The Pacific Northwest is home to many unique eccentrics, but there was one character who, if you encountered him, you never forgot. He went by the name Symptomatic Nerve Gas, and no, this is not some kind of sub-par Vonnegut fiction. He was a real man, a Korean War vet, apparently, or Viet Nam, perhaps, or maybe not a vet at all, depending on who you believe — the narratives are mixed and told in different ways depending on when you met and talked to him.
I first encountered him on a city bus in Bellingham in the mid-80s. I was riding home, after putting my quarter in the fare box. This very solid looking middle-aged man came aboard, an army green duffel on his back, stuffed to the point of breaking. He dropped his bag to the ground and sat across from me on the sideways seats in the back of the bus. I'm sure I was reading, so paid him little mind.
Until the bus had left the station and I heard a little voice quietly say those three words, nasal, at the top of his baritone register:
"Symptomatic Nerve Gas."
I ignored him. Why would you look at anybody talking to themselves on a quiet bus? You would hope that it was a momentary glitch and they'd go back to being quiet.
"Symptomatic Nerve Gas."
Looking up, I saw his duffel had a manilla folder taped to it, and on the folder in black marker he had written those three words: "Symptomatic Nerve Gas."
I looked around, and other people on the bus caught my eye. Yes, we said to each other in a glance. Yes, this guy is really breaking a social contract in a minor way. We are all witness to it.
"Symptomatic Nerve Gas."
All the way home, every minute or so.
Apparently he travelled the Pacific Northwest, spreading his message. You can Google him and find reports from Bellingham to Eugene. Jack Cady wrote him as a character in his book Street, about a serial killer in Seattle. "People are first shocked into avoidance. Then, familiarity brings scorn, Symptomatic Nerve Gas has an important message, but no stage presence. He breaks no laws. People mistake him for a nut."
He must have liked something about Bellingham, because he spent quite a time there, over at least a few years.
Once, outside a punk show at this all-ages joint called the Vortex, where the bands would play 30 minute sets interspersed with 30 minutes of dance music, he held court.
He sat on a bench, and around him, punk teenage skaters sat on their boards while he explained what Symptomatic Nerve Gas was — a nerve agent made by the Vatican, spread in the candles they use in church. The Nazis also used it. A thick, messy, paranoid obsession ruled this man's mind, but he could talk about it in a disjointed dialog for hours on end. He was an evangelist, and his evangelism was based on trying to save the world from the evils of this horrid nightmare toxin.
I wonder if it was good for him, to have an audience like that, or if it fed his manic side? Was he a balloon that needed to let air out, or would talking about it ramp him up into unhealthy excitement?
Because I was not one to find mental illness ironic or funny — unlike some folks who encountered him in my group — I kept my distance. I found him unusual and therefore interesting, but also unnerving. I did write a song about him in my band at the time, which I'm glad there are no recordings of (that I know of). If I remember, it was just chanting the three words over and over again.
It was music that brought him to mind, after many years of not thinking after him. I was wondering about song loops, earworms, or snippets of music that get trapped in the head. What mechanism of the brain is there to reinforce this? Is it an evolutionary advantage, or a glitch in the operating system of humans that allows things to get stuck and amplified ad infinitum?
Likewise, go thoughts. One sign of being a progressive sort of person is not that you don't hear the horrible, racist, sexist intonation of default culture rattling around your memory pan, but that you know well enough not to squirt it out between the flaps of meat that make sound and language just because your brain thunk it. You know you are parroting the culture's response, and you know well enough that it is lies and you don't have to listen to that damaging bullshit.
But those little ghost whispers that want you to think something? Imagine if they were overwhelming. Imagine if you could never rid yourself of them. Imagine if they became your entire reality.
Last year, for our Thanksgiving essay, Paul Constant grappled with the election that pried free the last finger holding to sanity our world offered. 2016 relentlessly presented us with stark, impactful deaths, and one of those was of the death of being able to mostly ignore (if you are privileged enough) politics, unless you enjoyed not ignoring them. None have that luxury any more, and every day of this year has presented is a new battle, a new outrage. It's maddening, disheartening, and depressing.
And then, this rising moment overtook us. Like a wave bashing against the rocks as it gains purchase with the tide, women speaking out about their experiences with horrible men are starting to drown the old easy-to-toss-aside PR responses that led to no change. Men are being fired, quickly, and the apologies that once might have been directed towards the perpetrators for deigning to impute them are now rightfully turned towards towards women telling their stories.
This rising tide was buoyed by outrage that an admitted, gloating abuser, a confessed sexual predator and alleged rapist could take the highest office in the land, while the party that most espouses what they always called "values" has, at best, shrugged.
This is not a political essay at heart, but in thinking about Symptomatic Nerve Gas, I was reminded of the loops and ticks our president exhibits, his reoccurring nightmare cabinet of tinctures for soothing his confused, bloviating, leaking corpus of an id, his rancid corpulent ego, and his minuscule, weak, weepy, infantile superego.
He pulls out the same patterns over and again, throwing blame at people he beat, throwing credit to under-bed-monsters we thought had been swept out with the end-of-modernism trash at the close of the last century. His reactions to almost any event are starting to feel like a rubber reflex hammer on the kneecap, a hit and a jerk and he's talking the same lines he always does.
Trump has a bigger vocabulary than Symptomatic Nerve Gas did, but he's stuck in patterns just as pernicious. He's just surrounded by luxury and privilege, and protected by family.
I've been thankful lately for music. Music has played an important role in my life — it was the binder in nearly every one of my strongest friendships. To this day, knowing what music someone likes allows me to pull a quick Meyers-Briggs assessment — not to judge, mind you, but to understand them, to gain a quick bead on the type of soul that inhabits them.
As an adult I've come to realize that music has its limits; truly horrible people can like the same music as you, and I have to fight my default asshole inner hipster who wants to burn it all down when someone I don't respect declares love for music I do. That petty inner voice, that smaller, but still audible, cultural default, nearly ruined music for me.
I also go see almost no live music anymore — after working in guitar stores and playing live in small clubs for years, something broke inside me. Maybe it was an appreciation and attachment to what music meant. Maybe it was disappointment that my naive hopes about a career in music didn't pan out.
I elevated music too high, I thought it was everything — and for some of my friends it still is — but I realized that music is for me but a layer on top of my emotional life, a processing and distraction, but not a political force. It is magical, but it is also thin and not meaningful past the emotions it gives you access to.
In short, I thought too much of it, and in reckoning that music is less than I thought, I lost faith. Where faith was lost is found disappointment and resentment, of a type that it has taken me many years to best.
Is this really a strong year for music, or have I reconnected with music in a new way? Hard to know, but whatever the case, I pulled together a Thanksgiving playlist here of songs I'm in love with. I am grateful to them, to the artists who make them, and to people who care to share this experience with me.
They share something else in common, too, but more on that later.
I've embedded the songs below with Spotify because that service allows embedding, but here are the full lists:
The playlist starts with women.
Brooklyn's Shilpa Ray's "Morning Terrors Nights of Dread" echoes a thing we all feel, wishing our mental health were in a better place. "It's weighing down on me," she sings. "I lock my head between my knees, I can't breathe." Hello, 2017!
The mysterious masked Leikeli47 turns the title of her song "Miss me" on its head, when you realize it's not about feeling the lack of someone, but an instruction: "Miss me with the bullshit."
The Regrettes are teenagers from Hollywood whose fearless feminism is punky and smooth as a teenage girl group, and whose harmonies and soaring stair-step melodies always make me smile in such a huge way.
Miya Folick, as all of us, is having trouble adjusting.
Actress and musician Charlotte Gainsbourg returns with a rhythmic loping piece that imagines a marriage run dark.
Lilly Hiatt, who obviously learned great lessons from her dad John, takes us back to the beginning of 2016, when everything seemed to start dumping, with her song "The Night David Bowie Died". "I wanted to call you on the night David Bowie died, but I just sat in my room and cried."
Canadian singer Gabrielle Shonk tells of a man (with that voice! My god, that voice) who deserves being called out for his bullshit. "You cheat and lie causing pain with no sense of regret."
The Paranoid Style is a band with super-intelligent lyrics, like Costello or Game Theory, and took their name from a famous Richard Hofstadter essay, here they turn male gaze into a Dedicated Glare about the intricacies and boredom of adult life.
Sylvia Black goes feminist witch, and torchy nightclub singer, with her meandering relaxed bass style (she was a studio musician, so has chops for weeks) and haunting vocals.
Moderate Rebels want to liberate. "Who's using power? And who cares? The dead and the living."
Kevin Morby is the first man on the mix. He obviously listened to a lot of Television, and the creamiest guitar tone is in his song "City Music".
LCD Soundsystem take on our modern world "The old guys are frightened and frightening to behold".
Dams of the West finds Vampire Weekend's drummer Chris Tomson accounting for his life. "I don't want to be perfect. I just want to fix the fixable things."
Kendrick Lamar looks at literal and figurative DNA, exploring black culture and history, as well as his own place inside that larger whole.
60's garage rockers Flamin' Groovies show that rock doesn't have to age, but are wondering if maybe we've reached the "End of the World".
I'm contractually obligated, being in the Pacific Northwest, to put a Guided by Voices song on this list. Thankfully, it's really good about how we lionize old music.
Chicago's Twin Peaks sing a song about picking up a guy at a bar who is drinking his breakup away.
Low Cut Connie want to start a revolution, of sorts, but it may just be a boogie-woogie one.
And finally, Portland's Kyle Craft has an amazing voice, a kind of twenty-first century locally-sourced Jeff Buckley, and this cut, from his next-year's Sub-Pop release, is sure to get some attention.
I learned a trick with music that saved me. It's to accept the song in the moment you are experiencing it. Let it unfold, as it is, and when it's gone, move on to the next song without holding too tight. Don't ascribe any meaning past the pleasure of the moment.
Except, that is, when a song gets stuck. And this is my confession: all the songs above in that playlist are ones that have, at one time or another, gotten stuck in my head this year. They are ones that have become earworms, that have informed my year at various points. They have been hard to shake.
None of them have infected me to such a degree that they become singular, the only thing I might listen to. Some, however, have spent weeks rattling around, cooing, singing at me, trying to inform me, but when I turn to find meaning, all I find is a sly melody or simple line.
Some find meaning in simple lines: prayers repeated, mantras chanted, songs sung over and again. A repetitive line may become an expression of an acute mental illness. In a different brain they may become simple metaphors to explain an overwhelmingly frightening world, whether they originate in that brain or on a television program designed to booth soothe and terrify simultaneously. Morning terrors nights of dread.
I think about Symptomatic Nerve Gas sleeping on the street on a cold night. I think about our president watching cable news and tweeting at 3:30am. I think about a young woman sitting with a guitar, trying new melodies and scribbling down lyric snippets until it becomes coheres into a song.
I think about what gets stuck in our heads and how we can unstick it. I'm thankful we have the opportunity to even try.
Once, over drinks, a friend leaned in so close I could smell the clove cigarettes on her breath, and then she told me the truth. “Living in Seattle,” she said, “is like being madly in love with a beautiful woman who’s sick all the time.”
This was probably fifteen years ago, but it’s one of those moments that juts into the gears of your mind and blows the whole mechanism to pieces. I can’t remember anything anyone else said to me that night at the bar — I can’t even remember who else was there — but I will always remember those words, and the look in her eyes as spoke them to me. She had lived here for a long time, and she was telling the new kid that it wasn’t all long, gorgeous summers and progressive politics. Living in Seattle, she wanted me to know, was work.
I think about her statement a lot. Every time a politician says something dumb, or every time a NIMBY ignores the desperate need for more housing with a plea to preserve a sightline, or every time another report indicates that Seattle is getting less diverse, I think to myself, she’s just sick right now, but one day she’ll feel better. Things will improve.
From before the day I moved here, I knew Seattle would be my home. I tried to live elsewhere, but it never worked. No other place made me want to be a better human the way Seattle does. No other city is this beautiful. No other city is this smart. No other city is home.
But boy is Seattle hard to love, sometimes. This city has excluded poor people and minorities in ways both overt and covert for its entire existence. There’s thankfully very little corruption, but government moves too slow much of the time to address injustice. When our citizenry gets lazy, we can be some of the most passive-aggressive, smug people on earth.
I’ve mentioned recently on this site that I believe the Urban Archipelago concept, the belief that American cities are the last bastion for liberalism and culture, has proven to be disastrous. It has made liberals and progressives worse versions of themselves. The goal of a political party should be to represent all Americans; any political coalition built on just one fraction of the country is a coalition that will not last. (And, yes, the happy news is that this is true of the angry white coalition that Donald Trump built this year, too.)
The truth of 2016 is this: We cannot make do by sheltering in Seattle and keeping our heads down. We can’t just tut-tut at the direction in which the rest of the country is heading. We can’t smugly sit and pass judgment on everyone else. We need to ensure that our policies ensure a place at the table for everyone (barring the bigots and monsters who seek to take rights away from others.) And we need to plan for a future in which we don’t abandon large swaths of this country to molder and rot while the cities prosper.
But all that said, now is the time for Seattle to be strong. We need to provide a sanctuary when other places refuse. We need to encourage and showcase diversity in all its forms. We need to build a place where LGBTQ citizens feel safe to be who they are. We need to shore up the rights that others might want to take away. We must be an example for the rest of America.
I’m not talking about pulling up the gates. In fact, I’m calling for the opposite: this city needs to throw its arms open wide, to demonstrate that being inclusive and thoughtful and just is how America succeeds. That old saying about living well being the best revenge is true; we need to demonstrate that America can house the wealthy and the poor, it can welcome citizens of all faiths and ethnicities and orientations, it can encourage many viewpoints at once. In fact, we are stronger because we include everyone, not in spite of that fact.
On election night, when I had the creeping sensation that I’d fallen into some sort of twisted alternate timeline, it occurred to me that Seattle was really going to have to step up in the next four years. All that high-minded talk, all those dreams we’ve shared over the years but never really lived up to? It’s time to make those real. We are going to have to be the best Seattle that ever existed if we’re going to survive these dark times.
Thanksgiving is a time to collect, and to relax, and to heal. It’s time to surround yourself with love and take stock and plan for the winter ahead. I hope you’ll take a while today, and this weekend, to think about what Seattle can do to thrive in the coming years. What we can do with our privilege to protect those who need help, and to amplify the voices of those who should be heard. And I hope you give thanks for what you have, even as you vow to hold it close and never take it for granted in the difficult years to come.
It is as if we're in competition to find the starkest horror. This world offers so many comers to the table, each one bloodier, more callous, more inhumane, more despicable than the rest. Some are small insults that strike us in a particular way. Some are grand vistas of despair that we cannot comprehend en masse, and are represented for us by a single photograph, say of a suffering child, as we read the news.
We want to feel it all. To process the world's pain, and know. Like the oculist witness on Duchamp's The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even observing the humiliation of the bride at her wedding, we are the ones who see the world, and hold its measure. But as the sad animals that we are, we have the capacity for so little before we break. Some few have made it their life's work to help others; most of us follow the method recommended by flight attendants: we put our oxygen mask on first before we turn to our neighbor.
But selfish or generous, our daily rhythms are ticked like rulers with the routine of our days, the cycle of the seasons, the turning of the earth. When my father was sick and dying, he was rather taken with the idea of "thin places", where the membrane that separates this world and the next is stretched. It can be a secular metaphor as well as a religious one, and I prefer to think of it referencing a time instead of geography, such as cathedrals, or Stonehenge, or other sacred locations.
A thin place is a time where our fabric stretches and we see its weave. Where the ticks on our ruler marking seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, stretch and warp the very perception of time itself. Sherman Alexie has said he wrote hundreds of poems after the death of his mother. It's as if he stepped off of the crust that supports life onto fabric suspended over a fissure, and felt it give with each step. Those poems are him calling back to us, on the shore, to describe what he feels. Having done that walk before, I can testify it's fraught, and also affirming. You fall, and sometime expect that you too will be lost to the depths, but that material is stronger than you can imagine. You land face down, seeing the epoch below. Discard the cliched advice you've heard in the action movies: you must look down. If you close your eyes and try to will yourself back to steady ground, you risk the footing of your entire life turning soft.
Births, deaths, weddings, and other passages of life change us like this. Nights with superb friends — where understanding dawns amidst the pleasures — are like this. That first night with a person after you've fallen in love is like this. A particularly mind-blowing meal can do this. And holidays, where we set aside the world to mark a shared experience, can be like this, if we let them.
My grandfather was a glass salesman. One of his clients was Pepsi-Cola, in Southern California, which was owned by the Alessio family. For vacation, every year, my mother, her two sisters, and her parents would drive to Ensenada, Mexico, to spend a few weeks vacation.
On the way they would stop by the Alessio house in San Diego for dinner, and every year the matriarch of the family, Gemma, and my grandfather would enact the play they had improvised together. Gemma would say: "I'm going to make you something very special for your visit."
"No, Gemma," he'd say. "We want your spaghetti."
"No, I won't make something so plain for company! I will make a roast."
"Gemma, please," my grandfather would say. "Please, for the love of all that's good, make us your spaghetti."
My grandfather, who was the cook in the family, once asked Gemma to write down the recipe, and she did. But you might as well have asked Elizabeth Bishop to write down a poem so that you can write one just as good. Nobody cooked like Gemma, and Gemma did not use recipes. It never tasted the same at home. I've made that spaghetti sauce. It's simple and nice. But nobody would ever request it from me. It wouldn't evoke that starry-eyed look my mother gets when she describes its scent in entering the Alessio house.
This was the ritual of my mother's family. When my mother talks about her family and gathering, she sometimes talks about Christmas dinner, or maybe Thanksgiving. But more often than not she talks about those Ensenada trips and their stop in San Diego. The ritual of it was unique to her family, it was an experience they owned.
I was in San Francisco with a band. We went to record some songs at a friend's house. In the Haight, there are four Victorians that are designed as the four seasons, built in a neat little row. Our host owned Winter, and had built a recording studio in the 1st floor flat. I asked him what he did to be able to buy such an iconic house, and he said "I'm a designer."
"What do you design?"
"I've designed lots of things. I've designed chairs. But mostly I design molecules."
We were there for the fall in San Francisco, and when we weren't recording we wandered around the sunny city, spending time in Golden Gate Park. Because it was over Thanksgiving, our host arranged for us to crash a friend's gathering.
We took the bus, carrying a few offerings and dishes in shopping bags. It was one of those old San Francisco homes that may have been built as apartments, or once was a strange, plain, huge family home. We had to go down the side, and up some stairs, and in through the kitchen. We arrived at 7pm or so.
There, a turkey was on. Arguments were underway about the internal temperature, and how long it takes to reach it. We drank wine and cocktails, the living room completely unlit save for the central overhead light in the kitchen. The oven and counters were crowded with dishes covered in foil, in a random assortment of dishes.
Dinner was served, after many drinks, some time after 10pm. There was no family here, other than the family we chose. I was with the band, and the San Francisco people were — like many people in San Francisco — freaks of a certain sort who ran away screaming from their traditional upbringings.
And yet, here we were, all gathered, sharing a meal. It was wholly unremarkable, the food. I remember missing a bigger spread with experienced cooks. The company, too, although pleasant, was not my company. I was not among the people I felt warmest and safest.
Yet this night I remember more clearly than many other Thanksgiving meals. I think that has to do with the choice — nobody was there because they had to be. Nobody was pushed up against a familial cultural clash that made them uncomfortable. Nobody there was traditional in any sense of the word. We came together to eat the bird and partake of the two relevant themes of Thanksgiving: communion, and gratitude.
As usual, when talking about food, M.F.K. Fisher said it best:
It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it… and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied… and it is all one.
But, perhaps, in forward-looking critique of unprepared cooks and guests dining too late at night, she also said:
First we eat, then we do everything else.
Like all holidays with any tradition, Thanksgiving is problematic. Foremost because it's a stark reminder of genocide, subjugation, and then cartoony celebration of that subjugation under the guise of communion. The narrative of the holiday is wrong, and offensively so.
Less bad, but still bad, the imagery is cheesy and cliched. The tall black hats with gold buckles, the feather headdresses, the cartoon turkeys winking at the viewer, all in flat browns, reds, and oranges. It's a holiday that operates at a Kindergarten level of sophistication.
If you're more worldly than that, perhaps you picture a table set by Normal Rockwell, with Ma serving and Pa carving, and Grandma and Grandpa smiling on the messy, but authentic, grandkids. You are in the 1950s, and the men and boys spent the morning raking leaves and tossing a ball around, while Grandpa rocked on the porch and smoked that fragrant tobacco — the women, of course, cooked.
Or maybe you picture that other great American house where a television the size of a wall emits football and commercials non-stop, turkey dinners are served on tv trays, and the women are fishing out their sleep masks so they can get a few hours in before hitting the Black Friday lines at 3am.
This is not mockery. These are the set pieces of Thanksgiving in our country. If they resemble yours, and you love them, I wish you all the best.
But I don't recognize myself in those traditions. Still, I make this bold claim: Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. As an agnostic (which is the modern non-asshole version of an atheist), I like Thanksgiving because it's secular. And I like the reminder once a year to pay attention, and be grateful for the things that you have.
A friend on Twitter argued that we shouldn't need one day a year to appear grateful, and while I agree with her, I think holidays like this are not for us who are old enough and experienced enough with life to know how to be grateful more often. The older I get, the more my personal attitude aligns with "there but for the grace of God go I." Except without the God part.
The ritual is still worthwhile because, as humans, we need those reminders to pay attention to the ticks on the rulers of life. We need to teach these slower, longer cycles of life to those that haven't learned it yet.
Gathering at the table with people you choose to have around you, and hopefully love, and sharing a special meal? That's hitting a perfect three on the Fisher checklist.
Perhaps we need a new Thanksgiving iconography. Something modern and clean. It should be just as secular as before, just as focused on caring and gratitude. I'm certainly not the first to call for such a thing, and my call will not be instructive or give methods. My call will simply be an evocation of sorts.
Let us use this one day to set aside the troubles a world away that we cannot control, and mark what we have, and show appreciation. That helps us decide when we can assist that neighbor with their oxygen mask. That helps us decide what resources we have to marshal for the greater good.
We do not have to forget that there are those in need. We are not reveling in our privilege or lording it over those without — we are simply marking the ticks on the ruler of our days, and noting that we are passing them as we go forward. One holiday day cannot halt time, but like a train moving through a station without slowing, it can certainly point out that we're on a track and we are moving. It is human nature to forget that.
Maybe you'll find yourself around your own table, or another. Maybe it's a tray in front of the TV, or a dark room in a San Francisco house, or a walnut burl table with antique lace runners, or even your own room, alone with a book. Maybe where you are the air will shift a bit, and you'll come up to see the movement around you. You'll step off the crust onto the fabric and feel it stretch. Maybe this holiday will give you a moment to see from another perspective. Maybe that perspective will bring you something you need.