February 28, 2020
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Rags and Bones

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

Training Kids on Narcan

When I was an EMT in New York City's 911 system in 2003-2007, we weren't allowed to use Narcan. Only the paramedics could, because it was administered by injection. We were warned to be very vigilant because comatose people would wake up fighting, rageful to be deprived of their high. I personally witnessed this on several occasions and saw that it was in fact a wonder drug, which brought people back from the brink of death in an instant.

When I read that it was more generally out in the world, like defibrillators, for use by civilians in emergencies, I thought that was probably a good thing.

Last week I saw an article on schoolchildren being trained to use a nose-spray version to save their parents from an overdose. They are being asked to be parents to their parents. I almost don't know what to say about that except to report it here.

But here goes: I instinctively want to connect our opioid and other addictions to our politics, killer expectations coupled with declining fortunes and a loss of agency. People live on dollars a day in other parts of the world without turning to drugs, but they haven't all been told they would be members of a ruling class, then discovered it was a bait and switch.

The words of someone else I have quoted most often in my writing are the following of Thoreau's, from Walden: "Men have an indistinct notion that if they keep up this activity of joint stocks and spades long enough all will at length ride somewhere, in next to no time, and for nothing; but though a crowd rushes to the depot, and the conductor shouts 'All aboard!' when the smoke is blown away and the vapor condensed, it will be perceived that a few are riding, but the rest are run over--and it will be called, and will be, 'A melancholy accident'."

Performing Success

I invented a truism a few months ago: When I board an airplane, I want the pilot to fly it, not to perform flying it. I was responding to an increasing sense that many significant roles in American life are being performed, rather than fulfilled. Donald Trump, the Impostor-in-Chief, is my lead example.

The Media Lab at MIT, so enmeshed in the Jeffrey Epstein scandal, exemplifies a trend in academia in which professors perform being academics, while their real job seems to be networking, going to parties and appearing on television. While Laurence Tribe was a genuine Harvard Law professor, Alan Dershowitz performed being one. It was against a similar background at Stanford that Elizabeth Holmes had an extraordinary run performing founding and running Theranos.

What Holmes did, in fact, was not very different in kind from what Wall Street wunderkind do. I witnessed the Internet bubble of the late 90's first-hand. The actual business activity at the core of some of the most glamorous IPO's was little more than a semiotic sign, an index card on which was written "Company here".

The flying-a-plane example illustrates the outcome. People performing professorship crash their institutions the way performer-pilots crash their planes. Elizabeth Holmes crashed Theranos. When you reach a certain critical mass of performances, living in a performance culture, you eventually have a terminal shortage of people sustaining institutions by quietly doing the real jobs. There comes a moment right before the end when a nation itself may be entirely a performance, like the fat, indolent citizens of Rome in the fifth century AD who were still performing being tough, intense military men.

Gravity's Rainbow

There is a moment in the very enjoyable Knives Out when the detective mentions Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, then admits he has not actually read it. If someone had said that to me in a conversation instead of from the screen, it would have been an opportunity to exercise my incurable vanity: I would have held my palm up and said, in the most casual possible voice, "I have".

I started it the year it came out, 1973. I finished it in 2019 after several false starts.The first two or three times I attempted it, I bogged down in the same scene not more than a couple hundred pages in,a hallucinatory flashback of one of the characters to college years in Boston, when he dives down a toilet in a nightclub and describes the feces and effluvia he experiences at different levels of the pipes and sewers below.

I have a few lines of dialog I wait years on end to use, for someone to feed me a cue. Between 1973 and 2019, people asked me two or three times if I had read the latest Pynchon. I said I was planning to, as soon as I finished Gravity's Rainbow.

The book became a bucket list item. In the end, I had to go back and finish it because it was there. I hated it: there was no pay-off. A novel about the Nazi V2 assault on London and a man who can predict where they will hit is a potentially huge theme; I can imagine what Michael Chabon or Jonathan Lethem could have done with it (at least in their early years, before they started trying to be Thomas Pynchon). Come to think of it, Philip K. Dick did write Gravity's Rainbow: his 1959 novel Time Out of Joint, is about a brilliant mathematician, who has been immersed in a simulated 1950's suburban world to save his sanity. He thinks he is solving a newspaper puzzle every day, but his results actually forecast the locii of nuclear strikes in an interplanetary war. It is a minor work of its author, but a much better novel than Gravity's Rainbow.

A good friend of mine idolizes Gravity's Rainbow but insists that it must be read with a handbook, to alert you to all the Easter Eggs, homages and buried references. That is another conversation, whether an artwork ever succeeds that cannot be understood within its four corners. I have always, since I first read it at age 12 or so, found The Waste Land to be a magnificent poem, even without Eliot's own footnotes, and long before I had read Jessie Weston or embarked on Fraser's Dying God volume, which were his inspirations or sources.

Within its covers, Gravity's Rainbow is a huge, self-indulgent shaggy dog story which simply stops after 700 pages or so rather than delivering an ending. Along the way, a pre-teen girl is molested and murdered for no particular reason, and without the killer ever being identified; Pynchon describes other murders, rapes and assaults, often in sadistic detail; and there are other loving descriptions of shit and of coprophilia. I remember a truism that someone came up with in a review of a bad novel by Martin Amis: when you're unknown, you can't get anything published, no matter how excellent; once you're famous, you can publish anything, no matter how lousy.

I will never forget accompanying a friend and family to a scientists' meeting in Atlantic City in 1964 (pre-casino days) and witnessing the following unforgettable graffito scrawled in black Magic Marker on a stall door in the men's room:

Those who write on bathroom walls
Roll their shit in little balls.
Those who read what there is writ
Eat those little balls of shit.

Everything Connects to Everything

Before explicitly citing Time Out of Joint in my paragraphs on Pynchon, I had already touched on it as a sort of Easter Egg in the section earlier on "Performing Success". The idea that an IPO might be centered on an index card saying "Company here" re-enacts a scene in which the simulated world of Dick's protagonist, Ragle Gumm, begins to disintegrate. "A soft-drink stand disappears, replaced by a small slip of paper with the words 'SOFT-DRINK STAND' printed on it in block letters".

You know either you or your world are in trouble when life begins to remind you of scenes from Philip Dick novels.

Hunter Biden

OK, here is the sort of punchy one-liner that was supposed to be mainstream for this Rags and Bones column before it went all Epistemological/Ontological: Hunter Biden was invited on the board of Burisma because of his last name. We live in a world in which elected politicians and their families get mysteriously rich while serving. Whether or not he then followed up with specific illegal acts, it stinks that he accepted that offer at any time, but particularly while his dad was still in office. One of the weird things about detesting Donald Trump is that it is then easy to fall into defending indefensible acts performed by others who dislike him.


The FISA court is another example. When I first learned in the 2000's that there was a secret foreign intelligence court in which someone acting as a prosecutor asked real judges to issue warrants, but that there was no "defense attorney" tasked with opposing them, I wondered: why even bother with such a nakedly inadequate performance of justice? Though I believe that Carter Page, with his inebriated bragging about hacked Clinton emails, was practically begging to be investigated, I refuse to defend FISA.


In the 1990's, I was one of those people who thought the Internet would save free speech and democracy. I have written about how it has been co-opted to destroy those things instead. One relatively minor sidelight is how the mega-corporation's ability to reach onto your computer and phone at will has even changed concepts of ownership. People who thought they had purchased Tetris are now finding out that they only rented it.

Pit bulls

Patrick Stewart, the actor who plays Picard, loves pit bulls, and resents the fact that Britain won't let him own one.

During the years I worked on ambulances, I carried eight or nine people with deep, bleeding wounds from dog bites (one was missing his lower lip). Every single one of them had been attacked by a pit bull. Most were the owners. And almost all of them made an eerily similar statement to me as I was bandaging them, a variation on: "Its not his fault. He's a good dog. I made a sudden move...."


For some years, I have sent myself a text message whenever I think of a topic for this column. When I finally sit down to write it a month or two later, I have no recollection of what I meant by some of them, such as: "Sarcasm, applause and Areopagitica". Wait, what?