortal Albert — linger and echo beautifully. The ‘Music With Rocks In’ story means more to me now that it’s done than it did as I turned the pages.

Every time I finish a Discworld novel I find myself needing to read the next one right away…but then take ages to do so. It’s down to Pratchett’s warm welcoming humanity jostling with the repetitiveness of his plots. The latter doesn’t bother me when I’m in the world with him, because of the former; but after the Big Apocalyptic Third Act Climax there’s always this feeling of deflation.

And I don’t want to run out. I want to be reading Discworld books as long as I live, and I want new stories, and knowing that he’s gone and there won’t ever be another is too much.

It’s too much. The Discworld is a world, its people are people, and Terry Pratchett is — not ‘was’ — my hero.

Wicked pack of cards: The Wheel of Fortune.

Continuing from our previous entry on The Hermit, N+1st in a series of shortish essays ‘about’ the Major Arcana. The variation in tone between entries is what it is. Like the previous entry, this is a first draft, and consequently has the shape of my thinking/wandering but lacks the clarity and pointedness of my more ‘composed’ writing. For this subject, that tradeoff seems appropriate. Note, finally, that my ‘interpretations’ of the cards continue to bear only coincidental relation to the canonical or conventional readings: this is private sensemaking. –-wa.

The first thing to say about the Wheel of Fortune is that it’s a wheel.

The rest of this essay is an elaboration of that point. You can stop now if you like.


Scattered thoughts about circles and wheels.

They are fantastically difficult to draw well without help. They effortlessly draw the eye. They feel good — tracing one’s hand along the curvature of a bore, rolling a round object across a surface (or the surface of the skin)… Crucially they also ‘feel’ good mentally, visually: satisfying in themselves. A circle is its own answer. Fort:

If there is an underlying oneness of all things, it does not matter where we begin, whether with stars, or laws of supply and demand, or frogs, or Napoleon Bonaparte. One measures a circle, beginning anywhere.

One of the most jarring moments of realization of my entire life, I experienced twice: first, reading a physics textbook at home in middle or high school — courtesy of the James Prendergast Library in Jamestown NY — and then again years later, in my basic mechanics class in college. The insight was simple enough, and common to every first-year physics student: a wheel moves along the ground, but each point on the wheel bounces along the ground, never sliding unless something (as they say) has gone wrong. This was in the context of our lesson on mu, the coefficient of friction.

At the time I didn’t know that the symbol for this dimensionless quantity was the Chinese symbol for ‘nothing.’ Knowing, now, I don’t know that I’m richer, though I’ve got a nicer wristwatch. I suspect that’s coincidence, though.

Like the magic circle around the theatre stage or ritual invocation or space of play, it’s just a notion — a line in the dirt.

The decision not to cross.


The conventional reading of the Wheel of Fortune is, not unexpectedly, conventional: chance, luck, karma, destiny, etc. ‘What goes around comes around.’ God, despite reliable testimony from physicists, is playing dice, so Look Out.

You can stop here if you’re satisfied with that.


Ten years ago — almost to the day — I wrote this:

The prime mover must look like us. One of our most cherished fictions is what I’d call ‘the fallacy of casual scale‘: the assumption that the primary causes and effects of a given subject’s actions will be found among subjects and objects on the same scale/level, on a timescale ‘appropriate’ to that object. Did Bob burst out crying in school today? Something must have happened, today, to Bob himself — someone must have done something — and if we ask ‘Are you OK?’ or ‘What’s wrong?’ we have a right to expect a straightforward answer. Does it make any difference to the world whether I flush the toilet every time I urinate? I sense no difference, so…probably not. (If it mattered — if the reduction in water use were meaningful — I’d know it somehow, wouldn’t I?) The ability to imagine causation of an abstract sort, or at a distance, seems to be a peculiarly human feature, as far as we know, but humans are reluctant to approach such imagination systematically or coherently; hence the willingness (the need, arguably) to accept fictions of the ‘God is running things’ or ‘Fate intercedes’ variety.

My son wasn’t yet born, then. Nowadays I tell him that there’s no such thing as ‘luck,’ but I don’t think he believes me. That’s fine.

It’s funny that I wrote ‘in school’; I’d been out of school for years by then. I hardly recognize the person who wrote that, yet I instinctively dislike him. Something connects us. Anger, maybe?

‘Karma’? Hopefully not ‘destiny’…


The groovy thing about a wheel, as conceptual or physical tool, is that from any point — as Charles Fort’d’ve told you — you can trace a path to any other. The predominance of circles and wheels in mystical symbolism presumably comes down at least partly to that: the circle encloses a sacred space whose border is, in a sense, infinitely long; its points can be counted (if any can) but within and across it we can move without exhausting possibility (‘…were it not that I have bad dreams’).

Karma is not, of course, ‘real’ in the metaphysical sense — you won’t be reborn after you die, sorry — but it holds enormous value as a conceptual tool even for more, uhh, linear thinkers. The wheel of karma, the cycle of samsara, our ninth trump: these recast causation as magical action at a distance, reminding us querents that the consequences of our actions will be encountered in seemingly unconnected contexts. At some point your life will seem to big too move around, your path will appear fixed, your identity stone-cast, and yet in some unimaginably distant corner of spacetime (they all are; distant, I mean) what you do now and what you’ve chosen will ramify, will ripple.

‘Eddies,’ said Ford, ‘in the space-time continuum.’
‘Ah,’ nodded Arthur, ‘is he. Is he.’

Systemicity is real, and there’s just the one universe for twined cause and effect to bounce around in. Ten years is an eyeblink to an eyeblink. I wrote this because(-for-a-certain-value-of-’cause’) ten years ago I wrote the other, and because forty years ago Adams wrote that.

Karma is the renunciation of the fallacy of causal scale.

It is a conceptual tool to aid in attaining (inducing) a mode of seeing — which by herculean effort of will I won’t refer to as ‘psychedelic’ — which sees chains and webs of causation cutting across context and scale, across vast distances (all distances are vast, in a sense), and which crucially sees them as issuing not from ‘this point’ in spacetime but from every point, simultaneously. Think of it, for Christ’s sake: unknowing, you are something else’s karmic reward. Choice and chance look similar from a trillion universes away. (Maybe I’m payback for the dumb shit I wrote a decade ago. Maybe a mountain will form in a million years, or fell a million years ago, because I slightly edited the long quote above, out of embarrassment.)


The Wheel of Fortune turns, consequences arise and multiply. Your number comes up. And some random event occurs.

Stochasmic release.

We can see our choices as patterned, if not quite determined — this is a sensible middle ground, I’m cool with it — but there remains this notion that ‘chance’ is something else, a bolt from the blue. Probability gives people a hard time. Yet the world has, if not opinions, strong tendencies at least, and anothere lesson of karma, another point on this conceptual wheel, is that our inability to control chance isn’t the same thing as powerlessness nor helplessness. Look at the path of ‘Inner’ trumps, as commitment and perseverance and immersive solitude are precisely what make possible this recognition of pattern, of structure (beneath the stochastic). I think of the Wizard behind the curtain, pulling levers, blowing steam from great bellows, mysterious signs appearing in the sky… ‘Mystery’ in so many cases is a gloss on ‘Not yet…’

The Wheel reminds us that there are no guarantees, only responsibilities. No straight lines, only a constant turning (the path winds and we wind up along with it). The debt implied, incurred, by causation. ‘A butterfly flaps its wings in Peking and in Central Park you get rain instead of sunshine’; and yet, ‘We owe this gathering in the Park to the generosity of our donors — it couldn’t have happened without you guys…’ No one likes to be reminded of a debt, nor of the inadequacy of their response, the cruelty of their refusal.

There is no ‘reward for virtue’ in the conventional sense, only the consequences of an act, which you can take or leave, the way pain is a given but suffering a feeling, a choice. Acknowledging consequence is something quite different from dreaming of (which is to say: demanding of the universe) reward. Nor is their cosmic punishment for vice, which is one reason punishment can feel so good, its imaginative intention, its narrativity

Bringing us back, then, to the Fool’s Journey, the path of Major Arcana. The Fool isn’t ever to be rewarded for his achievement; there’s no frame for external judgment, no Power great enough to grant a reward or punishment in the first place. The solitude of the Hermit is its own ‘reward,’ which is to say opportunity; the Wheel swivels and bops and grants or unseats but has only tendencies (distributions), no opinions. The Chariot is a state of being, of relation. Emperor and Hierophant the same. Death the same, certain of coming (maybe soon, and not last). In the context of the Fool’s Journey, the Wheel — like the other trumps, come to think of it — serves as a sort of reality check, a reestablishment of or confrontation with the system of relations between Fool and the World to which he is ceaselessly (foolishly, joyfully, gratefully (wouldn’t that be nice)) returning. Solitude, devotion, strength, mastery — they arise and fall away like any other chance encounter, ‘the incarnation and withdrawal of / A god.’ It’s nice to go on about the Great Work, sacred this and ascended that, but one measures a circle beginning anywhere, and returns, changed, to the beginning — now recognizing that it was no beginning after all. Roland resumes his journey across the desert after the Man in Black; this has happened before, and it will happen again. The wheel continues turning. Stoppard’s Player:

We keep to our usual stuff, more or less, only inside out. We do on stage the things that are supposed to happen off. Which is a kind of integrity, if you look on every exit being an entrance somewhere else.

What is the purpose of the Fool’s Journey? Connection. ‘Communion,’ I suppose. The Fool moves toward the World, by which I mean toward integration with things as they are. Seeing the conditions of possibility, not needing to enumerate them, only to experience them as God (Biology?) might. The journey — the Fool’s Errand, a term I like better, not least because afterward you come home with something useful in your sack — continues. One thing follows another. You take responsibility or not. The next step or not. Inward or not. A new world comes into being within the circle.


Irreal Life Top Seven, early plaguetime edition.

Note: These posts have nothing to do with the Greil Marcus columns to which the title refers; nor is there anything particularly ‘irreal’ about all this, not by design anyway. This go-round, at least, it’s just a collection of short things glued together into a longer thing. I gave no thought to what I was going to write until I’d begun typing, and none after I’d finished the first draft of each paragraph. This post is a mess. But so’s everybody else and so are you, or you wouldn’t be reading this. On we go. –wa.

  1. Rediscovery. The ostensible essence is so often only a contrast effect; I won’t be fooled into thinking the world is ‘truly’ this or that just because I long for it to be so under conditions of relative deprivation. Still, the blue sky’s seemed so much bluer, my friends’ faces on the vidscreen so much dearer, that I’m lulled into that sort of thinking: of course I’m ‘rediscovering’ the world, getting back to Reality, instead of seeing it in a way that’s (sadly) only available now that I’ve been away from it so long. ‘All seeing is seeing-as.’ Plaguesight brings ordinary things into sharp relief. Death is near, along with boredom, and people are far away. My perceptions have breathing room, for a time. And when we return to Ordinary Time I’ll go back to another way of living that will come again, in time, to seem inevitable. I’ll call this ‘innocence’ and long to recapture it. I’ll probably call it ‘truth’ or something, too.
  2. Meditation. Before plaguetime I was meditating almost daily, and working my way into Buddhist literature, the Dhammapada not only; now I’m reading more and meditating less, for fanciful reasons mostly, though ‘fancy’ has come to seem both lighter and much weightier than it was. The thought — the recollection, really — that people have survived much worse in living memory, aided specifically by these cultural technologies of survival, has borne me up somewhat. And the simultaneous ambivalence and tight prescriptivism of ancient Buddhist literature, the Buddha something of a repetitive stickler in his canonical form, imbues the ‘come specifically as you are’ practice of breath meditation with a welcome intensity and purpose: programmatic without needing a fixed teleological program, you might say. I miss sitting, though now I’m ‘sitting’ all day in Work From Home mode, but the sense of what sitting is and can be has begun to diffuse through everything else, slowly, partially, one (un)conscious act at a time. The way seems open.
  3. Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, 11/25/19. Listening obsessively to the Althea > The Eleven and Reuben and Cherise from this show has reopened the Dead’s songs for me — not ‘their music,’ which was an improvisatory ritual invocation unique to them, but the songs themselves, the astonishing tunes they’ve passed on to contemporary bands facing rock-improvisatory problems armed with the library of solutions the Dead (and Phish even more, if we’re being honest) developed Back When. ‘Althea’ in particular is an extraordinary Garcia/Hunter song, and JRAD pair it perfectly with Lesh’s ‘The Eleven’ — the latter more an excuse for jamming than anything else, which is no insult. A friend describes JRAD as ‘The Dead with cheat codes,’ which I take as praising with faint damnation, as every American rock band after the Dead has made use of their cheat codes. Regardless, Russo and his murderers row sink their teeth into every second of the music, and the full-band crescendos and seamless transitions in ‘The Eleven’ attain levels of Rawk Majesty that the Dead — a psychedelic country-rock fusion band, Back When — never dreamt of. JRAD’s ongoing tribute to the Dead’s legacy is one of the best live shows going: the first new ‘jam band’ since The Slip to fill me with this desperate need to Be There.
  4. San Juan, the card game. Its progenitor game Puerto Rico is a classic for a reason, but it’s also one of the purest mechanical exercises in eurogaming, and frankly takes too long to play; its smartypants tableau-builder brother Race for the Galaxy has a steep learning curve owing to its reliance on a huge icon-set. San Juan, meanwhile, is a perfect little ludic appetizer, with bare-minimum setup/cleanup and an intuitive play structure that takes 5-10 minutes to teach. Not the deepest game in the world, it’s all about compromise: adapting to the shifting boardstate while pursuing a (hopefully flexible, else fragile/boring) strategy. My 9-year-old son tolerated it, then liked it, while my wife took to it immediately, meaning we have another alternative to the goofier King of New York for plaguetime tabletop nights. Not, I’ll note, the wildest fun you’ll ever have — but people are dying by the thousands, and this game gifts me a curious sort of analytical peacefulness for which I’m suddenly grateful.
  5. ‘So What.’ Walking up our street, no cars or pedestrians anywhere nearby — and crucially none expected, rules are rules — I gave myself permission to scat every single note of Miles’s, Trane’s, and Cannonball’s solos, loud as I pleased. More than half my life I’ve known these notes, but I’d not had an experience like this: blowing along with the band in open air, in my own neighbourhood, alone atop the world. For a minute there I lost myself, myself-as-we-now-are, and picked up something I’d lost a long time ago.
  6. Salesforce ‘trailhead.’ Title: ‘Use Sharing Rules for External Users.’ Subtitle: ‘Sharing Rules for External Users.’ Opening line: ‘What’s next in our sharing adventure? Sharing rules, of course.’ Death is too good for these people.
  7. Herbie Hancock Sextet, ‘Rain Dance.’ The first track of Sextant is driven by Gleeson’s experimental synth patterns, which is to say, by Herbie’s interest in the possibilities of electronic sound. The album stands as perhaps the most successful early attempt to imagine Computer Age jazz, relating in a novel way to the way music plays on the ear and the air — jazz as pure sonic experience or atmosphere. Jazz after the Beatles, in other words, designed to stand as artifact without sacrificing a connection going back to King Oliver and before. Electronic ritual music. The entire album speaks to heads, to the head, but never turns from the body: ‘Hidden Shadows’ is a math exercise and a relentless psychedelic funk track, ‘Hornets’ tethers wild free blowing to Williams and Hart’s insinuating sidewalk rhythm. Wandering through an almost entirely deserted Porter Square this morning in grey rain, I found myself lifted up out of my own head into my body, my hips, my shoulders, my feet in 6/8 and then 5/8 and then two bars in 4. Enveloped, every channel maxed out. It seems impossible that music this sophisticated and complex could be this powerfully sensual — but that’s just the yadda yadda of low expectations talking. Of course it could be, and is, and should be.