Sunday, July 20, 2014

Imaginary Friendship (For Nasir Jones)

Editorial Note: Imaginary Friends will not appear this week. Before going further with that project or Neurotropes, I need to clarify a little bit of the position I'm in as I write these things. Here's a missing section, a dedication poem and the seventh part of my Thoughts on Writing. I hope you like it.

Books built my vocabulary,
but gaps the between
your syllables
honed my flow.
Fuck Iggy Azalea.
This is what
her fans should know.

I wasn't ready when
I first heard you
pull a Descartes;
I'd missed Illmatic
and It Was Written
because my life
was falling apart,
but when I was alone
I'd steal your CD
out of my deadbeat
roommate's player
and hear your
declaration of being,
back to backing
I Am with Outkast's
Stankonia
and feeling the tension
in the difference
between kinds of
rhythms.

I knew you through
Tre's obsession
with The Blueprint,
but I couldn't begin
to sense the importance
of the fact that
while I was listening
to the Dead Prez set,
he was only interested
in what you said
'cuz you had beef brewing.

I knew he wouldn't be
looking
for the missing disc
because it happened
to be older than
106th & Park's
weekly top vids,
and it didn't have you
calling Jay's name on it.

I won't pretend
that I don't like Jay-Z's
first architecture,
and I got the Black
Album on wax,
but the fact is
that that's it.

And at the age his career is?
That's like a one hot record
every ten year average.
I got my reasonable doubts
about anyone whose lyrics are only
about money,
making it,
and being mad at the work
that someone else did.

In fact, lyrically
I did not even know
Talib Kweli,
but Jay-Z's diss got me
listening,
and then I developed a sense
for Common Sense,
and it seemed like Chicago had beats
like New York had in the nineties,
only not the same sound,
just the same quality.

Like Water for Chocolate
opened up for me
because of Jay-Z's words
and your help developing
a sensibility.

That and the love
of my best friend
also let Jill Scott in.

I found all that
by figuring out Jay-Z
only dissed out of envy,
so his targeting you
during your troubles,
at least gave credibility
to the idea that each
of his dismissals
was a reference
to some shit I should be
listening in on.

Imagine my surprise,
followed by the laughter in my eyes
when you got him out of Linkin Park,
talking truth about being a Black Republican,
and then ended the feud once and for all
by reminding everyone about the monotony
of listening to a businessman
bragging about money.

Even if that song was a work
I got a real thrill
out of you showing us Jay-Z's heel.

But also imagine the frustration
I felt over Graduation.

It winning a Grammy
was only a travesty
because of the album it beat,
but it was still a real blow to me.
It made it difficult for me
to embrace Kanye
until I heard Black Skinhead
sounding like a marriage
between you and Marilyn Manson.

Then I realized that even if he beat you,
he still knew who to pay attention to
if he wanted to keep the tap open
and flow truth.

Hip Hop is Dead is a master work,
and any southern rappers
who didn't recognize
the call to action had to be
overcompensating
for shit they said
that they know shouldn't have happened,
because it's not like
you originated the sentiment.
Andre 3000 had already said it,
and when Big Boi got
temperamental
about your album,
I noticed Dre stayed awfully quiet.

Looking past the moment it responded to,
I'd like to think it's got a deeper lesson
that kids should appreciate too,
so I load my own extended clip
and play it for my cousins, calling attention
to the first time you reference it
and the different phrasing
to point out that you're not
about to start shooting
'cuz the clip goes in a deck,
and speaking until you own the beat
is how a DJ gets wrecked.

And from there we talk about how
musical samples and history
coated with pastiche
creates holographic imagery
of a culture
that kids who weren't living yet
need to be in touch with.

That starts a conversation
about generational duty
and the fact that cultures only die
when they're either
colonized by outsiders
or when the rift between
mentor and mentee
is about power
and not artistic development.

Thanks to your eighth album
being a textbook, a handbook,
and a check list,
I don't think there's an excuse
for any younger musicians
not to have a sense of what
came before them,
and I recommend you
to all of my friends
who don't know more than
the beats on Top 40
and the performers
who speak weak
simple rhythms
over them.

You were my point of access
for a world that was able
to string together syllables,
covering over the same kind of hole
in the throat that drove
my frustration
and kept me from speaking
the way that I wrote.

Multidimensional
references
to shared experience
was how I thought,
and until I encountered hip hop,
I didn't know
that it was how
a whole culture held conversations.

I was stuck at Tanagra
with Star Trek conventions
when my head was opened
and Big Daddy Kane was shoved in,
and then I understood
what Eminem was stealing
and the things that would be necessary
before my own efforts started to succeed.

I really appreciated you turning Will.i.am
into Well.i.did, and it made me take
The Black Eyed Peas
just a little more seriously.

After I got older and finished my degree,
I went back to Illmatic and got myself a schooling,
and even though grad school taught me to script,
It Was Written was how I learned about dramatic writing.

You gave me power,
and lessons from a Firm hand
that showed that
if Foxy was alive
I needed to pay attention
more than I had been.

If you didn't call Jay-Z a homo,
I'd think your words
were letter perfect,
but my queerness gets agitated
every time I hear that.
It's a rotten spot, and
this is coming from a fan
who even jams to your bricks.
I can hack Nastradamus,
but I can't tolerate
that homophobic shit.

Still, you were the best friend
I ever met in music.

When Marilyn Manson
was on the High End of Low,
your references to people I should know
put me off that and into
The Low End Theory
and from there it was only a short distance
before I could sense the 7th Chamber,
and another year before I entered it.

Now I shift back and forth between
old rock, the Black Label Society,
Strange Famous (especially Sage Francis),
and the people you brought with
when you waltzed into my life
and gave me something to do during
my longest internship,
when I had to learn about unemployment.

In fact, you might even be
the reason
the unemployment ended,
since unlocking this ability to hear
musicality before worrying
about meaning
is how I developed
a coping mechanism
that allowed me to speak
in front of a classroom.

It turned me from a television addicted kid
into a storyteller who conceives of lyrics
as verbal paintings.

I wasn't a working writer
until I was working on understanding
the thing that pulled me out
of my own experience
and demanded that my attention
turn itself to your stories.
I learned to look past the things
I was taught to see,
and to hear meaning in everything.

Nas albums are gospels,
and even if you can be a little homophobic,
at least you're not a misogynist,
and I probably wouldn't know
Queer artists like Angel Haze
if I hadn't started at your shit.

Before she ever said it,
I already knew I was Dirty Gold
from the way my self-esteem was rebuilt
from my interaction with interpreting
your coded messages,
and I still can't believe
they ever questioned your intelligence.

Still, I'm feeling what it's like
to have a life
where everyone does it.

I've heard interviews with Kanye West
where he stops playing at being
an entertaining guest and starts
to get his creative process off his chest.
He says that he sees colors
when he's composing,
talking about beats like they're flashing.

I'm synesthetic like that too,
only more tactile,
and when I hear your verse,
it's not flashing colors I see,
it's a gallery hanging only Dali
and a sense that
The Persistence of Memory
is a fractal object that
a certain type of artist
can't stop himself from re-creating,
and I want to do that too,
so I start trying to devise
these Tesseract Tracts,
studying Ghetto Rainbows
alongside you, seeking
images of other dimensions
and illuminating points of intersection
where I can catch glimpses of
the things I can never know directly.

You taught an ignorant kid
raised in the grip
of suburban white
supremacists
to sense the place
where hip hop lives,
and I'm never forgetting it,
and I won't deny I sometimes
borrow a cadence
but I respect you too much
to take vocabulary I shouldn't
or to fake an accent I didn't get
through natural exposure to the sounds
of the new family I entered
after being liberated
from the one where I began.

Sometimes I sound southern now,
but not dirty south,
and I know
what words do and don't
belong in my mouth,
and I can finally control
how they come out.

Your example taught me
to channel my Autisticness
out of frustration
and into this productive shit
and the only problem I've got now
is I can't stop talking
until I get too tired
and collapse from it.

You made me too happy,
and now I'm burning my candle at both ends,
making neurologically inspired
rhetorical performance theory
and an Imaginary Friend story
collide and cause a Big Bang.

This is how new universes get born,
and in a couple billion years,
when all of this happens again,
we'll laugh and watch from outside
while they live their lives
without realizing that they're just holograms
and that higher dimensions are projections
of master artists describing the interaction
of small particles, like quiet lives
lived without access to basic resources.

Then one of them will hack a tesseract track,
and it will begin again.

It Was Written.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

American Pickers (A Poem)

Editor's Note: This might be satire. 
Any resemblance to any people, 
living or dead,
should probably be taken 
as a sign 
of intentional disrespect.

I.

“American Picker”
you call me
when you dial
in to
digest
the remnants
of your own sense
of your last
half century,
trusting
your nostalgia
to a network
that calls work-based
reality T.V.
History.

II.

Still, you have to know those bastards
are nothing but actors.
Their sales might be real
but the patter is a matter
of performance
and hours of practice.
They run a brick and mortar store
without knowing brick or mortar,
roofing,
factory temp gigs,
timber contracts
or desperate acts,
so they don't know what it is
to live off a story and a worry.
They call this thing a game,
and making them overpay
is the only way we feed
everyone who shares our names.

I.

I got past that
and bought
forty acres
accessible only
by two tracks.
We got our
own lake and
no neighbors,
just hectares
of oaks packed
against any
prying eyes
that might want
to shrink my
business
by getting
themselves
a free supply.

No cellphone
reception though.
We gotta get
around that.

I got a
satellite
dish for the
internet,
so I can
check out
information
on the
reptilians,
and the
NSA's
fanfics
about its own
abilities.

II.

I hope you feel a shiver
when we're at the same function
and I walk up on you wearing
my twenty-year-old Rustlers.
You don't know what to make of 'em,
you assume they're couture
because
you never heard
of 'em, and you wonder
where they came from,
me being just an old fart.
I forget you weren't even sixteen
when the last K-mart
went bankrupt in these parts.

I go get emotional at estate sales,
looking real pale and
staggering, hand-over-my-heart
to buy things to remember
my dear friends who aren't
there to argue about the veracity
of my performance
or my choice of part.

I'm selling my picks to you later,
and at a markup,
after the sale ends and I realize
“my dining room won't fit a table
with these dimensions!”

And you fall for it over and over again,
because the television
has you looking for store owners.
You haven't caught on
that they say home, have you?

I.

This is a game
where if you
outbid me,
I might follow
you home
to know your
community,
then come back
at night
with two friends
and steal the
aluminum
bleachers
off every
outdoor
facility.

You want to
take my
inventory?
I'll take the seat
out from under
everyone
in your whole
town,
then drive 'round
with my new haul
for a week
and sell
a little piece
to every
metal dealer
in the
vicinity.

II.

You're kidding me.
You think they don't already
have a security camera pointed
at every piece of public metal
that can be approached by
a pickup truck at night?
You made sure to come to
my community, right?
The tactics that you practice
are my daily fight for life
and I don't have a family savings
or marriage money from my wife.

This ain't an operation, it's my existence, right?
You can't just fight
as if anything you do is something I can come through.
Don't you have any idea about people who
didn't grow up with the resources you are accustomed to?

You want to pick a fight for sport, fuck you.
Everything I do is a fight for survival.
You want to wax philosophical about
taking turns winning,
turn our business into a work,
and lock down auctions,
only to cut me in for a fraction
of the action
I could have on my own?
You might have the bucks to succeed,
but I'll take a shit on your throne.

I.

In the middle
of my forest
is my
production
floor—four
acres of hearty
Afghani,
bred for
the outdoors.

It came back
with me
after my
last tour.

These days, I
feel bad for
the bastards
who can't catch on
or whose
personal chances
put them in
unfortunate
circumstances.

I'm branching out,
employing
as many as
I can now,
but there's always
gonna be more
hungry mouths,
and hungry mouths
seem only to have me
to jaw around.

It's gotten
so I have
to support
open carry,
but only
because
my business
would be
impossible
without a
shotgun,
and I need
them deregulated
so no
searches
turn up my weed
just because
cops see me
packing.

But guns bring
gun things, and
gun things bring
lucky chances
and freak
happenings,
changing games
and making me
ever more
aggressive.

I might need
to pull out,
go back to
picking
estate sales,
and let
the market
cool down.

II.

People, we need to pass open carry
to protect all this inventory,
because at this point,
antiques are just a front
for selling Kush at cash-only
venues across the county.

I spend every day
taking tourists for their wallets
on living room pieces
while handing out
eighty dollar quarters
to everyone who can spot
what my hustle is.

Can you give me a break, please?
Legalize my subsistence
just a little bit?
And it wouldn't hurt if the law came
with no grandfather clauses,
secret license bids,
or any other bullshit in it.

Oh, and please throw in some
antitrust protections
so that I can grow this
in my backyard
and put this bastard
out of business.

After all, I'm not the only one who benefits;
I couldn't be selling this shit
if all of you weren't buying it,
and if I could I'd work a living wage
doing nothing but this.

It's a win-win.

I.

I don't need
your attitude
fucking up my
business.
And what the
fuck is this?
You want to
“legalize it?”
Are you
trying to
fuck with my
entire life?

Wait. This is
about the
bleachers, right?

So you're going
to regulate
me right into
a corner
by undoing
the criminal
law and
turning my
grift
corporate?

And you can't see
how that affects
your ability
to achieve
what I've done?

Hello?
I'm still
talking...

Way to go,

wait...

leave the
lights on...

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Chapter Six: Grandpa Harry Goes to the Twilight Zone (Imaginary Friends)

Imaginary Friends is a serial novel. New chapters go up every Friday. If you're new to it, you can catch up by starting from the Introduction.

If you're impatient to read more about Clay Dillon, click on "Books" above for ordering information for Nothing is Right, the prequel to this story.

Normally, Clay liked to spend time at Grandpa Harry's house more than he liked being at home. Not only did Grandpa Harry refuse to yell at him, he actually congratulated Clay whenever Clay disappeared into a quiet room to read. Sometimes he asked Clay what his books were about, but he never asked Clay what they meant. He never demanded that Clay explain why he would want to read a book, either.

Grandpa Harry understood things, and Clay understood that the reasons he understood things were the same as the reasons why he was frightening. Reasons like the crazy house.

Clay did not care, though, because when he was with Grandpa Harry he knew that the crazy house was not a punishment for anything you did, it was a punishment for who you were. At home with his parents, he feared his father's threats and his mother's condemnation. Here, seeing that Grandpa Harry was home and happy and no one was making him go back there, Clay understood that the crazy house would either happen or it would not.

Either way, there would be life after. Grandpa Harry proved it was so.

This made Clay feel safe, and Grandpa Harry's gentle encouragement made him feel welcome. Usually, his aunts and uncles that still lived at home also made him feel welcome. Not today, though.

Today, Clay's youngest aunt (Marci) was torturing him with the television. It was bad enough that she came home and took the remote control off the table and started randomly changing channels in the middle of Clay's show. He accepted that as a natural part of the world. Between the fact that he liked to play with toys while he watched television and the fact that sometimes he had to look out the window to understand what the characters on the shows were talking about, he knew that people would assume he was not paying attention to what was on the screen.

What bothered Clay was that when Marci stepped on his fun today, she kept trying to watch things that he was not allowed to watch, like MTV. When Clay protested, she would change the channel over to something boring and stupid, like Sally Jessy Raphael. Invariably, Sally Jessy (who looked an awful lot like Grandma Doris and wore the same kind of glasses) would start talking about cheating husbands or pregnant teenagers, and then Clay would have to yell at aunt Marci because his parents thought sex stuff should not be on television.

It had been happening all day.

Clay had not only been through this with Sally Jessy, but with Donahue (whose show Kitty Dillon liked, just not when her son was around), Geraldo, and Days of Our Lives. Clay knew that Marci knew what he was and was not supposed to watch, and he was starting to suspect that she was only doing what she was doing to try to make him stop watching television.

There was no way that he was going to let that work. He knew from reading Ender's Game and the books of Maccabees that he had to strike quickly when his aunt was not looking, and that whatever he did had to end with her not wanting to be in the room any more. Clay felt his body turning to metal as he visualized his plan. Normally, he did not like to antagonize aunt Marci because she always played with him, even when her friends were around. She was also the only other person in the family who understood Grandpa Harry. Still, she would not stop messing up the television, and that had to be addressed.

There were no other kids on the street that were Clay's age and he had already finished reading the book he brought with him, so if aunt Marci chased him away from the television set he would have nothing to do except read the encyclopedia. Clay had already read the encyclopedia twice.

At least, he had read the Childcraft books. He had no interest in the thicker, darker World Book Encyclopedia set that his grandfather liked to casually thumb through in the evenings. Its articles were boring, and most of them were about things that Clay did not care about, like types of ocean barges and exotic kinds of musical instruments. He did not feel like reading the Childcraft books today, however. Today, he felt like watching Nickelodeon, because they played several hours of Danger Mouse and Count Duckula back-to-back, and when Nickelodeon stopped being good, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles would be on Fox. He did not have the patience for Marci's music videos and grossout talk shows.

Besides, she had a driver's license. She could leave and do things in the world if she got bored. Clay was stuck in the house.

Eventually, Clay saw how he was going to get the television back.

He waited until Grandpa Harry came upstairs from his home office to get a glass of soda. While his grandfather was within earshot, Clay said, “What kind of shirt is Madonna wearing here?” as loud as he could.

In the video Marci was watching, Madonna was not wearing a shirt. She was wearing some kind of black nightie or underwear, and she was dancing for people who were watching her from inside glass booths. Clay did not know what that was all about, but he knew that Grandpa Harry did not like his kids watching videos of people in their underwear.

Sure enough, Grandpa Harry came out of the kitchen and into the living room to see what Madonna was, in fact, wearing.

“Aw, kids, come on,” he said. “We don't need to have this on. Marci, you know better.”

“I have this album upstairs,” she replied. “You bought it for me.”

“Go play it then,” Grandpa Harry said. “We already talked about what this is. You shouldn't have done this.”

“She's going to make him weird,” Marci shot back.

“She's already made him,” Grandpa Harry said, “and it's all of our jobs to help him out. Right, Clay?”

Clay looked his grandfather square in the forehead and nodded.

“It's okay if she doesn't want to watch Nickelodeon with me, but she shouldn't be watching things that I'm not supposed to watch,” he said.

“I'm on lunch break anyway,” Grandpa Harry said. “Why don't we all watch something together? They usually rerun The Twilight Zone about now.”

Marci made an “ugh” noise, but Clay smiled. He did not always understand The Twilight Zone, but it always entertained him. The people on that show saw frightening things that the rest of their friends and families could not understand. It felt like the kind of show that might teach him something.

Grandpa Harry took the remote from aunt Marci and changed the channel over to WGN. Sure enough, the opening theme to The Twilight Zone was just starting.

Clay wondered if Grandpa Harry had not actually been coming upstairs to take over the television anyway. Maybe his comment had just given his grandfather an opportunity. He wished he had some way of knowing for sure if that was true. Should he assume Grandpa Harry meant to do that no matter what, and that he had just helped it along? Or was Clay discovering some kind of magic super-ability like Ender's strategic mind?

He was already able to beat his own father at chess, after all.

“Clay, aren't you going to watch TV with me?”

Grandpa Harry's voice broke into Clay's stream of thought, shattering the imaginary vision of Mark Dillon crouched over a chessboard, sweating over whether or not to tip his king on its side.

“Clay. Let's have a seat on the couch. Do you want a sandwich?”

Grandpa Harry was looking right at him.

“No,” Clay said. “Let's just watch the TV.”

He climbed up onto the sofa next to his grandfather and watched as the episode opened up. It was in color, so Clay knew that it was the new version, not the one that they played at four in the morning on Nick at Night.

He was glad for that. The old episodes were okay, but they were boring compared to the new ones with their special effects and puppetry. The new episodes were like Beetlejuice, except that Mark Dillon did not get mad when he caught Clay watching them.

He let himself be pulled into the show. It did not happen often for him, not like it did for most of the rest of the family, but when it did happen, Clay forgot that he had a body and he floated along like God in the television, watching and judging the affairs of the mortals who could not sense his entrance into their domain.

Today's episode was about a father and son who moved to a cabin in the woods. Shortly after they moved in, the little boy (Jeff) started seeing another boy in the woods. Eventually, they met and became friends. The twist was that the boy from the woods had originally been the imaginary friend of Jeff''s father, back when Jeff's father was a child. When Jeff's father realized this, he confronted the boy from the woods and told him to leave Jeff alone, and that's when it was revealed that the boy from the woods was actually some kind of alien or angel or something else that just looked like a white light.

“That was stupid,” Clay said at the end.

“Just because you didn't like it, that doesn't mean it was stupid,” Grandpa Harry said. “It just means you didn't like it.”

“But imaginary friends are stupid,” Clay said. “Everyone likes to pretend that they're real and that lots of kids have them, but they're not. I've never known anyone who had an imaginary friend. It's just like Santa. Everyone likes to pretend that little kids believe in Santa, but we don't. We say we do because we know how the system works, but we don't really believe. Maybe some toddlers do. The rest of us don't.”

“Well,” Grandpa Harry said, “the rest of your friends don't. You don't know how other kids are. You don't even know all the other kids in your class.”

“No, but I know that they aren't stupid,” Clay said. “Quit being condescending about this.”

“Can you tell me what the word condescending means?” Grandpa Harry asked.

Clay scowled at him and glared. When he realized that Grandpa Harry had not just told a sophisticated joke, he opened his mouth to reply …

… and found that he had no words. He knew what he was looking for, because he had heard the word a lot and he had managed to figure out what people did that got them called condescending, but it was not a thing he had words for. Still, if he did not say something, then Grandpa Harry was going to keep being condescending until he did.

Clay decided that if he could not find the words for a definition, he would point to an example instead.

“It means the way my dad treats my mom whenever the long distance bill comes,” Clay said.

Grandpa Harry laughed. Then he reached over and swatted Clay on the knee.

“Okay, kid,” he said. “You know what it means.”

“I didn't like the episode,” Clay said.

“Okay,” Grandpa Harry said. “But you do like Calvin and Hobbes, and that's about a boy with an imaginary friend.”

Clay shook his head. He wanted to yell at Grandpa Harry, but he knew that it would be wrong.

“What?" Grandpa Harry asked. Then he elaborated. "Calvin imagines Hobbes is talking to him and you're old enough to know that he really isn't. It's just Calvin's imagination. Heck, the cartoon shows it. No wonder your generation doesn't believe in Santa Claus.”

It was not the same. Clay knew it was not the same, but he could not make himself say why, so he did not let himself say anything.

Grandpa Harry looked at him out of the side of his face.

“Well?” he asked.

Finally, Clay found the words to say, “But Hobbes is real. Calvin might be imagining all the personality stuff and talking to himself, but he really does have a stuffed tiger. He's not just imagining the stuffed animal. He's only imagining the part where the animal talks. That makes it okay.”

Grandpa Harry grinned. “Oh that makes it okay, does it? I'll make sure to tell my doctor.” Then he got up from the couch and went back downstairs to his office.

Clay wondered if Grandpa Harry had just been trying to joke with him, or if something else had happened. He was very confused. He was even confused about why he was confused.

He knew he was right, though. People who had imaginary friends could not be real. Pretending that the thin air was some kind of intelligence was too silly a game for there to really be people that spent their lives playing it.

Right?

Next Friday: Decades of Patience

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