It is early August of the drought year. Friday. Dusk. We drive north through a landscape of spinning windmills and dying corn, rest-stop restroom stall interiors slathered with obscenities, black bands of asphalt, interstates & exits joining and disjointing through the plains stippled with gas-stations and McDonald’s, all roads reeling towards the extinct steel town just northwest of the beach. We arrive at the cottage in the last slivers of twilight. The next morning we’re at the beach. And the next.
Along Lake Michigan’s shoreline, from the pier past Stop 38 to the nuclear power plant where the Highest Sand Dune once stood, seagulls are omnipresent and omniscient. You may not see them, but they see you. The seagulls are manufactured somewhere down the shoreline among the hive of smokestacks even beyond the nuclear power plant. The factory that gave birth to them has been decommissioned, but somewhere in their cries–each of which singly sound like a hotel door lock beeping when their card reader recognizes the magnetic strip of its key-mate–there is the memory of the dark mouth at the end of the assembly line, from which they emerged out of cooling chambers and broke their molds, fully formed, and flying out of the open window, with its glass broken out, and the end of the long, high warehouse wall. The shaft of sunlight which shone diagonally from the window to a certain patch on the concrete floor, they followed up and flew out.
In the time when glass insulators were necessary to sheathe various connective passages along the telegraph and electrical lines which were extending out across the country the sand–which piled hundreds of feet in the air to compose the tallest dune down the beach–was taken away in train loads. By 1920 the ground was flush with sea-level and the rails would be torn up and recycled into guns during the second World War. The great sand mound’s absence is the shape of a million inwardly lit chambers scattered across the branching railroads of darkness. Many years later they built the nuclear power plant and the seagull factory, and gradually the town down the shore from them grew from shotgun shacks and small cottages to tidily luxuriant beach homes with multiple levels and architectural embellishments of all kinds as Chicago Commodities Traders suffused the area with their money and their ambitious renovation projects. Property values rose. Seagull production was outsourced to somewhere in India.
Sunday: spend the hours after dawn and before the other’s inside the cottage wake up lying on a cot in the fan’s stream in my guest room above the garage, reading a book and basking in the cool airflow which soothes the skin of my sunburnt back.
This is what it says in my book, translated from the French:
The more our daily life appears standardized, stereotyped, and subject to an accelerated reproduction of objects of consumption, the more [an aesthetic ecology] must be injected into it [or built around it] in order to extract from it that little difference which plays simultaneously between other levels of repetition, and even in order to make the two extremes resonate—namely, the habitual series of consumption and the instinctual series of destruction and death.
Difference and repetition: I think of the seagulls’ million winters, all their dead bodies–a billion dead seagull bodies–decomposing in cocoons of frost, under crusts of snow, falling apart in spring rains. The mindless incantation of seagull bodies across thousands of generations scanning the water for fish, scanning the beach for discarded hot dog buns, french fries. Were they here when the first foundations of what became Chicago were laid? Before the steel-forging furnaces were set up in Gary? Were they waiting for us? Or did they follow along the Eerie Canal and through the eyelets of other lakes to follow us here from New York City? The hundred million year arc across which their wrists and fingers distended into wings. Why/how did they want to stay alive so badly that their bodies became warped in this way? Why did any of us? We are informed that it must have something to do with the sex drive, and doubtless there is some truth to this. But what if it’s the other way around?
Saturday afternoon a storm came blowing in from the Northwest, passing over Chicago’s skyline before it reached us. When the cloud’s threaten we pull the Sunfish to shore and break it down. Drop the boom, yank the mast out of the hull, roll and tie the sail, pull the rudder and stash it in the hull’s hollow. We pull the hull along the water until we are perpendicular with our parking place up the beach and we drag it up across the sand until its nose is parked against the dune-grass.
The dune-grass is littered with the skeletons of aquamarine life-forms, dropped there by the gulls, gutted and flensed of flesh. I remember walking through the dune-grass with little Madeline one day looking for skeletons with her at her behest and she turned to me and exclaimed, laughing gleefully and a little insanely in a swirl of toddler-frenzy, “If we stayed here long enough we’d be skeletons too?” When we laughed too, her laughter became even more maniacal, turning into something more like screaming. Her hair, in the morning, shining with an almost inhuman golden luminosity. It sometimes looks actually metallic. We were pretending to be archaeologists.
It would be nice to own a catamaran, wouldn’t it? Yes, nice. Always, always: these stalemated stagnant conversations with my selfishness which is practically otherbodied and lodged in my medulla oblongata. Like a creature all its own, amphibious, spiny, milky-eyed like a cave-fish, many-mouthed, its cartilaginous fingers finned, spread taut & hideously stretching out into my tender places like razor-boned crests of cancer. Martin Luther throwing his own shit against the wall, digging in his own feces and throwing them against the stones of his cell wall. He is alone in his closet with the devil. There is no one there, no one talking back to his taunts and declamations.
Cell’s are called by that name because of their resemblance to monk’s cells. Robert Hooke first made the analogy in his Micrographia, implying that the body was like a huge hive of monk’s cells, a big flesh abbey.
Christen, the eldest sister, is pregnant with 3rd child. We are all expecting a girl–they emerge the one from the other like Matryoshka in this family. In the hammock with her cherubic, blonde daughters Saturday afternoon before the storm, I told them fairy tales; found myself unable to summon a single fairy tale to mind whose plot was not essentially contingent upon infanticide, matricide, multiple beheadings, cannibalism or some combination of these.
What the King says not to do under any circumstances works like a negative prophecy–it will come to pass unfailingly. Elderly unwed women live in gingerbread houses. They have red eyes & can’t see very well but they have noses like the beasts & can smell children coming. The world is the Black Forest and usually when we look into the lives of the peasants living there we find them starving–at least at first. The children whose breadcrumbs we follow are often decoys, contrived as surrogates for post-natal abortions or sometimes children lost to some other form of infant & early childhood mortality. They are sent out into the woods in paper dresses in the winter time. Their clothing is torn off by briars. They are led into the woods & left there. Though occasionally appearing as a King, a Fisherman or a Tailor, it seems that the Father is almost always a Woodcutter. His task is to destroy the Black Forest and to commodify it. Hence the Lost World quality of fairy tales–although inside of the narrative frame the Black Forest remains indestructible.
Sat baffled in a cafe in town Saturday morning with the Sisyphean task of writing a speech about “myself” for Toastmasters on Tuesday. What does that even mean? What on earth is designated by that word? Specifically the assigned theme is self-expression. Express what? Trying to figure out how to say what I felt I cracked Marx for the first time in years and fell in love all over again.
The subject of our discussion is, first of all, material production. Individuals producing in society, thus the socially determined production of individuals, naturally constitutes the starting point. The individual and isolated hunter or fisher who forms the starting point for Smith and Ricardo belongs to the insipid illusions of the 18th century. They are ludicrous Robinson Crusoe stories… They are no more based on such a naturalism than is Rousseau’s social contract which makes naturally independent individuals come in contact and have mutual intercourse by contract… They are [a] fiction. They are an anticipation of a phenomena which only appears in the Civil Society which evolved from the 16th century to the 18th…
In this society of free competition the individual appears free from the bonds of nature etc. which in former times made him part of a definite and limited human conglomeration.
The farther back we go in history, the more the individual and, therefore, the producing individual seems to depend on and belong to a larger whole: at first it is, quite naturally, the family and the clan, which is but an enlarged family; later on, it is the community growing up in its different foams out of the civil society that the different forms of social union confront the individual as a mere means to his private ends, as an external necessity. But the period in which this standpoint–that of the isolated individual–became prevalent is the very one in which the [interconnectivity and interpenetration] of social relations within society are reaching their highest state of development. Man is in the most literal sense of the word a social animal, and not only a social animal but an animal which can develop into an individual only in society. Production by isolated individuals outside society… is as great an absurdity as the idea of the development of language without individuals living together and talking to one another.
Difference and repetition: the seagulls thread through each other in long loose arabesques all along the assembly line of time leaving a trail of bird skeletons and flensed fishbones behind them. We sit under the grid of interstices on the beach.
Sunday morning the wind is hard, and the waves are high. If I stand up, where I am standing in the trough of the wave perhaps 100 feet from where the water falls away from the beach, the water is up to my knees, but at the crest of the wave rolling towards me it is perhaps 12 feet high. I bow down, palms against the sandy bottom, and it rolls over me, pulling my legs out from under me so my ankles feel the slap of its passing. On my knees I open my eyes, and then dive into the fat bottom of the wave to avoid taking the hit. I am following L. further out. I see her catch a wave. I’m not able to catch a wave all day (this is my first time, and my performance in sports that require hyper-attentiveness and coordination is universally poor). A few times, I jump up into a big one just about to break and I feel the hard pull that’s supposed to send me out gliding, but I hit the bottom hard and I’m tumbled in a vortex. I consider that if I were to involuntarily have the wind knocked out of me during these tumbles when I’m spun around on the bottom I might inhale water. If I were to inhale water, I may very well be drown. In which case–it is worth remarking upon though almost impossible for me to conceive of–I would be dead. There is no question of maintaining any kind of illusion of autonomy in the water on a day like this. Your naked contingency is served up to your perceptions raw in relentless, crashing lucidity. I could die at any moment. You could die at any moment. And yet.
Breton: Everything tends to make us believe that there exists a certain point of the mind at which life and death, the real and the imagined, past and future, the communicable and the incommunicable, high and low, cease to be perceived as contradictions.
I bow down, knees and palms dug into the sand below the water’s surface and I’m pulled loose as the wave rolls over. And again. And again.