Night Flight (Excerpt)

When I was young and sleepless
I imagined opening the window and
taking flight like one of the Lost Boys
twinkle-dusting into the night chill.

Slowly ascending over the flat roof,
I would embrace the oak outside the window
on its own terms, finally, and turn to face
The great sodium lamp world.

And then southward I would plot a course,
Wind sweeping away my terrestrial cares
As, above the elementary school, rising,
I might rejoice for a moment at the majesty of time.

Video Game Spaces: Super Dodge Ball (1989)

This is part of a series of posts exploring video games as spaces players inhabit. If you’re wondering what this is all about, I tried to explain myself here.

Cosmopolitan Liberty: Dodgeball Nationalism

“Any text is constructed as a mosaic of quotations; any text is the absorption and transformation of another.” — Julia Kristeva, “Word, Dialogue and Novel”

Super Dodge Ball is an NES game in which the player takes control of an American dodgeball team and competes against other national teams on a journey around the world.* There is an English team–replace New York and the Statue of Liberty in the screenshot with London and the Tower Bridge–an Indian team, an Icelandic team, a Kenyan team, Team Japan, and, finally, a boss battle with Team USSR. You should watch the playthrough here if you want to see the game in action. Nintendo thought highly enough of the game to include it with the NES games on Nintendo Switch Online, which is where the screenshot comes from.

Odds are, if you played this game in 1989, you were familiar with Rocky IV, which debuted in 1985, and Top Gun, which came out a couple years later. You might have watched the 1988 Olympics, which were relatively drama-free following the political scrimmages surrounding the 1980 and 1984 games, but still drew huge audiences to a spectacle of nationalist competition. Maybe, inspired by the World Cup in 1990, you pulled the game down from the shelf to play through it again. That is something I would have done, substituting dodgeball for soccer to reenact the thrill of the television event. Maybe the looming Kremlin in the game’s final showdown flashed across your mind when the Berlin Wall came down and the USSR along with it. Super Dodge Ball probably sat on your shelf when the United States invaded Iraq for the first time in 1991.

Rocky IV, Top Gun, the Olympics, the World Cup, Super Dodge Ball (and other games like it), the fall of the Soviet Union, Operation Desert Storm. These things appear disconnected, but they were woven together in an intricate pattern, disparate phenomena contributing to a noumenon of nationalist triumph in the eye of the American beholder.

Super Dodge Ball USA vs ICELAND - YouTube
Is this the moon? No, just Iceland. Screenshot from Youtube.

Set against world-historical events like wars and political collapse, cultural products like films and video games seem to speak with an infinitesimally small voice in the historical record. We should reconsider this point of view. Because these events take place out there in real time and space, the vast majority of people experience them passively. Movies, games, recorded music, and other cultural products occupy personal time and space. We experience them actively and use them to think through events.

For most Americans, the Soviet Union collapsed on the news. Americans who played Super Dodge Ball contributed to this collapse in their minds when they played the game. Along the way, they internalized certain ideas about difference, about strength, agility, and development. Many of these ideas were expressed spatially. Players have inhabited these spaces for more than thirty years.

* I’m describing the American version, of course.

Flash Fiction: Spanish Moss

From Shade: Selections from the Shade Tobacco Region Oral History Project

Off in the woods there was a palace I saw it with princes and prelates and fools up under the swingin moss dancin their old jigs in them fancy getups like in the old movies what used to come on TV on Sunday. I saw one he was jinglin them little teeny bells like a song at Christmastime just a prancin around back in there like you know what and I thought that was funny but it hurt my head too. My dogs they didn’t hardly know what to think about it all Rex he looked at me like what is all this and I said I reckon I don’t know but we best be gettin out a here. And that’s what we did too but I sure wish we had stuck around to see what they was doin back there and what they was gonna do next because I don’t reckon we will ever see anything quite like it again long as we walk this earth. I been back in there since and they wasnt there no more and that made me a little scared and a little sad too I aint too proud to say. Theres things in this world we dont know nothin about and we aint got no business knowin it neither.

Magnolia

On a trail once, I saw a tree which
should not have been, a magnolia
in the pine flats, by the influence of
some creature planted out of place.

I gave that tree a name, and when I
can’t sleep the name crosses overhead
like Radio On in the darkness static
a nebula of memory flashing to quicken me still.

Und die blumen von meine Magnolien
sind Weiß in der raum dunkel
like footlights in the gloom
shining daylight past in the room.

Like magnolias, too, we bloom in the dark
putting out flowers brown by morning and
passing ancient signals through the
rhizomous earth from which we came.

It is the same earth to which we return and
what more can we ask of the soil mysterious?
Let it be together, we might ask,
let us glow together like blooms in the hunter’s night.

M.F.K. Fisher by Book Light

“Any normal man must nourish his body by means of food put into it through the mouth.”

M.F.K. Fisher, “When a Man is Small”

It is a cold winter night–cold for these parts, anyway–and I am lying in my bed, cringing my feet to escape the little insidious tendrils of icy air creeping under the blanket and reading M.F.K. Fisher by the miserly glow of a little reading light. I’ve progressed through thirty-five years of a reading life, somehow, without once encountering Fisher’s name. That all changed a few weeks ago, when an essayist I was reading mentioned her in passing. Since then I’ve seen her name again and again, as though a magical door opened from some parallel universe into this one and out stepped Fisher, master of the essay. 

When I read the sentence with which I opened this little anecdote, it was like another light, warm and simple and welcoming, began to glimmer from the opening of that door. I had to turn off the light, set the book down. I’m done. It is an extraordinary sentence. To set it down on the page and move on, as though nothing happened, must have felt like flying. It is a remarkable thing and I love it. I love it the way an artist loves a deft turn of the brush. The way a chef loves a surprising flavor. 

Perhaps one day, if I read and write hard enough, I may enjoy a glimpse through the door at a master like Fisher. Until then, I’ll try harder to stay out of the cold.

McDonald’s: Communion

A large Diet Coke and a medium fry.

It is the second day of January and I am on the 5th day of a “vegan cleanse.” I’m not quite sure of what I am cleansing myself. I agreed to the cleanse because it felt, somehow, like cleansing myself of the worst parts of American capitalism. Those parts that reduce thinking creatures to so many dollars realized per dollar spent, no matter the cost in misery, in health, or whatever other problems we imagine we could escape if we just had enough money. Enough money to be somewhere else when the knocker and the butcher come for us, too.

I said yes to the cleanse, but here I am: in the drive-thru line on a rain-soaked Saturday afternoon, waiting impatiently for the line to move up so I can find something, anything, without animals or their “products” in it to go with my drink. I still think like an omnivore, so I consider for a moment picking up a sundae as a surprise for my wife at home. It takes me a beat too long to realize why that is a bad idea, why it might be a different sort of surprise than what I had in mind. It’s got to be fries, I learn. That’s all there is.

There is something vaguely shameful about McDonald’s. Even if you don’t mind the cruel calculus of fast food, if you love the idea of an international supply chain delivering dripping death from the killing floor to the PlayPlace in a neighborhood near you, you’re still likely to feel a little shame waiting in the line at McDonald’s. You’d rather be somewhere else. You probably wouldn’t want a friend driving by to see you there. Perhaps our willingness to wallow in this shame, time and again, for food that nobody seems to actually like, is evidence that we’re all in an abusive relationship with the golden arches—but that is a thought to unravel some other day. Right now my order is up at the window.

I take a sip and pull around the building. My dog pokes her little shaggy gray head into the space between the driver and passenger seats, her eyes boring a hole in the bag of fries in the passenger seat. For her this is what it’s all about, really: food, always. I share a fry with her and think, in that warm glow of peace and well-being unique to salty, fried foods, that it’s much the same for us. Down there at the bottom of everything it’s always about food. Our lust for travel, our finest memories and innermost desires: food. Everything else, from sex to symphony orchestras, is a distant runner-up.

It is in this salty afterglow that I reflect, too, on the good radiating from this building. The teenagers working their first jobs behind the counter. The managers—if they’re good ones—imparting a new category of knowledge to their young charges. The meals on the table, directly and indirectly, for which this place is responsible. I think about the homeless men and women inside, safe from the rain and cold in one of the few places that won’t turn them out. I think about my father-in-law, for whom McDonald’s is somehow a wonderful meal, and the complicated generational differences underlining my inability to understand his opinions about this and everything.I think about my mother, who passed a tiny portion of the damage our culture has done to women down to me in the form of a deep and abiding taste for Diet Coke.

This place smooths, in a small way, the jarring gaps of age, of race, of gender and wealth and sensibility and morality that divides us all. Maybe that good flowing out of the front door offsets some of the bad flowing in through the back. I take a sip. I pass a fry to my dog. She takes it, ever so gently, from my hand and retires to the back seat. She’ll be back for more before I can finish my own. I eat another fry, savoring the salt, the hint of oil, and think, soon the rain will stop. Out in some featureless place, where I don’t think it ever rains, McDonald’s will continue turning cows into dollars. Tomorrow my cleanse will continue. But today we have shared some fries, we two, and that is all we really need.