06. Only Other Clocks

June 2020

Time no longer exists, clocks only measure other clocks, and suddenly it’s high summer. June began with the smell of fresh plywood as retailers boarded up their stores amidst demands for justice. Now these energies commingle with people dining in parking spaces and getting haircuts in the street.

When the protests began, there were evenings when we gathered around the mayor’s mansion and quietly sat in the street for thirty minutes. The silence was stunning. It had presence and weight that almost muted the birds and the steady beat of choppers in the sky. A better world felt very possible if hundreds of strangers could agree to sit on the asphalt in silent contemplation, all these bodies driven by a shared impulse, both disciplined and limbic. For a moment I thought I understood the compassionate silence described by spiritualized leaders, and I’d like to square my life with these instructions from Thích Nhất Hạnh: “Vow to work for reconciliation by the most silent and unpretentious means possible.”

Then a small thing occurred. It was such a minor incursion in the scheme of racist bloodshed and berserk police that I hesitate to write it down. But I think it’s worth noting as a possible sign of things to come: the silent vigil was pierced by the dial-tone drone of an emergency alert on our telephones. We opened our eyes and riffled through our pockets, fumbling for the mute button and shaking our heads at the message on our screens: Citywide curfew in effect at 8pm. No traffic allowed in Manhattan south of 96th Street.

The timing felt like a taunt: democracy colliding with authority, the spiritual scraping against the technological.

The other day I came across Tolstoy’s three questions, and they feel especially pressing in these disorienting days:

What is the best time to do each thing?
Who should receive my attention?
What is the most important thing to do at all times?

Tolstoy examines these questions through a parable about a curious emperor who believes finding the answers will solve all his problems. His advisors develop elaborate schedules and routines. They debate the merits of science, art, and faith. After a bit of deception, gardening, and bleeding, the emperor eventually discovers the answer is whatever is happening at the moment.

I’ve been thinking a lot about presence lately—whether maintaining some degree of control over my attention will ever arrive naturally, or if it must always be hunted, tended, and guarded.

I admire C’s life choices, her decision to focus on the tactile and textured rather than pushing a cursor around the screen. Her willingness to make a mess. She lives among pots of ink, brushes, wax, and specialty papers. And she’s learning to do fantastic things to a canvas.

Watching her work last week, I burned with dumb envy for a moment, thinking an analog life is impossible for writing. Then I remembered the obvious and powered down my screens. I picked up a pen and began to write the next scene in my book. And I was reminded that I think better without the screen tugging at my thoughts like a magnet. The pen can wander and roam, liberated to make interesting messes because it knows whatever it’s writing will never look like the finished product.

At the California Institute of Psychics, they say only two of every one hundred applicants are selected, so you’re guaranteed a good reading or your money back. A woman on the radio talked about severed feet washing up on the Pacific coastline. “Chopped-off feet are coming in with the tide, and nobody knows why,” she said.

I miss driving through the desert in the middle of the night, scrolling through conspiratorial radio.

I remember listening to a low voice talk about disemboweled bodies while I drove through New Mexico. “Humans don’t have the technology to suck out a person’s intestines through their naval, but I’m telling you that’s exactly what happened.” 600,000 Americans go missing every year, and everyone on that radio station believed they were abducted by aliens. The conversation steered to the Illuminati, as it usually does after midnight, and it’s a worthy fantasy: to think someone’s in charge. During commercial breaks, I would sing along to radio jingles for machines that control your brainwaves while you sleep. Wake up energized and get more done.

These days the sight of someone’s mouth at the supermarket looks like an obscenity. We can get used to the strangest things. While talking with my elderly neighbor last week, she made a comment about her past that seems like a solid piece of wisdom as the world speeds up: “I should look back, but I don’t need to stare.”


  • Dedekind Cut’s $​uccessor is a beautifully unwieldy ambient record from a few years ago that feels like a new thing each time I listen. Thank you to Michael Donaldson’s 8-Sided Blog for bringing it back into heavy rotation. I’ve since learned that a “Dedekind cut” is a mathematical term for a partition of the rational numbers into two non-empty sets A and B, such that all elements of A are less than all elements of B and—I haven’t the foggiest what this means. To my mind, it’s the language of a low-grade panic attack.

  • Clam's Casino’s Instrumental Relics is a highlight reel of shoegazed hip-hop from 2011-2017, and it’s become a fitting soundtrack for my late-night runs: a blurry kind of chugging. (And if you’re craving a 1987 Lost Boys mood, there’s a reworking of “Cry Little Sister”.)

  • All My Stars. There’s something very reassuring about Joanne McNeil’s dispatches, and I’m always happy when they appear in my inbox.

  • I bought Olan Munk’s Love/Dead two hours ago based solely on Boomkat’s recommendation “if you’re into John Maus, The Normal, Actress, Eartheater, and Suicide”—and it’s already shaping up to become a favorite.

  • While reckoning with the design history courses I’m teaching, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about Alexandra Bell’s Counternarratives project, a rewiring of New York Times headlines that shines a hard light on the media biases that warp our sense of one another. Here’s a short clip of Bell speaking about this work.

  • After I watched a lady talk with the pigeons the other day, “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet” by Gavin Bryars has been looping after midnight.

  • Haven’t done much with music lately, so I’ll repost this link to Sacrilege, the mix I made last month of half-speed techno classics. It’s my favorite mix that I’ve made, probably because it’s a small attempt to slow down the world.