wax banks

second-best since Cantor

Month: August, 2020

Still stranger.

Cleaning out the attic, postwise. –w.

Stranger Things is stupidly ‘criticized’ as a poorly written nostalgia trip for 80s kids. Ignore such bleating.

Stranger Things isn’t about the 80s, it’s about children being violated and traumatized and adults trying and failing to understand, accommodate, and protect those kids — which is to say its about a nightmare specific to that time, which nostalgically animates culture even today. Instead of rendering the 80s as history, the show depicts a specific population’s anxieties & where they found comfort (distraction, false hope, &c.). Its central anxiety: children victimized out of their parents’ sight.

Though nostalgia for the hands-off parenting era is the show’s hook — the ‘attractive fantasy’ in a sense — the audience is constantly reminded that the cost of such ‘freedom’ is/was unassimilable trauma, which the era’s parents were ill-equipped to understand for their own reasons, not solely generational. Of course this line isn’t original to Stranger Things; it’s the latent content of so many stories of the era the show specifically evokes, Stephen King’s not solely. But its horrific depictions of violation from Outside go beyond the metaphors which inspired it.

The show owes a big debt to Stand By Me, a gentler version of It whose framing narrative wraps every event of its story in an implicit ‘We didn’t know…’ What the Stranger Things kids don’t know, which the Duffer brothers foolishly expect the audience to understand, is that Will, Eleven, and the rest of the cast are forming nostalgic attachments to the things — the times — that are killing them.

The violation and possession of Will Byers and Eleven, and of Billy the lifeguard in the third season, are rendered with unsettling and humane attention to the kidss’ suffering, and to the limited ways their loved/loving ones are able and willing to help. It’s a show about boys’ friendships being torn apart by horror, rendered as if it were a show about girls’ friendships being tested by mundane drama.

The Duffer brothers know what they’re about: Season 3’s ‘Can’t we just play D&D now?’ refrain is both arch metacommentary on fannish desire and a crushing depiction of a kidnap/rape victim seeking solace in…childhood games. Which is a second level of metacommentary, if you like. In Season 3 the Duffers make the inability to move past (traumatic, nostalgic) fantasy the show’s tragicomic focus; they hold on to Season 1’s pleasures and terrors anti-nostalgically, to complicate, deepen, darken them.

Which is in part to say that Stranger Things Season Three owes a lot to The Sopranos Season Six. This is a good thing.



Imagine the most gifted network-TV auteur given free rein and decent funding to pursue a mad SF passion project perversely biting every hand that’s ever fed him: a story about a techno-brothel which wipes the enslaved workers’ minds, replacing them with identities requested by the johns — not necessarily for sex. Imagine this is actually a story about Hollywood’s systemic abuse of women mirroring the wider culture’s own. Imagine constant, panicked network interference from day one, just two brief increasingly rushed and incoherent seasons. Imagine this risky, hermetic work of genius not being very good after all.

The Wire.

One of the most cognitively demanding works of art to enter mainstream culture (see also Rick and Morty). Smug, certain, arguably(?) too focused on men’s lives and pain, tilting in its later seasons toward a sarcastic fatalism, and with a maddeningly compromised final season, The Wire is nonetheless the canonical onscreen rendering of late-20C capitalism in urban crisis — and (largely unnoticed) a perfect police procedural, hitting every single required cop-story beat without ever falling for the genre’s mealy-mouthed amoral bullshit. Unquestionably one of the great late-20C works of American art — and reportage. A goddamn civic obligation.

The Sopranos.

A workplace sitcom about Tony, descendant of Archie Bunker and Ralph Kramden (or Bill Clinton): the graceful sad clown. Gandolfini’s imperishable performance — opposite his equal, Edie Falco — is now lazily dismissed as a ‘problematic’ solicitation of love for the undeserving White Male Antihero. That ‘criticism’ misses the mark. The show solicits sympathy with Tony’s victims and empathy with him, but he’s comically awful, and in the world of The Sopranos Tony’s protagonism is no gift. Remains one of our culture’s deepest depictions of resentful, deceitful, compromised, bourgeois (i.e. Clintonesque) marriage. A masterpiece.


(Epistemic status: some bullshit.)

SMITH: Wait, I’ve seen this. This is it, this is the end. Yes, you were laying right there, just like that, and I… I… I stand here, right here, I’m… I’m supposed to say something. I say… Everything that has a beginning has an end, Neo.

Well, but what about everything else?

One thing you pick up on, as you get older, is that we don’t ever encounter monocausality In Real Life, i.e. outside of pure formal systems like ‘maths’ — yet it’s one of our fondest desires, one we constantly and monomaniacally pursue for much or most of our lives. (You might think of pathological fixation on fixed ‘identity’ in these terms.) Humans desperately wanna have a single explanation for things, to be able to make sense — even by force — of a world that we’re capable of sensing and grappling with, but incapable of encompassing except imaginatively, fictionally. ‘Theories of everything’ (like theism) are pure fantasy, and we damn well know it; we might someday answer ‘How is the universe?’ (I doubt it) but we’ll never answer ‘Why is the universe?’ partially for Gödel-reasons1 and partially because ‘Why?’ is an ill-posed question to begin with. ‘Why?’ is plaintive: though it resembles a request for information, it’s always a request for help.

Maybe I’m saying more about myself than I mean to, here; there’s nothing wrong with asking for help.

I mean, we’ll settle for any ol’ explanation if the alternative is the bottomless real. The proximate reason children’s archetypal endless ‘Why?’-regress is so frustrating and daunting for so many adults is that patience is limited, but there’s a deeper place: eventually you’re going to say, first, ‘I don’t know,’ and then more painfully ‘We don’t know,’ and eventually if things go badly/well ‘We can’t know.’ And that’s a hard thing to hear yourself say, not only to a kid. Saying ‘It’s hard to explain’ is a cop-out and every good sane parent has felt guilty about it, but it at least implies a comforting fiction of knowability. There’s an explanation, I just can’t say it. But the truth is in the regress.

Back behind every answer is another question, and then eventually we run out of universe, or breath.

Stupid people — politicians, for instance — complain about things ‘raising more questions than answers.’ The real question is why you’re willing to grandstand about epistemology sometimes but happily accept the limits of your knowledge at others; the answer to that one, at least, is pretty straightforward. We try not to think about the limits of our knowledge because we’re conscious of the limits of our tolerance for pain.

My point, here at least, is that we’d love not only ultimate reason but even just simple manageable relationships. And at the scale of human experience, if you’re doomed to think hard, there aren’t any. This is one reason why ‘social’ media have caused so much damage: they expose us constantly to streams of (usually dumb) information we simply can not turn into useful knowledge, then push coping strategies which cause us more problems (self-ghettoization (‘curation’), learned fragility (‘filtering’), addictive behaviours (‘likes’), etc.). Of course, this pathological mediasphere could only arise under a metastatic technocapitalist regime circulating triumphalist tech-libertarian/identitarian rhetoric about something mislabeled ‘freedom,’ which is one of the things the Boomers accepted as compensation after winning/losing the post-60s culture war…

Everything involving humans is complex, and the trick is that it remains complex no matter how deep into the weeds you go. It’s complexity all the way down, and the illusion of ‘simple rules giving rise to complex behaviours’ is a matter of perceptual filtering at the horizon of our pain-tolerance, i.e. not wanting to get bogged down in implementation details, e.g. Conway’s Game of Life seems less charming when you wonder how, exactly, neighbouring cells affect one another.

‘They just do.’ Yes, so I’ve heard, that’s what God is for.

This isn’t what it was supposed to be. That keeps happening.

  1. (a phrase I’m using slangily to mean ‘because, annoyingly, “why is the universe?” can only be answered with reference to outside-the-universe’) 

Wicked pack of cards: Plague.

Flat 750x 075 f pad 750x1000 f8f8f8 u1

All suspended, permission uncertain, no passage.

No one wants a plague diary from some bourgeois idiot. I am ‘inessential’ and not a ‘worker’ in the valorous sense.

The cards say what the monks say: you are in a moment of transformation. Choice of adverb: really. ‘Changely’ if you like. Here and thus you are, never could it’ve been otherwise. Get to it. Choose, act.

Out the window, though, an invisible cloud.

Airborne toxic event.

Plague of sedentation.

The shrinks say what the posters say: you’re always changing, every day’s a new one, make the healthy choice.

Your job without socializing. Your home without respite. Your friends without touch, city without neighbours, movement without aim, contact without exchange, tension without release.

No bodies to dance inside.

The music says what the bodies say: I love you, I miss you, I want to break free. (Of: me.)

Even music seems to’ve stopped.

Danse macabre by Michael Wolgemut

Motionless but not still.

Moving but not busy — not frantic.

Still but not quiet. Peaceful but not restful.

Making but not creating.

Hungry but not angry.

Acting but not working.

Needful but not grasping.

Talking but not connecting.

Reaching but not connecting.

Touching but not connecting.

Connecting but not touching.

Listening to the circle.

‘We are all monastics now,’ several said.

For various reasons that doesn’t appeal to me. For various reasons that appeals to me. On balance, I like the option of a bourbon et cetera.

The memory of all that
They can’t take that away from me

Motionless but not still, meaning sitting frantically — sitting but not sitting, war of self against self. What if now weren’t now? Suffering is resenting that here and thus we are: holding the world against the world instead of being (recognizing onself as) part of all of it, all of part of it. The World (XXI) isn’t a place or possession, not even a piece of knowledge; it’s recognition, acceptance, assumption. Taken up into the heaven of a trillion borderless souls.

Every dream arrested. Plague of atomization.

We’re not scaremongering
This is really happening

Well you can go to a monastery to hide, which works for a while, though They tend to find you when They want it badly enough, or when you do. And you can go to pray, sit, tend the garden, work, think, build, look closely. I suppose you might meet someone there who knows. Become someone even.

Stars shining bright above you
Night breezes seem to whisper ‘I love you’
Birds singing in the sycamore tree

It’s not just old brick, is the thing. The space has to be impregnated somehow with intention. Stillness, not just motionlessness. Stillness is presence where motion can only be absent. Vee, delta-ess o’er delta-tee. While stillness is a skin that settles over you, brings insides and outsides in. Stillness is how time slows in the vein.

During plague I haven’t moved but haven’t felt still at all.

Having trouble finding now.

The building is made of this or thatever, but it becomes a monastery by the intention of the practitioners within it. The thing they are collectively maintaining, defense against fallenness, against what of the world takes from us, what of the world wants, devours, strips flesh, strips spirit. No souls, no spirits, these are ‘only’ metaphors, but imagine if there were, which is the point of the point: imagining makes the space sacred. Intend, exhaust, imbue.

And I look at those eyes
I look at those lonely eyes

And it comes from me to you

I once asked God for forgiveness (for something) in a cathedral in NYC and what I received was hysterical tears. I felt gratitude for what I took to be a gift, but I’ve just realized that I’d received the gift — the work was accomplished — the second I knelt and meant it.

The cathedral is what it is; as soon as we came into the nave I could feel the action of the place, and by the time we reached The Legend of St Eustace I was ready for something to happen.

Some pompous Fool said ‘The readiness is all.’ You make the magic circle by joining hands with someone who needs help. ‘It is true.’ I was told that amen means ‘it is true,’ which suddenly sounds a lot like Tell me about it, which is a nice thing to say to someone you love, including yourself. Kneeling there, feeling gratitude for tears, ready for someone to happen.

Heaven will prove to’ve been stillness, and it’s here, obscured by motionlessness. ‘A place where nothing ever happens,’ not quite. Where what’s up is really up, is what’s up. The circle turning brings you to wherever you’re going.

I’m going to drink some water, drive my wife to Target, and see what happens.

The heart says what the birds say:

Psychedelic lake painting

Wicked pack of cards: Circle, or Zuihitsu.

‘Circling the fire,’ ‘tiptoeing around the issue,’ ‘going in circles,’ ‘chasing your tail,’ ‘in a spiral,’ ‘back where we started,’ all of them meaning at some point Will you fucking get on with it.

My left eyelid has been twitching for a week. I’ve wondered daily when it will stop; more recently I wonder whether I can stop wondering. I know both that anxious attention is anxious, so worrying isn’t helping — anxiety never ever helps anything, don’t let anxious salesman fool you — but one level deeper I know that ‘helping’ isn’t necessarily necessary. ‘That’s a lot to work with,’ the adept says of some irritant, not only to tolerate or ‘live with’ but to build on. This idiot twitch is really happening, and while I want it to stop, one level deeper I want Someone to acknowledge my wanting and do something about it. I want to be able to reward someone with love for making the problem go away.

Of course, treating love as a reward is a problem in itself.

‘One measures a circle, beginning anywhere.’ I keep coming back to that phrase.

Of course I can’t bring myself to read an entire book of Charles Fort, almost no one can. I didn’t read Being and Time for Professor Rota’s Being and Time seminar either, but it changed my life all the same, which might make me a fool but we’ve learned — as if we didn’t already know — that there are worse things. What makes Fort both welcoming and troubling is that, having made private sense of things, he presents his findings and surmises — presents himself — in a way that admits of possibility and error. He’s all middle (nor was he a thin man).

Even Fort’s straightforward recitations of reported fact, his summaries of eyewitness testimony, feel like modest proposals — beyond his dry (‘telegraphic’) style Fort committed to a rigorous ambivalence, which only sounds like laziness or a cop-out until you try it.

Note: what makes Fort’s disciples so much easier but less interesting reads than their inspiration is that (with rare exceptions like RAW or John Keel) they aren’t, in the end, committed to Fortean epistemological radicalism: they’re interested in the effects that Fortean skepticism can generate, whether for aesthetic pleasure and as intellectual/creative toolkit, but the modern ‘Fortean’ worldview isn’t broken-open in the way Fort’s was. As such, today’s Forteans have boring pragmatic but reassuringly solid ground to push off of, where Fort was always in the middle of radically disconcertingly open intellectual space. It’s not hard to see why; maintaining a mind so open that bugs can get in is…well, hard work. And there are bugs.

I’ve kept bringing up Fort in the context of this tarot series partly because they’re close neighbours in the concept-map of postwar American ‘fringe’ interests, mostly because the playful rigour which Fort brought to his (perhaps mad) collecting and writing is the very definition of antirational systematic — i.e. ‘magical’ — thought and praxis. ‘Underlying oneness!’ is the hook, but ‘sit with nonsense until it starts to make sense’ is the boring, fulfilling work.

Insofar as the Fool’s Errand — by which, here, I’m content to mean ‘the “divinatory” tarot as inspirational tool’ — is about patient engagement (with one’s many selves, circumstances, perceptual frames, possible futures, abandoned pasts, misapprehended alternate presents), sitting/wrestling with the World until you realize you’re in it or just it, Charles Fort perfectly embodies its lessons (no, its arc, or method or just uhh vibe?). ‘The truth will out’ is usually presented as a threat but Kekulé and his ouroboros-vision of the benzene ring manifest the other side of that circle: ‘Visions come to prepared spirits.’

Not that circles have other sides, is the whole point of the whole point.

Professor Rota’s class met 7-10 on Friday nights and we’d spend hours in his genial company banging our heads against Being and Time — though the class was mostly Husserl if I’m being honest — and then adjourn to Deli Haus in Kenmore Square, three or six or more of us, to bang our heads against some sandwiches and the broader difficulties of being 20 at the turn of a broadly difficult millennium. I liked the teriyaki+pineapple on grilled chicken. We’d talk about what it’d mean to be ‘authentic,’ whether/how that was possible, pronouncing the word in Rota’s marvelous Italian accent (with hand gestures in the same accent), taking thinking seriously without taking ourselves that way…

One of the key concepts in the class was the hermeneutic circle, that conceptual movement between whole and part, theory and practice, class and instance, idea and example, form and body, fact and function, proposition and encounter — each ‘pole’ of the oscillation becomes in turn context for the other and vice unsurprisingly versa as a network of (hopefully) ever-clearer, ever-saner associations forms. The world is constructed by this back’n’forth, which isn’t meant as a sexual metaphor though I can’t stop you taking it that way (especially now).

The circle was a tool for imagining (encompassing) an experience of destabilizing incompleteness and contingency. At Deli Haus we’d linger until midnight or more trying to figure out how we were supposed to live, and while in retrospect the answer seems not just obvious but singable — ’round and round and round and round…’ — at the time I certainly wasn’t able to imagine that uncertain in-progress state as itself desirable, any more than I could imagine sexual pleasure in terms other than the orgasmic or conceive of a well-lived life that wasn’t in some material sense rewarded or acknowledged by…Someone.

‘That special someone,’ maybe. Someone qualified to judge, i.e. not me.


The first time I saw a therapist — possibly the very first session — he told me to make a schedule and carve out blocks of free time. ‘Oh, so when I’m working I’m really working,‘ I responded with certainty.

‘No,’ he responded with confidence. ‘So when you’re not working, you’re really not working.’

Years later I announced to him that people cry when they don’t know how to express what they’re really feeling, and he gently corrected me, saying that people cry because it perfectly expresses what they’re really feeling.

During another session he gave me a rubber band to wear on my wrist. ‘When you find yourself biting your nails, gently snap the band…’

‘…to punish myself so I stop doing it?’ I jumped in. Maybe you see a pattern forming here.

‘No.’ Again, confident: ‘There’s no need to hurt yourself. Gently snap the rubber band and focus your attention for a moment. If you still want to bite your nails at that point, you can go ahead. But after you snap the rubber band, the next thing you do, do it intentionally.’

That worked, and so naturally when the rubber band broke I could never find Just The Right Replacement so I demolished my fingernails — which were, at the time, the longest they’d ever been.

I want to say ‘They were never that long again, either’ — please think about the fact that I want to say that — but the deflating truth is, they actually have been. Once. At the outset of plague I managed to go a month or so without pulling or biting them. Didn’t use a rubber band either! Nosiree, I just… Well, I don’t know what I did.

I did something.

Here is what fucking galls me: fundamentally, now is no different from then. But it seems impossible, not just to get back to it, but even to imagine it. If you can’t simply will your desires into being, isn’t it the case that you can never attain them, and so you must be unhappy? Forced to collaborate with the actual universe, which is a losing proposition — it doesn’t wanna help and is full of idiots, many of them carbon based — how can we think of happiness as anything but an accident, how can we believe in a happy ending?

Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends.’

Dr Manhattan’s whole thing, after all, is that he’s free to exist outside of linear time, and everyone hates that it doesn’t make him happier (i.e. more willing to lie). ‘Time is an illusion, lunchtime doubly so,’ said someone equally wise. Dr Manhattan isn’t ‘happy’ because he’s moved on (not simply to say ‘up’) to the synthesis. Now he’s just real, a concept wholly alien to his superhero colleagues, including the mad ‘villain’ Ozymandias — who misunderstands a realness he might actually’ve been open to, if he’d wanted.

‘One measures a circle, beginning anywhere.’

We all read ‘Story of Your Life’ and watched Arrival and got it, right? Not just ‘noticed how clever Ted Chiang is’ but felt the loss/love story down deep?

The worst thing, I hear, is being stuck in the middle of things. I want to say otherwise but don’t trust my wanting. In the meantime — all time regresses to meantime — we can ask the cards.

Wicked pack of cards: Enlightenment I suppose.

‘It’s all about the journey, not the destination.’

But then of course a journey is defined by its destination, no? Its telic nature is what separates it from ‘going out for a walk.’

Meanwhile an errand is specifically going-and-coming: defined not by travel but by effort and action, the thing you’re traveling for. At the end of the errand you return home, having been changed by whatever you did, even if it was just mailing a check (lightening your load) or picking up groceries (feeding your head).

I’m an American, San Juan born. What we value most about home is that it’s always there for you, never changing. ‘Home is where the heart is’ and the heart shouldn’t have to keep up with the times.

Returning home at the end of an errand you’re supposed feel welcomed and comforted by familiarity (shared root with ‘family,’ duh). But that’s another word for ‘sameness.’ Predictability.

The Fool’s Errand is precisely about change: recurrent transformation.

The happy part is you get to go again, the sad thing is you have to go again, the funny bit is that you might realize along the way that you’ve been home the whole time — by which I mean not ‘you are at home’ but rather home is what you are. One way of understanding the Errand, it seems to me, is the project of recognizing simultaneously your smallness and your vastness: how far out you extend, how ordinary that is, how little of you is you, how much of you is everywhere and vice interpenetratively versa, how long-term irrelevant your current destination (shared root with ‘destiny,’ duh) is.

Plus anyway where you think you’re going is never where you’re going, which (by the way) is why ‘storytelling with dice’ isn’t an oxymoron.

‘By the way’ is an interesting little phrase. Means something like ‘just off the road,’ doesn’t it.

It testifies to, er, something or other that I didn’t understand what I suspect might be the central insight of the ‘wicked pack of cards’ essays — the Fool’s Errand doesn’t get you anywhere — until I was nearly finished with the series. (I’m still nearly finished, may remain so for years.) Indeed for much of these essays’ running time I’ve been under the opposite delusion, that the inquiry/engagement which the Errand symbolizes (is?) is a noisy line pointing toward…well, Enlightenment I suppose. Control, wisdom, mastery, emptiness, fullness, whatever.

I’ve long pronounced that ‘life is all middle’ and am slowly beginning to believe it. But to realize that this — meaning both (1) this project of turning playing cards into an allegorical narrative about psychotropism and nonseparateness and (2) the content of the narrative itself — is itself only middle, an endless sequence of intermediate stages, has been unexpectedly jarring. The fiction of, say, ‘mindfulness’ as a shortcut or even just a direct route to happiness, an end run around the suffering which human minds continually cogenerate, is so attractive — even though (even fleeting) mindful experience directly suggests the opposite! The Errand, which among other things allegorizes1 devotional/meditative practice, has something of a slingshot ending, as the Fool…

…begin[s] to move towards a goal which has been anticipated from the beginning. But they move out of frame, out of the end of the book, and the story closes as though before its proper ending… Though unexpecting readers might feel that the consequent affect is one of frustrating truncation, a discomfort at not being told what should be told for proper closure, a true slingshot ending should persuade them that a choice of conclusions has indeed been indicated –- and that their task (or joy) is to plunge head foremost towards a finish they will be glad to sanction. (Clute, SFE3)

We should name the upsetting structural irony at work here: the Fool’s joyful task, the eagerly anticipated goal, is to undertake a version of the same errand just ‘completed.’ You could read this recurrence as tragic or comic, though we should resist flight to genre-reduction here. Crucially, he’s now a different Fool. You can’t step in the same river twice, etc. The Errand — any errand — is the opportunity for, not the content of, a deep transformation.

Putting some of this another way: it’s an error to think that those two roads diverging in a wood made any more or less difference than the million others you didn’t write a poem about.2

‘I’ve long pronounced…and am slowly beginning to believe it.’ Ugh what a tiresome bore I am. But that too is a potentially useful irony, a chance at productive noticing: the Errand involves coming to understanding, changing your mind to accommodate a changing world, and that process is neither linear nor equal-tempered. When I was an undergrad, Professor Rota (RIP) taught our Heidegger class about the ‘hermeneutic circle,’ a cyclical movement of thought between class and instance, illustration and codification, abstraction and example — a concept neatly illustrated by the encounter/introspection/integration dialectic of the Fool’s Errand. This is healthy inner life per se: meeting the world on its terms, noticing and understanding our response (i.e. meeting ourself on its own terms), and integrating outer and inner circumstances into, if not a coherent idea exactly, then at least a view of things less dependent on inviolable borders between us and else, subject and object, chance and choice.

(Magic and divination can be thought of as embodied theory of the relationship between will and chance, and of our willed blindness toward that relationship. If the uncomfortable central truth of poker is that luck is how you live with chance, we’re free to identify that as a magical — which is maybe partly to say ‘probabilistic’? — insight. The world makes/is chance, but you make luck, and if one is eventual and one perceptual, they’re equally ‘real.’)

One measures a circle, beginning anywhere. And crucially deciding for oneself where to stop.

None of this is sophisticated. You’d have to be ‘educated stupid,’ in the words of Gene Ray, to think that’s an indicator of its value.

‘Don’t get drunk and slam the door, that’s no way to end this…’


  1. (‘can be said to allegorize’ or ‘means, roughly, in this private interpretive-story we’re telling,’ you get the idea I hope) 
  2. yes yes, the poem’s more complicated than its popular representation, don’t worry about it 

Wicked pack of cards: The Errand again, or Divination.

Bazille fortune teller 412px

What’s divination?

Looking inward to see outward.

One precondition for sane conversation is agreement that cartomancy doesn’t work in the following sense: you can’t look in the cards and see external events that will occur in future.

Divination used to be more intimate, indeed for many customers unrepresented in popular discourse I suspect it still is at some level: where an urban modern might visit a ‘fortune teller’ for a lark, or in a bout of post-breakup depression, a rural diviner (or one long ago, in tighter times) would have an ongoing relationship with her visitors, would be bound up more closely in the webs of relationships and chains of events which she’d then interpret partly from within in her reading. The ‘village wise woman’ was, in a sense, a gossip: a hub of local wisdom, i.e. inside knowledge.

Inside what, though?

Divination isn’t prediction, it’s interpretation.

I went to a wedding in Philly more than a decade ago and visited Harry’s Occult Shop. (It felt like going home.) The most striking thing about the other customers was that they all seemed to know the proprietors: there was a constant stream of relaxed conversation about crystals, feng shui, tarot… The term ‘community of seekers’ comes up from time to time in my writing, but like many Americans — not only my fellow ‘rootless cosmopolitans’ — I experience that mostly as a kind of felt relation to distant strangers.1 There in the store I saw the context in which ‘magic’ actually works: a genuine community within which shared knowledge and belief makes possible not only a sort of vivid collective imagination but a pragmatic pooling of ‘wisdom,’ i.e. what’s really up. In those days I imagine you could linger in Harry’s and learn a hell of a lot about a sort of invisible city with in the city…

I get some of that at Seven Stars in Cambridge, where I’ve spent happy hours browsing books and hearing stories and occasionally making pompous pronouncements. (Or just talking, when I’m able.) But there are levels and levels. If I needed to know whether my True Love intended to offer me his grandmother’s ring, what better way to find out than to ask the same old lady he came to for advice? Maybe she doesn’t say directly. Maybe only suggests, drops hints. Maybe it doesn’t matter which cards come up so long as we’re all clear on what we’re here for, what we want…

What’s divination? Looking around to see inward.

I wrote earlier that the Fool’s Errand allegorizes choice, by which I mean:

1-7 8-14 15-21
travel immersion integration
earthly inner cosmic
circumstance psyche universe
acknowledgment, resolution pursuance psalm
thesis antithesis synthesis
hectic apoplectic dialectic

Kidding about the last one.

You get the idea.

David Milch (citing William James, probably) speaks of finding a working method that reveals to you the true ‘categories of [your] imagination,’ while finding your way out of (citing Coleridge) ‘fanciful’ — purely private — networks of metaphoric association and into ‘imaginative’/universal/outward-going connection. You learn about the world beyond your skull so that you can go deep within yourself to write your way into a connection with something greater — which in turn leads you back to yourself, renewed, made strange but hospitable: authentic imaginative creation liberates you into the World. ‘Although of course you end up becoming yourself,’ as the other guy said…

Immersion in the world as it truly is opens up the possibility of immersion in the self bleached of its ego-attachments and vice versa, each Foolish recurrence bringing you again to the choice between attachment to familiar suffering or freedom into the unknown — which, to be clear, is almost certainly painful though that’s got nothing to do with suffering by necessity, as you can suffer while happy… Deep devotional work, whether creative or ‘magical’ or meditative or putting in the hours in woodshop or caring for a loved one in his extremity or worshipping or serving or praying or — but I keep repeating myself — such work may afford happiness but essentially offers clarity, clarification, which is a realignment of perception and reality (however we’re defining that at the moment). Authenticity is clarity and openness, which makes right action possible.

Boy had to get himself correct. (Lt. Daniels)

Devotional practice ‘slows’ awareness — allows things to register meaningfully by moving us out of fire-and-forget reactivity and into engagement with…well, anything really. ‘Devotion’ is humble agnosticism among other things. The ‘Errand’ presents stages or facets of magical (self-modifying intentional) practice as a kind of exhortation, a method of noticing: noticing ‘what comes up’ in the process of mindful introspection, not least. An experience subjected to this ‘magical’2 attention begins to ramify, to mean, and you either run with that meaning or not, learn from it or not, welcome and intensify the transformation it affords or not.

That clear apprehension of your present (‘present-moment awareness’) alters the way you conceive of — and so imagine, and so create, and so approach, and so experience — your future.

‘Magic’ is antirational social-psychotropic practice.

By this definition, of course, psychotherapy could reasonably be considered ‘magic’ — a sort of slow-motion divination, priest-initiate offering occult insight into the future by integrating the past into a present experienced with great (shitty, painful) clarity.

I’m comfortable with that.

Why bother with any of this?

Because the world is already full of dangerous horseshit presented as a cure for unhappiness when really it’s a ‘cure’ for choice. I’m 41 years old, I’m having a hard time during this plague just like you are, and the possibility of alternating consciousness as a way of reencountering this world-shitshow in sustainable joy is unquestionably, absolutely, worth the mild risk of sounding silly in a personal essay about — of all the inane things — tarot cards.

Really now. Even a 1% increase in the likelihood of soul-health3 is worth looking into.

I don’t read tarot cards, by the way. Are you kidding? I just dream about them in this form.

I wonder whether it works. I wonder how I’d know.

  1. Readers of my 33-1/3 book on Phish’s A Live One — and as a person of taste and enormous physical attractiveness, you should be one such reader if you aren’t already — will note that this has long been exactly my relationship to the Phish fan community, first via tape-trading by mail in the 90s, now through ‘social’ media. I should get out more. 
  2. It’s clear that I’m using the term ‘magical’ for reasons of utility rather than credulity, right? This writing only works on the assumption that magic is ‘cultural technology of survival’ rather than, say, spells that make things happen at a distance — though the latter is a potent metaphor for the former. 
  3. (i.e. the health of whatever ‘soul’ is a metaphor for) 

Wicked pack of cards: Well.

I remember I liked to [read] more than Amy did. I remember Amy liked to draw and play with things, and partially play with the phones. And I would much prefer being by myself with a book. And that Mom and Dad were basically, “Oh cool, look: David and Amy are different.” They were really ’60s parents, and I don’t think — there was if anything a conscious attempt to not give overt direction. Although of course you end up becoming yourself. (DFW)

You come out clearer than before, hopefully. Not ‘better’ though maybe better suited, so to speak. To the world, the World, and its difficulties. Hopefully the dog makes it as well.


I’m allergic to dogs and grew up with two of them, suffering the entire time from cough and watery eyes and runny/stuffed nose, just misery. My memory of childhood is that I was sick all the time though it can’t have been true, can it, because my memory of childhood is also that I was playing in the woods all the time.

When my son had his first asthma exacerbations I would cry hysterically without quite understanding why, and then the first time we took him to Children’s Hospital and he got his albuterol nebulizer I remembered, suddenly, that in addition to the inhaler I took in high school when exercising, as a kid I’d needed that same mask and medicine. Sitting alone in my room during, what, a party? for ten minutes or twenty with a mask over my face and warm mist condensing and dripping down the plastic tubing. Nothing to do but watch the drip and listen to the pump and smell the medicinal steam and think about lung-death.

I’d like to say that in the exam room at the Children’s Hospital ER I understood something about myself as a parent or my son as a kid or, indeed, anything about people at all but I probably didn’t — and even if I did, I’d only like to say it because that’s the sort of thing a Writer likes to Say in a personal Essay.

What I’d like not to say is that I yell at him more than I used to. But I do.


The Fool isn’t innocent before or after.

I had certain false impressions about this project.

I wouldn’t say the goal of the Fool’s Errand is ‘worldliness,’ though that’d be cute wouldn’t it. On account of The World being the literal destination of the procession of major arcana. I’d even settle for ‘otherworldliness,’ on account of I think I’m clever. Here look, I’ll throw in a quote to demonstrate:

‘Clever dick! Clever dick! Makes me sick…’ (DP)

Picture children taunting a child in the woods. Of course he ends up becoming a writer.

There’s no ‘destination’ either, except death, which symbolically is close to the middle. We’re permitted to take this to mean that it’s not such a big deal. Symbolically anyway.

You die from having too little of something, not too much. What. What’s the thing you run out of. This is an easy one. So how do you make more of it. How do you give more. What a blessing it’d be to receive more.

The Fool isn’t trying to return to innocence because he was never there. He’s in the middle of a curve. Walks around, feeds the dog, meets the boss, dies inside, gets a bit of sun. Although of course he ends up right back who he started.

MAL: Wheel never stops turning, Badger.
BADGER: That only matters to the people on the rim.

If the thunder don’t get you then… Mal gets it. Badger too, in his own little world.

One measures a life, starting anywhere.

Clever, huh?


Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Well, yes.


There’s just the one story, or so I am told: what you learn and what you fail to learn.


That doesn’t sound quite right, does it? ‘Learning and failing to learn’ shifts the emphasis from what’s in the sack to the adventure that brought you to it, though on the other hand nobody likes a gerund, am I right?

Every time my son needed a nebulizer I’d despair. The form of that despair was: this will happen again and again, it’ll never end, he’s cursed. We’re on a line and paradoxically we’ll keep coming back here (to suffering, to guilt, to the Emergency Room at Children’s Hospital) yet also we’ll never have the chance to do over again. The die is cast, we travel on a straight line. Idiot recurrence (‘foolishness’), powerless.

Meanwhile I didn’t myself need a nebulizer anymore. Hadn’t in years. Holding my son, listening to his laboured breathing clear up slowly, thinking: I change but everything else stays the same. Everything changes but I stay the same.

And I’d simply forgotten — failed to notice, remember, learn — that I’d needed it, so I couldn’t recognize that I was free of it. What I’d learned (internalized, somaticized) was: what’s sick in you will never be well, what’s fallen can never rise. Nothing ever fits.

If you sever the corpus callosum you might make two selves. (Or not, it’s only metaphysics, who gives a shit.)

The saddest part is, they’ll share a body but will never know each other.

Maybe despair is to be sundered from the world, divided against yourself, and its opposite is ‘more life.’


Whenever I wear a mask for a stretch I get a sore throat, raspy voice, a cough. Plaguetime. The mask protects me from one invisible death. My son pulls his mask off, wants to breathe clean air. I lose my temper and forget holding him while medicinal steam opened his lungs and kept him alive under dimmed lights in the exam room at night. I forget that the obstetric nurses had heard me whisper to my newborn son ‘You’re a beauty,’ the first words I spoke to him in quiet, just the two of us for a moment on the way to his first bath, and in a cooing simpering voice one of the nurses said ‘I think someone’s in love’ and anger flared in me and I hated her. Fucking idiot. Fuck you. You stupid piece of shit. Keep your idiocy to yourself. Don’t you understand that this is the blessing. Don’t say inane things when God is here. Of course this is love don’t you understand. It’s bigger than you and your stupid fucking simpering greeting card dipshit voice. I hate you. Why are you here when God is here. Why are you talking in this world we’re trying to make. Do you think your stupid joke matters more than me whispering to my boy. Are you surprised, bored, are you trying to lighten some heavy moment or share a professional moment with your coworker or what is the matter with you. I’m talking to my boy. I’ve heard him breathe and cry and he’s hearing my voice, this is the voice he’s going to hear inside him for the rest of his life at moments of pain or fear or when he abuses himself for unpreventable failures and I need to just talk quietly to him and be here inside a little world that someday I’ll ruin and be unable to make safe for him and I won’t always be here. I just want to tell him he’s a beauty. I want only to whisper and never to vent these feelings or to be ugly for him or to yell and scream or to endanger this perfect feeling in him. I want him to breathe easy. I wanna breathe easy. I shouldn’t ever yell. All of me is trying to be love, let me stay just here.

It was only a second, a fraction of a thought, but I wanted her away.

In the delivery room at midmorning I’d had a vision that every woman who’d ever lived was in the room with me and I felt surrounded and peaceful despite the hour and strain. 10,000 years and more. Billions of souls stretching away into time.

I don’t ‘believe in God’ but there we were. In that room all together past and present and future. Fool.

There’s a plague and he pulls his mask off and I lose my faith and forget, and instead of raising him I raise my voice. The voice he’ll hear forever.


Is this too ugly a thing to say.

Ugly I feel.

Wanting suddenly, sharply, to be other than as I am.

And able.

Maybe I’ll go for a walk. You are standing in a field west of a white house. Look over there, a cliff. Here boy. See what we see and mind your step.

Come back soon, we’ll be waiting. We love you.

I love you.

At last they rode over the downs and took the East Road, and then Merry and Pippin rode on to Buckland; and already they were singing again as they went. But Sam turned to Bywater, and so came back up the Hill as day was ending once more. And he went on, and there was yellow light, and fire within; and the evening meal was ready, and he was expected. And Rose drew him in, and set him in his chair, and put little Elanor upon his lap.

He drew a deep breath. ‘Well, I’m back,’ he said.