Socks, Death & Life in 2020

On December 27th, I opened my email and received the word of the day, fainéant. This obscure word, derived from French, seemed to encapsulate my feelings about the last, crawling days of 2020. The roaring 20s’ of the 21st Century opened, unfolded, and ended with a kind of jolting and exhausting chaotic static. Just before the window closed on international travel, I left Warsaw for Rome in late February. Returning to a place I had never been before, yet one that is my father’s home: Italy. On my way to Sicily, the nation went into a hard lock-down, and I spent 95–100?–odd days with Alex in Naples. We had taken the train from Rome to Naples, rented an apartment for a short stay, and the night after the day where I found myself sitting at an outside table at the famous Caffè Gambrinus, a place both Oscar Wilde and Benito Mussolini (at different times) frequented, Prime Minister Conte announced the nationwide end to movement, the closure of all non-essential businesses and the grounding of most flights.

Later, after the restrictions were loosened in July, we traveled to Palermo. A beautiful city on the Tyrrhenian Sea. A beatific, Mediterranean metropolis with all the heat-flustered buildings, hot piazzas, and neighborhood cats that populate and promulgate in many (economically) impoverished islands. During a hot August, I died 1 2 3and recovered. Staring across the table are, presently, hanging over a yellow plastic chair, the socks I died and left the hospital in. Should one end a sentence with in? I guess a degree of grammatical indolence can be granted to many of us after this year. Yes, it was productive at times, I wrote The Shattered Series, during those months in Naples. Allora. However, the weight of paperwork for regularizing my Italian citizenship, not to mention just registering a rental contract, under the Leviathan that is Italy’s bureaucracy has delayed, among other things, my writing. And I feel guilty when I don’t write. And I feel that I must write, and then I wonder what I will write about. There are multitudes of subjects to explore, yet the inertia is greater than the push. Allora.

I learnt about globalization at a very early age, although I didn’t know that it was called that at the time. My childhood largely took place during the Clinton years; in the surrounding areas of a small town in Southern Oregon, Grants Pass; as I have written before, my grandparents (maternal) raised me. We lived on a ranch owned by a wealthy Japanese family. My grandfather tended to the property when he wasn’t working as a hod-carrier mixing cement for the inter-layers between bricks. He’d come home encrusted with concrete. A large satellite dish sat just behind our small house; its massive open maw moved depending on what channel was selected and the time of day. A luxury afforded by the noblesse oblige of our landlords. And they were landlords in the truest sense. I think they wanted to recreate some type of feudalism. Richard, who had married into the family, worked alongside my grandfather digging trenches and tending to the horses; this was a man of the aristocracy, working next to his serf; it was a very unusual situation for the area, for the time. But this hackneyed feudalism provided a respite from the world of cut-throat consumer capitalism. Not having to pay rent, it seemed we just about managed. The expulsion from the past into the Clinton-era happened at first gradually; I remember after the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act was passed, my mother sitting at the kitchen table trying to memorize a menu to go back to work, to find what Clinton-Gingrich called ‘opportunity.’ I don’t know if she ever reached some sort of moment of personal enlightenment by working at Tina’s Restaurant, later the Train Depot, and now, from what I can infer, Applebee’s, but I doubt it. (Incidentally, the Clinton family had a very famous cat named … Socks.)

Hillary Clinton with Socks, 1995, Courtesy Wikimedia

Los Angeles stood out to me, as a child watching news from that city through an old TV screen with a signal from a modern satellite, as a place of wonder. When my family took our one and only vacation, one precipitated by a custody battle between my mother and her ex-husband, Michael, over the fate of my half-siblings, Ricky and Shelby, to Southern California, I fell through the looking-glass. Crossing the Grapevine, on Interstate-5, the mountainous climb proved too much for our ageing Dodge caravan. We turned on the heater in order to cool the motor; the temperature outside must have been at least over 90F (32C). Yet as we reached the apogee before that grand descent into the San Fernando Valley, I saw the skyline of Los Angeles. Immediately I fell in love. Perhaps, Los Angeles was my first actual love; making me a true metrosexual. A boyhood romance that would later take me to that City of Angels in my early 20s.

Other drives proved less stimulating, yet now I see them as revealing; on one occasion we–my grandfather and grandmother–were driving back from a Jehovah’s Witness convention or gathering, and I read a large sign in a pasture alongside an old Oregon road, No New World Order. Or something to that effect; the person, or persons, who erected the sign definitely didn’t like the New World Order, whatever that might be; these being the Clinton years, I suspect they had a mixture of paranoid delusions about Jews, Black people, and other ‘minorities’ taking over their farm, and legitimate concerns about the North American Free Trade Agreement. Although, I doubt they had any problem with the Personal Responsibility and Blah Blah Act. Bootstraps, pulling oneself up, farm subsidies and all that.

Lastly, to return to that matter of the present, small details have begun to interest me again. For example, the skull on Mr Potters’ desk in Frank Capra’s (1943) It’s A Wonderful Life, is this a momento mori? A reminder of human failures and errors? Capra’s attempt to admonish the audience, after his return from WWII, that you can’t take it with you? That no matter how much wealth one accrues, it can’t be taken beyond, and that this beyond, for it is not, as Mr Bailey experiences, a complete and total erasure of oneself from all time, but rather an encounter with finitude, is actually also dance with infinite nothingness, in terms of answers, centuries of screams, moans, and cries without echoes? And yet, sometimes, some of us, enter the interstices between life and death, and come back; I did. And I have no public answers. For each answer is peculiar and particular to the being experiencing death. I look over the top of my screen and see the socks, those socks I lived and died and lived again in: my memento mori. This year has been a year that taught me, and I didn’t realize this until the last days of it, to look back. We may not want to look back, but the past always looks at us, and, for me, its important to keep an eye on it. I think I will keep those holy socks–with an actual hole–draped on that chair. At least for a little bit.

Socks of Life, Death & Life by Tony Robert Cochran

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