I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that having access to all of one’s e-mails for several years should allow the refinement of particularly effective advertising. Still, seeing these two back-to-back was a bit jarring this morning:
Thanks a lot, GMail. Are there really people out there who are worried that Facebook is closer to taking over the world than Google?
As Goo Goo Dolls would put it, “Scars are souvenirs you never lose. The past is never far.”
In other news, while it wasn’t the most impressive book overall, methinks it was particularly well-timed for me to read Siddhartha this week. There’s a lot of insight in there about the particular paths that might be tempting at this juncture of life and good reminders of what roads are full of folly. Especially interesting as I play some poker and wrestle with the material reminders of my past that I want to haul out to Jersey.
Been sleeping and dreaming too much lately. The hazards of being home. Have extended my home visit a little bit and then will probably be taking about a week to cross back over the country. Leaving Saturday maybe? Still a little bit in flux. Might hike in Rocky Mountain NP, but definitely skipping Grand Canyon and LA, as were possibilities even a couple days ago. Feeling daunted enough about driving another 3k-4k miles at this point.
Next immediate stop: The Frontier!
For those without Facebook, here’s the latest album of pics: Volume 3.
Eight years ago today, I married the love of my life in the hills above Los Gatos, California.
Seven years after that, she sent me a sweet recommitting note from Monrovia, Liberia, which I already reprinted here.
Two days after that, she met a man.
Four days after that, she called me to express sudden and unprecedented doubts in our marriage, eventually admitting after six hours that they stemmed from meeting a man. She promised not to cheat on me.
Five days after that, she cheated on me.
One day after that, she called me to try to divorce me by telephone.
I can’t believe I have lived through the last year. Most days, I’m not so sure I’m glad I have. But for the sake of you all who keep saying you want me to pull through, I’m trying. And the last couple days have been pretty good, actually. No crying in 48 hours alone, which might be a record this year. I don’t expect it to last today, but neither will I be alone all day, thankfully. I do try to plan to maximize my chance at hope.
Been taking a bucket full of pictures on my sojourn across the South, which will all be on Facebook along with the latest video and some other musings as soon as I’m at an Internet connection that isn’t throttled down to prevent visual uploading. That may be as late as Albuquerque, so don’t hold your breath. It also occurs to me that at least two or three of you aren’t on Facebook, so if you’ve missed the pictures you can see them here and here.
Next stop, Dallas. Nuevo by sundown on the 15th.
Happy eighth anniversary, Emily, since we’re not officially divorced yet. It was always you.
There is a certain satisfaction to a loud keyboard, to the drone of unknown engines in the background as one plugs away at creating verbiage in the midst of a building constructed for work. One has to be careful to get the balance and setting right, but the clack-clack-clack of a keyboard that makes noise carries with it the connotations of productivity and purpose and even poise that the modern bepajamaed laptopper knows little of, or at least has recessed in their memories like so many anachronistic episodes of Mad Men. Surely typing should make noise, like the Prius inventors discovered driving should in the wake of tests where their cars snuck up on pedestrians, inducing near-fatalities in their silent stealth.
For all the self-examination I do, I find that there are certain core principles that rarely get dragged into the mudslinging of recrimination and the fiery kiln of retooling along with everything else I think and believe. Among these, it seems, has been the quest to be understood, a core unquestionable bedrock principle for time immemorial. I don’t know how to breathe without wanting to be understood, and so many of my secondary and tertiary assumptions and principles rely on this foundation. And yet I’m coming face-to-face with the daunting realization that what Fish always warned me was right – no one is/was ever going to understand me. They haven’t built me to be understood, any more than they’ve built a refrigerator to walk. It’s just not part of the program. And I could be a sad little refrigerator dreaming of walking some day or I could find ways to get comfortable with stagnancy.
I haven’t made up my mind yet, quite, how to react to this burgeoning conclusion, because I’m still in the wake of grappling with exactly how much of my life is governed by this high-level desire. While Emily was quick to lampoon me as someone who “doesn’t care about happiness,” (Evidence of my inability ever to be understood? Perhaps!), this is an exaggeration. But certainly I would prioritize being understood above being happy. Of course, the desire to be understood might make it a core component of being happy, so it’s hard to precisely put these two values in conflict. We can imagine scenarios, though, and move on from there. But beyond that, it’s just essential to what I even look for in another person. The first question I ask myself is whether they seem capable of understanding me. It is primal. I don’t even know what a candidate for replacement first-question would be. I don’t even know how to undertake the process of evaluating other people on a personal level without that as my compass.
Part of the problem is that, as with most of my high-level principles, there’s a lot of backing for the status quo here, even if I don’t drag it through the fieriest parts of my reconsideration process all the time. A huge amount of literature, music, poetry, and discussion with other humans has led me to conclude that the desire to be understood is close to inescapable. That it seems to dictate most sincere intelligent rational behavior and interaction. Indeed, it seems at the very core of the notion of interaction. If we don’t seek some fundamental acknowledgment of our own experiences from other souls and perspectives, what are we even doing engaging with them? Why be a writer? Why lay down anything, from a silly quiz with some political overtones to a lengthy allegorical novel to this very blog post? If I don’t seek understanding, what the hell is my goal with all this expenditure of language? Why am I even coaching debate?
Now of course there’s a distinction to be made here, to be careful, between what might loosely be termed as “being understood” and “Being Understood.” Certainly if you are following any of what I’m talking about herein or relating to it, then you understand me in the lower-case sense of what we’re dealing with, and there are minor satisfactions to be gained from that, even some positive reinforcement to carry forward. But obviously this is vastly shy of the upper-case sense, wherein you would know me, my perspective, and my proclivities so fundamentally as to be able to predict my future behavior and reactions and empathize with my very way of interacting with the world. And that, my friends, is what is starting to seem unreachable. Already I can hear a lot of you cynics out there decrying that I ever believed in such a height of mutuality in our world and where did I get off being so naive?
Well naive or no, it’s informed countless numbers of my decisions and approaches over the past three decades and change. Or probably short of three decades – it would be interesting to trace the etymology of this desire back to its deepest roots. The fact that no formative experience around this ideal springs to mind upon cursory glance indicates just how essential it is – I can pretty well trace pacifism, vegetarianism, non-drinking/drug use, monogamy, and almost all my other core values and aspirations back to their initiation. But this one just seems prehistoric. I can even evoke instances of it from times when my memory stretches to its utmost, such as the fabled issue I had with how I was taken out of my car seat and how I felt about my parents either understanding me or not based on whether they did it the “right” way without being asked. Jettisoning this desire would be such a transformative change that I don’t even know who I would be or what I would look like without this. And maybe you can add up the last 31 years and say “good,” because I’ve been doing things so wrong that something diametric has got to be right. But I’m not altogether sure, and the precipice looks mighty high from here.
It gets me wondering, though, what other people are living for. I mean, I know a lot of folks don’t spend a lot of time introspecting and seem to be just sort of putting their head down and getting through whatever allotment Earth gives them and still others seem to derive tautological pleasure from the pursuit of happiness. Feeling good isn’t bad, on face, but it sure seems like an awfully empty thing to put all of your energy into. And yeah, there’s helping people, and that’s important, and that’s a high-order principle as well, especially in slightly less personal pursuits (although in personal ones too). But why do we help people? Honestly, there’s probably nothing I want to help people with more than their own pursuit of being understood. As I do, because I’m a human, I’ve probably projected my own priorities and desires on tons of other people (nearly everyone?) and I derive a lot more satisfaction and fulfillment from convincing someone else they’re not alone or that I empathize with them than I do making them happier or digging them out of poverty or something. It’s that poverty of spirit that the lonely have that concerns me most about our experience here. Which also seems fundamental – in believing that the world is a physical metaphor for an aphysical reality, the deeper emotions matter a lot more than the material plusses and minuses. God, no wonder I end up with different conclusions than most other people. Even recent conversations with relatively relatable intelligent people have turned up how embedded in hardcore materialism (philosophical materialism, not capitalist materialism, though there’s probably some of that too) everyone else is.
I’m in a library and I have a list of physical amalgams of pages bound together to try to pick up so I can digest and absorb them, come to a deeper understanding of people I will never meet and their perspectives on invented people who are illustrative metaphors for those I know. Would I even pursue these kinds of activities under a newly adopted regimen of personal goals? Why or why not?
My entire life, I’ve garnered the most hope for our species from the idea that we can learn from each other’s mistakes and not have to endure every one of them on our own anew. It’s a simple idea, much espoused, and is probably the basic principle which ants and cockroaches will utilize to long outlive us. They’re better at it than we are, but this doesn’t negate our ability to use it too. Giving up on being understood would seemingly have a corrosive impact on even this key solace. And yet, if it’s more realistic, who am I to blow against the wind? If only this wind weren’t so particularly cold and, well, unfeeling.
It’s not a new thought that hit me while I was working on the Consequences of Capitalism Quiz, but the nature of it probably hit me harder and more profoundly than similar realizations in the past. We live in a society whose fundamental problem appears to be the belief in growth – not just as a possibility or an aspiration, but as an absolute fundamental baseline taken-for-granted necessity. The assumptive reality pervading everything about the United States of America and especially its economic reality is that everything will continue to grow, ever upwards, become ever more efficient and profitable, forever. In short, it gets better.
And while a decent amount of empirical evidence from the twentieth century seemed to affirm this belief structure, the very logic of the notion is completely fallacious. The nature of reality is not to grow infinitely. The only thing that grows endlessly with such abandon in the natural world is cancer. Adapting, perhaps, living in harmony with ones environs, adjusting to the nature of life, possibly. But simply growing and growing for the mere sake of growth, of taking up more space and resources and demand? This is probably the opposite of what we ought be advocating as a collection of people.
The ability of America to get away with this unchecked growth for the latter part of the twentieth century and brief slices of time prior is the result, almost entirely, of hidden exploitation. In the early colonial and expansionist days of the United States, of course, it was exploitation of racial minorities, primarily enslaved Africans and genocided Native Americans. When we ran out of local peoples we felt comfortable oppressing to death, we started exporting, using the Cold War as an excuse to strip-mine the rest of the world, both literally and figuratively, lining the pockets of ever more powerful American corporations while the resources and labor of foreign people were drained. We called it American ingenuity and patted ourselves on the back for how much richer and more powerful we were becoming by the alleged sweat of our brow. By the early part of this century, we’d started ramping up exploitation of our own labor force as well, ever spiraling wealth disparities while creating engines of debt and advertising to ensure that most people would feel wealthier while functionally inching closer to enslavement.
Despite my ability to rant on about the political situation we find ourselves mired in, I’m actually more interested in the personal and emotional impacts of this phenomenon in today’s meditation. Remarkably, they strike me as both directly correspondent and possibly even more pernicious in their overall toll on individuals raised in America. And it is this outgrowth of the belief in eternal growth that I find to be most cancerous, most malignant, most in need of swift and holistic surgical removal. We need a chemotherapy of the soul, something to bring us to the brink of our own mortality if only to see how brokenly we’ve lived.
The issue here is that people are raised in the United States to believe their lives will always get better. That time itself is a magical healing property, that merely by existing over the course of days, one’s lot will improve, one’s fortune will be benefited, one’s ship will come in. It goes well beyond mere hope, for hope is humble and patient, biding its time while American expectation zooms past in a red sports car, laughing maniacally as the wind whips its hair in a million directions. The expectation becomes a birthright, an entitlement, not even a demand, for demand implies the possibility of rejection or resistance. It is simply known that things will get better.
Of course, life pays little heed to the American self-image and its egotistical entitlements. Life, inevitably, doesn’t always get better. People may learn or change over time, but often for the worse, the more cynical, the more deprived. They lose jobs, they lose houses, they lose marriages. They make mistakes. People they love die. The myriad mundane experiences that philosophers and novelists have put in perspective for millennia worth of human beings take their toll on the human souls, yet only in America do we seem to bear it with such profoundly little grace, such massive resort to drugs and despair. This is not to pick on America, entirely, as I am wont to do, for increasingly little of the world bears such losses with dignity or perspective. But this nation, as with most phenomena of the last half-century, appears something of an epicenter, a ground zero from which the ripples of expectation and greed and self-delusion ripple out as we infect the rest of the world with our brand of capitalism and neo-neo-imperialism.
The question becomes why? Why is America this bastion of disappointment, of flight to distraction in the form of quick-hitting media or fast-acting painkillers? What makes us so different that we cannot handle the bends in the road?
I believe it’s because we don’t see them coming. We’re told they won’t come, because the passage of time is supposed to, somehow, inevitably, make things better. And worse than just making our reactions to our unhappiness more extreme, I think it’s actually the cause of most of that unhappiness.
Take a marriage, for example (shocking that I’d start here, I know). If one has the expectation of eternal growth and improvement, it becomes all too easy to become dissatisfied with the course of that marriage. There is not the mere push to smooth out problems and challenge one’s partner to betterment, there is the God-given mandated right to eternal improvement, because that’s the nature of time. Every year should not be a mere marker of stable positive time logged, it must demonstrate tangible growth over time. And subjecting any person, any situation, any element of existence, to that kind of expectation is going to take a toll. Any shortcoming can be compared against the ever-upward stock-market curve of fabled expectation, leading to foot-tapping impatience at how one could tolerate a year when things were the same, even if that sameness was still very good. It doesn’t take long before one imagines that everyone else is growing and one is somehow stuck in unnecessary stagnation, and it’s time to take drastic action to correct one’s disappointing circumstances.
Even more importantly, that same situation is taxed by a lack of appreciation for the present. The very nature of a constantly-improving future is to belittle or undermine whatever values are banked for the time being. The evidentiary documentation of advertising and corporations’ role in dissatisfying people with their present circumstances is too legion and vast to even reference – it is as trivial as observing that people need oxygen to breathe. And yet other, deeper elements of our societal structure serve the same function. Profits must not only exist, they must be ever increasing. Success must not merely be maintained, it must be heightened. This kind of pressure on ever better futures mean that whatever happens in the future doesn’t end up even mattering as much, because we never reach it. When the future is always better, the present it always worse, whether that future actually is better or not. And thus we do not appreciate whatever we have or have been given. Doubly so because everything we gain, if it actually is better than the past, was expected and promised from the get-go. The only surprises are bad ones, never good. And in that, we undermine any tokens of joy we could hope to get during life as we actually live it.
An alternative structure to both society and our lives might be better focused on the nature of life as cyclical, as changing but perhaps not improving. It is a fine line between this and hopelessness, a line that must be guarded carefully and walked closely. Saying that things will not necessarily improve, however, is not to say that they cannot. It is merely to observe the blindingly obvious reality that things do not always get better for all people at all times. Have you ever seen an old homeless person? Have you ever seen someone suffer a loss they could not endure? Have you ever seen someone undergo an injury or a disease and never fully recover? These are daily mundane proofs of the fact that one’s life is not destined to always spiral upward in some magic escalator of rapture. And yet most people persist in the constant belief that they are mandated to ride such an escalator, forever.
Adjusting to the reality, internalizing it, sharing it with others, teaching one’s children: all of this would seem to lead to a more harmonious understanding with our fellow people and the actual circumstances we seem to face on this planet. It would make losses easier to stomach, not adding the trauma of being wrenched from expectations to the already devastating loss endured. It would make happiness more pervasive, more appreciated, less belittled in the face of greater happiness to come. It would allow people to be satisfied with less while still striving to seek improvement and truly valuing whatever they were actually able to improve. It would reduce exploitation, of ourselves, each other, foreign nations, the environment.
It’s time to be anti-growth. It’s time to understand that life is not a linear straight-line pointed upwards, but another game we all played as children: Chutes and Ladders. But no one ever wins. And you know what? That’s okay. Life shouldn’t be about winning and losing. Life should be about being happy to be on square 55 because of whatever’s valuable about that square.
It’s probably too late for my generation in this country, though we can make strides to try to undo a century’s worth of work before us. But some of you have a role in raising the next generation and I urge you to take heed.
This letter will be part of my outgoing mail today:
“Today, I take you into my arms and into my heart and promise to hold you there forever. Through whatever we encounter, I promise you my unfailing love and my unflinching honesty. I know that my life can never be the same without you. It can never be complete without your love, your understanding, and your support. I love you in a way that I’ve never loved another person and I never will be able to again. You are my soulmate. This is why today is the happiest day of my life, as I stand here before you, and our family, and our friends, and all of God’s creation and I commit myself to you and to our lives together. I love you.”
-Emily Garin, as she became Emily Clayton, 13 July 2003
Man, am I glad we’re about to be done with May. May was not without highlights, but was mostly an unmitigated disaster. The first month of being out of touch with Emily has been rough. It appropriately began on May Day (made all the more appropriate by just finishing The Handmaid’s Tale, which I loved and tore through very quickly, though was annoyed by the “Historical Note” addendum) and could not be over soon enough.
In the spirit of all this and more, here’s something to look forward to, already less than a month away. If you don’t like the title, finding it to be outdated, melodramatic, or even self-indulgent, you should know that my first notion for the tour title was the “Not Dead Yet” Tour. Which in some ways I find more fitting, though I like this acronym better, even if the ring is overall more nostalgic and less triumphal than Not Dead Yet might be. There are not a lot of detailed plans for this Tour quite yet, other than possibly daily yoga, since I’m losing my yoga routine with the close of the weekly class this evening, hanging out a bunch with friends, and two weddings (one in Boston and one in Albuquerque). I am still ruminating on a video diary thing as well as a writing project, so stay tuned for lots of neat new possibilities to come.
Anyway, obligatory Tour dates list:
Additionally, it’s worth noting that if you’re along the implicit route of this trip and I haven’t included your city, there’s still some room for amendment. You should contact me about that. The cross-country treks on either side of Albuquerque are going to be a little rushed, but there’s still room for flexibility there and especially on the East Coast portion.
Also changed the theme of the blog to reflect the new summer plans. The image up top is pretty much the best characterization of how I feel about this trip.
It’s been really hard to breathe lately. Maybe I need to do more yoga. Maybe I just need to swallow my pride already. Maybe there are no right answers, like Rabbit surmises in the comic below, only a vague attempt to avoid the skyward pianos that loom and always threaten to fall.
I’m going to DC this weekend. Hanging out at Brandzy’s place, though I won’t see him much. Talking to high school debaters at Nationals about our upcoming Camp, our debate program for any potential Rutgers prospects. Getting a bit more familiar with Public Forum debate.
I went to the Allison Weiss show in Princeton on Wednesday. It was quite awesome, a much better sampling of her in her element than the prior show in New York. She asked for requests and I called one out (July 25, 2007) and she played it when she said it wasn’t on the setlist and used this to encourage more requests. I bought a dinosaur T-shirt from her after the show. She played all the songs I wanted to hear, plus a new one, penultimately, that broke my heart. It’s called “I’ll Be OK”. I’m not so sure.
There’s something about short, direct, declarative sentences that feels like control. It’s probably very different than how I usually feel, the rambly arcs of poetic lyrical interpretability. How much of all this is about control? Pride or control? How much of self-preservation requires those elements? How much do I care?
Yesterday I got a brief vision of a possible summer plan with the laptop-based webcam capturing me telling stream-of-consciousness stories while I drove across the country. Little video postcards of life on the road, free, carefree, hopeful. It doesn’t feel real. It feels like a clown suit I’m trying to want to put on. I don’t know how to pretend to want things that are different than everything I always tried to want.
Everything is harder since I tried to take control.
Allison Weiss at Small World Coffee
25 May 2011
I Don’t Want to Be Here
I Was an Island
July 25, 2007
Try to Understand
You + Me + Alcohol
Wait for Me
Let Me Go
I’ll Be OK
I’m an anniversaries kind of guy. History major. Names, dates, places, and times. I have a theory about time being a geographical function because of the orbit of the world and subscribe to the more common theory that places are charged with something meaningful, that they get stamped and imprinted by the events thereon, always to carry the legacy of that occurrence into the future, which itself is just a repetition of geographical paths already tread. This explains what people sometimes mistake for ghosts or that spectral ooky spine-tingly feeling when they go somewhere that inspires that.
Coming up on a real doozy in the next 24 hours here. A year ago today was the last full day I spent with my wife, Emily, before she flew away a year ago tomorrow, before I took her to the John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City with her friend Amy and she flew away and never loved me in person again. Before she left, after I left them at the airport but before the plane took off, she called me to say the following:
And was gone. It would be sixty more days before she decided that she didn’t love me anymore, sixty days of deep yearning missing loving important conversations that I wish I’d recorded as a bulwark against the creeping feeling that I have somehow become a crazy person in the midst of all this. As though my very sensory perceptions were what was betraying me instead of my wife. Granted, I’d had an experience with that before that makes me especially susceptible to this kind of thing, but still. This is not a thing one can just live with very easily without questioning whether the world is just as bad as the worst people say it is, that this whole thing is somehow a test.
Which prompts one of the most irrational (objectively) and yet compelling feelings to strike in the last few days and hours – that somehow tomorrow someone will pop out of a cake or drop down with their movie cameras or come out from behind a curtain and reveal that I’ve been punked, that it’s all farce, that I’ve somehow survived a year and don’t have to put up with this nonsense anymore, this idea that someone can just make a mistake and react so violently to their own action as to cast aside every prior incarnation of their self-perception. That of course that doesn’t happen and you somehow kept it together for 365 days after and now here’s your prize and let’s all go watch it on video while Emily sits by your side and waits for you to forgive her for this monstrously poor-taste over-extended joke so you can get back to your life.
Of course, in this theory, it would probably require waiting till the 19th of July of this year, or maybe a week after that. And pretty soon we can make bargains for 3 or 5 years. This is how people go crazy, how people just flat lose it. Cognitive dissonance, not unlike that which most likely inspired her own psychic break with the past in the wake of her simple human mistake. People can snap like that, but they can also bargain themselves to death, move the bar further and further toward oblivion until one day it’s over the edge. None of this is comforting.
And yet all the alternatives feel like pure submission, pure acquiescence to the things that were done, without resistance. It’s something of this desire not to submit that leaves unsigned insipid yellow-flagged papers on my desk to this moment, the ironically cruel brand of “Legal Solutions Plus” stamped beneath each one. I know obscenity when I see it. It’s like an atrocity, this stack of monochrome sheets that bear my name, but no resemblance to anything I can recognize. I am finding it hard to breathe, now, as I type this.
I can point to the problems, I can articulate and feel them, I can even anticipate the cascading catastrophes stemming from being so open and public about these feelings here and now. Who could ever love me when witnessing this documentation that I may spend the rest of my life waiting for my first wife to pop out from behind the curtain and yell “Surprise!”? Who could ever take the incredible risk and sacrifice that devotion to me would require when I am this damaged? The odds of viability start to decline precipitously on a course especially perilous in light of my own conviction that only love can heal me. And even “heal” seems like a naive word to cite, maybe “patch up” is better or even “stop the bleeding”, the arterial floodgates that seem to be spewing in every direction.
And why now? Is it just the anniversary that makes me dwell, to almost bask in the pain of all this memory and ache? There is an element, of course, but it has much more to do with the separation, the commitment to stay away in word and deed, to take a break so that I may actually acclimate to a life without this person. And that, of course, in cutting off communication, there is a sudden rekindling of all that was lost in the first place, a sudden second death to follow the first, for there is no longer even the illusion of connection, no matter how painful and abusive the frail fires of friendship were over the last year. And of course with that a release, also, for me to open up about what I’m feeling, to not feel censored or bridled by having to talk to her about it in a day or a week, to not be further admonished for making one more unforeseeable mistake in a chain of history rewritten with me as the villain.
And I’m thinking of spending this night, the one-annum marker from the last night of my life I truly spent with my wife, in Princeton? Listening to someone sing about heartbreak? What is wrong with me?
The summer is coming but it can’t come fast enough, can’t pass fast enough, can’t make up its mind about coming or going or raining or pouring and there’s a sense I have that I should be better than this better than this by now because everyone else believes time is something more than a construct and they forget forget forget and get to be better and why can I not be better and the things that I do in the wake of what’s done are no better and all I get is what I give and I can’t can’t can’t forget and this is all I get.
Emily is in the states from what I can tell, from what I remember. I’m trying so hard to forget but it doesn’t work like that, the mind doesn’t just shut down and mine in particular seems enthralled at its height with what it should least be interested in. It’s horror, it’s fascination, there’s a reason we put ourselves through 10-inning 8-7 baseball games or literal roller-coaster rides or falling in love all over again when we know that we shouldn’t. Read your Watership Down, head for Strawberry’s Warren, know in your soul, in the core they keep telling me to engage on Tuesday nights that all this diversion and distraction is there to replace the life-or-death fight-or-flight feeling innate to being an animal. Not that kind of animal, but then again why not? Am I anything more, anything better? Truly?
But and so I have to be concerned on subway cars, on late-night (too late) trains to the middle of New Jersey, as though seeing the actual person would somehow be more powerful than the ghost that is waiting on brown warped leather or dingy graffitied plastic, hiding on street corners and under bus depot covers and in the parks and playgrounds of any city, but oh especially this city. As though talking on the phone or writing on the computer or reading the masterwork of the late great can in any way interrupt the flow of mental traffic borne ceaselessly against the tide, what would you say? Is this grand plan anything better than mild distraction, any more nuanced than the “look behind you!” trick when you’re going to take the money and run? Does the distance, real or imagined, help sever the seamless soul-deep bond that was tied so tightly, became interwoven with heartbeats and that nasal intake of air, stay here for five breaths, for five million breaths, why does the total count of a lifetime’s breaths seem like such a small number in the end?
A veggie burger with avocado and fries and Harry Potter 3 on the weirdly overdone big-screens and there is no event that I process without the mental image of you by my side and I try to insert others there in your stead but something seems off and even when it doesn’t there are larger problems of trying to replace something that’s missing and I know it and I get it and I understand how the comparison doesn’t wash but if you lost all your limbs tomorrow and someone told you the only thing we can replace them with are fish because it’s wrong to want arms and legs again because you had those before and new arms and new legs don’t want to be compared and I say fish are you serious and so I take the anesthetic and wake up days later with floppy jetsam of the sea just sort of stapled or sewn to the nubbins and I can still feel my digits so rudely severed and a walleye gives me this deadpan look from where my elbow should be like why don’t you want to play with me, why can I not use my little tiny gills to help you pick up where you left off?
Not to mention the falling over.
I watched a soccer game of some high-school-or-so youth club league, caged like visions of the Bronx Zoo in four perpendicular/parallel sheets of 30-foot chain link and then the Allison Weiss show I’d so been looking forward to, the only one of fifty or seventy with the guts to go it alone, and then people on the train back as I read some of the most even more compelling bits of The Pale King before DFW left me alone forever. And the echoes of the pin-drop pathos of “Ghost Stories” and that late chapter I relate to so well (but shouldn’t?) haven’t left me since, I am a walking shadow for the backlit realities of a few moments in time and space that feel like connection, that feel like art reaching out to me across the solipsistic divide of otherness and telling me it’s not okay but it doesn’t have to be and I am here hurting too. It is not okay but I am here but it is still not okay but I am still here. Over and over, till the mantra itself fades out of meaning and becomes another dull echo of an empty chamber.
I may go again Wednesday night in Princeton.
I bought a yoga mat. It is teal green and the color that anyone would have predicted and all I can hear is the voice and the lilt and the reaction that she would have had, that she might as well be having. At a certain point, if you can almost simulate your life well enough, is there a point to living it out?
She is still my wife. I have to figure out what to do about that. Maybe the 26th. Maybe the 6th. Maybe I can’t.
Allison Weiss at Rockwood Music Hall (with Bess Rogers)
New York City, NY
21 May 2011
I Don’t Want to Be Here
You + Me + Alcohol
I Was an Island
The End Part 2 (Boston)
Try to Understand
Wait for Me
It’s easy to forget what this year was supposed to be about. I don’t even mean all that long ago, before my life caved in and I was left staring at the daily wreckage of my own dreams. I mean after that, but still before now, when I was going to be finishing a book, my fourth novel, in five days.
I last worked on it on 7 February 2011, an overcold day that I spent writing fiction outside of my place of residence for the first time in many years, then talked on the phone to Ariel, then came home and wrote this post and then wound up tabling the project until, apparently, now or even later than now. That was three months ago. The project’s sum total, aside from a pretty thorough and still salvageable outline, stands at 2,433 words. Less than ten pages, generously. The size of a half term paper I used to crank out in a handful of hours before the deadline to convince my professor I was from wherever I was writing about.
I mean, there were other things that happened on the way to today, many of them halfway good. There was that whole job thing that came along just about after, whisking me away from a future in Seattle or Denver or Flagstaff and pulling me in, not unlike a friendly but still somewhat menacing giant anemone, ensconcing me in New Jersey with the promise of a career that was neither writing nor in conflict with my principles and artistic desires. Slowly gnawing on my nutrients while I got numb and placid and malleable and basked in the warmth of something like community before awaking on the rocky shores this May, behind on creativity and with the tidewaters of that community pulling away and out to sea without me. This is water, as good old DFW would say. And you only know it when you’re out of it, for good or for ill.
The Pale King is searingly brilliant, by the way, a 500+-page suicide note that I’m already in love with a fifth of the way through. It’s brilliant like a made-for-TV knife, like a whole novel of nothing but Tim O’Brien water buffalo in unending agonizing parade to their slow demise. It’s improved my quality of life twenty points in two days, single-handedly, if only be reawakening the slumbering knowledge deep within me of the importance of Project X. Its similarities to same are also somewhat troubling, at least in spirit, and it occurs to me that X could be a suicide note if it had to be, probably best reads that way as fiction even if that’s not its purpose in the corporeal world per se.
I draft ten notes a day, mostly addressed to the person I have decided to no longer address, of course, though it’s probably inevitable that she reads this blog (unless she’s really that disconnected, but then again she gets bored very easily and quickly became addicted to things like Facebook and the Internet for their absorbing, time-wasting capabilities, so) and thus even the people I “cut off communication from” (one, to date), are never really out of touch. With me. If. Yeah. I’m going to stop now. And reset.
The point is, simply, that I think a lot about death, in sort of the way normal people (as far as I can tell) think about food. Savoring different textures and anticipating certain flavors. Imagining different layouts and menus. It is not unwelcome, though it is probably less welcome than the average perception of food, it carries some of the same craving without the visceral desire. It is important, sometimes, for me to flag for people that I will not be terribly sad if it happens, even very soon. Which is not to say that I’m willing it and it is important that I not will it for the sake of all you dearly beloved readers and friends who I am truly well aware want the best for me. It is also important that you not respond to the sentence prior to the last one with some snide quirky neo-atheistic response about me not being able to be sad because I’d be dead and the whole point would be to feel nothing. It’s not exactly how it works and even if it were, it would still matter differently. Either you follow or you don’t. The point is, and this is the bottom line, it is no great loss if I go in this condition. There is something to be said for going out on a low note, when one is not missing much.
I bring this up not because I’m on the precipice of something drastic – indeed, I probably spend less time worrying about it than I have in a while – but because I am starting to formulate plans around spending a lot of time on the road this summer. And the road is a dangerous place – far more dangerous than the head of the truly suicidal, let alone something nice and safe like a plane or a ghetto. And in spending a lot of time considering mortality, one can stave it off with the import of writing a note first, then a lengthy note, then perhaps a whole manifesto about life that is long and exhaustive and exhausting and before too long, it’s time for sleep instead of death and the whole discussion can be tabled for another night.
Except here’s the problem: we often never get around to writing that thing, whatever it is, and then we wind up in a three-car chaos outside of Tulsa some night or succumbing to a clot or an aneurysm that no one thought to look for and suddenly the thing that reassured us about staying alive is still left unfinished and makes the whole operation of dying, after all, sad and wasteful. Which is not to turn this into the typical trite “make haste to live” or the deadly “live each day as if it were your last” (not that there is not value to such positions, in part), but rather to observe that those things bear writing when one has the time and, indeed, even the circumspection to perhaps not be all so mopey about the end of living on this planet.
It’s like this: My debate team went to Columbia a week or two ago to renew the old King’s/Queen’s Debate tradition from centuries ago and they hit this case about letting prisoners go if the law they were imprisoned under was repealed. Makes sense, intuitive, fun for discourse, the whole nine. But the team mounted a mighty opp based on the idea that parole boards ought decide when people are ready to reintegrate into society – that blanket amnesty is bad, but the parsing and sorting of parole boards can maximize the chance that those returning to society are healthy and happy and ready to participate. But of course Columbia ultimately won that argument by observing quite simply that this is not our modern standard – parole boards are not invoked at the end of every term in prison, but only periodically and selectively for early release.
Which is to say that a great writing project, a suicide note if you will (regardless of self-infliction, mind), is like a parole board for life. We ought not be let out without taking the time to reflect. Not only does this dovetail quite obviously with my own theological presumptions about a time of review and reflection between worlds (some day that will be set down, but I have confidence enough of you know what I’m talking about that I don’t have to explicate further at risk of this being part of the whole missing piece I’m trying to avoid), but it’s just a good standard. So if you catch yourself feeling okay with death, maybe it’s time to start contributing the last great statement (and yours may not involve words – perhaps you prefer sculpture or interpretive dance) just in case. And if you like life more, well all the more reason to hedge just in case, to indent the sting of potential calamitous tragedy with pre-emptive safekeeping.
And so, with that, it may be time to set a new deadline for good old Project X. Realistically it can’t be before the summer travel, starting to take shape between the 24ths of June and July, but it can be soon enough that each year since I got serious about this aspect of my life again will contribute one book to the stack of those waiting to find traction in the greater mind at large. And writing books for the aspiring author is probably a lot like having children for the aspiring Major League dad. Sooner or later, one of them’s gotta be able to play ball.
There is a blue sign at the top of the hill by the roadside gone T-shaped and it says No Sledding and it is the kind of sign that shows the wear and age of countless police officers standing by a bloody street with a horrified post-traumatic driver and a little bit of disheveled dirty cardboard or bits of broken plastic undertire as the snow gently falls over the stains and someone keeps repeating that they just came out of nowhere and sobered men stand on their lawns three doors down and mutter about damnfool kids and what’s become of the world. The sign bears nothing of that grim scene in its early-May sun-baked splendor, basking in non sequitir as the world blooms and the vaguest hints of precipitation are warm and inviting. He tumbles down the gravelly grassy incline at just shy of a run, mind bent back to a precipitous decline through trees in La Jolla that also ended in a sudden road below, the fortune of that moment’s lack of speeding vehicle having something to do with an entire novel and the belief that maybe we are all immortal. How lucky that seemed then; how unlucky now.
Over the would-be deadly street and into the next array, a field of resplendent glory as only the windy tilt of low-seventies sunshine can drift through shimmery new leaves and the bent blades of unkempt fairway. He stands for a moment to soak in the scene and all the places it takes him back to, shiny rain-spared lawns of Oregon or the parched but artificially thriving expanses of New Mexico under its thin and sickly attempts at trees. The trees are healthy here, robust, cartoonish in their solidity, and they beckon in the way that nature pulls at the soul of each of us, the way we can look at an animal or a landmark and try to remember that this, this is where we belong and always did and how to we fall so in love with the walls and right angles and resigned fellow humans with whom we log most of our hours? A book in a pack and water to boot and it is not until he is ensconced firmly beneath the broadest-reaching branches of the most personable plant that he remembers, squinting under hatbrim in the inconsistent cloud-shaped sunlight, what is wrong with this picture.
He is alone.
It is a place that other people take people, it is a place to be a pair, and the floodgates gently lift to reveal a torrent of parks and pastimes prior and the lazy adjustments of bodies in contact, the sighs and tilts of laps and lips and heads on stomachs in the gentle innocence of mutual peace. He burns, badly, in the remembrance of the irreplaceable, not to be quite that pessimistic, but how could he possibly restore the grandeur of first love or the anticipation of things undone when ships have sailed and time unrefundable has been spent? Each moment is a nod to the end of it all, a wink at mortality, and aging is as much about the gilding of memory as the ventures into the ever-darkening hollows of the unknown. And now the mistakes, not only the clear immediate one of trying to expend the afternoon this way, already swollen with dam bursts strangely unanticipated, but the past ones ringing ever louder, the girl jilted too soon or the other clung to too long. The inability to see the simple adoration in a moment in the fields and the yearning, powerful desire to simply return for a day, a simple mundane day like Emily in “Our Town”, to drag the mate of the moment out of the office or away from duty and into an empty green expanse to read and drape and hold hands against the backdrop of a summer day’s endless march toward twilight. Just one day, please God, and then I could sleep soundly forever, or at least till I did another stupid thing like this.
The pages don’t hold up long, their subjects hinting and gesturing leeringly at the wounds newly re-exposed and the clouds obscure far too much light in an unsubtle condemnation that starts to feel like warning. He waits for an aphid to scuttle ever slowly, pausing periodically, to the edge of the page and over it so he may close it without another pang of guilt piled on, then begins the sad slow process of stretching and repacking that acknowledges the inability to rejoin our simpler roots. He thinks about summer, thinks about the future, feels paralyzed by its limitless horizon and engulfing depth, wonders if any place will ever hold his person alone again without shadowy echoes of the people who are no longer with him. There has to be a way to reframe, to adjust, to find the kind of solace in loneliness that seems so natural to so many, or at least they’re good at faking. But not today. Today it is a race against thunder and quickening wind to make it to the doorway and the false comforts of an interior undrenched.
I am the old man waiting in the rest home to die, wondering what became of my gifts and nerve endings. I am the seventh-grader discovering a voice for his long-sublimated hopes, impatient to grow up already. I am the stickball player at a wedding that feels like a perfectly foretold homecoming. I am the empty-handed return flier from Africa, neck craning in half-sleep that covers what has been lost. I am the four-year-old just awoken from my first nightmare, the nine-year-old writhing with my first migraine. I am the man, possibly, comforting his child at their own pain, the visage of such an entity blinking in and out of existence with my own uncertain ability to hope.
I can pause the world, lie back on grass beneath a tree, look up, and see my selves, ever flailing into the future but seamlessly the same. What I cannot see, today, is the point.
She said no one talks the way that you do, sees the way that you do, understands the things that are really going on. She said we are one-eyed people in the land of the blind, we are ignorant of time while others are enslaved by it, we are the people of hope, of compassion, of deeper truth and inner beauty. She said I never thought about those things that way before, never thought about animals, never thought about America, never thought about “I Am a Rock” in exactly those ways. And then she said forever.
It did not take long for her to say forever because it doesn’t when these things are true and right and no matter what you take away from me this lifetime, you will not remove the trueness or the rightness. You can tarnish anything you want, you can fill a thousand bags of sand with gleaming gems only to rot them at the bottom of the ocean or the core of the Earth and the glow of the shine that peeks through will still be bright enough to blot the moon, compete with the sun. There is a truth to creation and a falsehood to destruction that bleeds more profoundly than all the rust in this empty-seeming world, that keeps the heat of hope aflame neath the somber embers of salty extinction. Waiting for a little nibble of something flammable nearby so it can catch, take hold, flare up in lofty remembrance of what is inevitably lost.
I remember thinking that when it happened, when it truly happened for real, I would count things. The number of times a certain turn of phrase, a certain iteration of a feeling, a certain look or sensation passing to another passing into the eternity of commitment unending. But such is not the way of these things, the counts become unsustainable and seem superfluous, even remedial. Who could put a number on “I love you”s, a digit to discern the exchange of souls across an eyeway? The genus of the idea lodged in a prior love taken, the need for evidence mounted in the face of denial, but no matter. One loses sight of the safeguards on the way to the abyss, becomes resigned to happiness, commits fully to the immutability of inner peace as a lifelong condition. And somewhere in that drifty bliss comes the backslap of complacency, the gentle tilting of water that will eventually become a drowning whirlpool. All the while, feeling like life is too beautiful to count, too perfect to question.
Now she falls silent, at my own behest, the cacophony of criticisms too great to bear in the face of her own self-imposed blindness. It is impossible to lose so much, moreso in perhaps the most undignified way known to human relations, but it is the unkindest cut of all to have to carry the weight of continual disregard, endless apathy, a wanton will of callous indifference in the face of such once-loved suffering. The half-flat quarter-true platitudes plinking down the cross-continental airwaves, simplifications of philosophies and theories once embraced and now lampooned. The audacity to claim that I do not care about happiness just because I see something else as the most essential purpose of human being. The outrage of the line “I wish I missed you.” The insult of seeming to only care about suicidal feelings at their precipice, but not their genesis.
In the quieting of these rabid, more recent voices, perhaps there is a hope for the whispers of the past. That the person killed so violently on a night of unfaith can be resurrected if only in memory, in contrast to the radio silence I have demanded for my own sane hopes. There is danger in this method, to be sure, real threat of a spilling ever backwards into the vain twisters of a past never to be regained. But perhaps there can also be mourning, the dirges can finally be played against a backdrop of quiet instead of the din of denial, the thundering cymbals attempting to override a decade of true love.
Come softly now, hear the echoes of years gone by. A world rent asunder by the crashing of planes, now tied so poetically to the demise of the instigator. I could not have chosen these dates more carefully were I a scriptwriter, a managing editor on a turnkey timeline. And yes, the desire, burning bright, to call, to e-mail, to reach out across the unfeeling space and distance and share what was shared then, the alienation from the bloodthirsty others. The disconnect from those who could not see beyond themselves. How insidious fate to make me yearn for just those feelings on just this day from just that lost soul.
Emily, I miss you. I will always miss you. If there is a lesson of history, a lesson of 9/11, a lesson of love, it is that all this loss is so unnecessary. We are consigned in this life to be archeologists in the wreckage of our own waste. Picking at it, like disoriented ravens, in search of a faint glimmer on which to pray.
It’s hard to read the posts I made in this space from last April without getting a little upset. There was a lot of looking forward then, especially a year and a day ago when I looked back on Nationals 2010 and tried to anticipate what the next year would bring, both at Rutgers and even tabbing Nats this year. And a year less a day ago, two days after, the giddy announcement that Em had finally secured a summer position in Liberia. It’s a little like the public-diary-rereading version of watching a really unsubtle horror film. No matter how much you yell “Look behind you!” at the screen, your April 2010 self won’t hear you.
I’ve been fond of telling people this week that “I’m not a person” right now, a nod to the obsessive focus I’ve brought to both preparing the Rutgers team for Nationals (you can read our latest Targum article from yesterday here) and to preparing to be Tab Director at the marquee title event for APDA. Splitting these duties is somewhat certifiable, and yet completely exhilarating as I have frequently observed that I like only coaching and tabbing nearly as much as I used to like debating. And a lot of the preparation, as the article attests, has involved me getting to debate the kids I usually just observe, if only in practice and drills.
Certainly spending three days at the US Military Academy in such a position of authority will be surreal enough. I’ve been making a lot of jokes with people in the last few months about how unpredictable recent developments in my life have been, how life itself seems pretty determined to demonstrate its flexibility and perhaps insanity to me. A year ago, my thoughts were focused on how tabbing nationals in my second year of coaching would be a likely farewell to the circuit, a last nod to perhaps my favorite institution of all-time before shuffling quietly into the shadows for a possibly somewhat permanent jaunt abroad with the wife I’d met through said organization. As it stands now, I am indefinitely involved, perhaps in an increasing manner, my third Nats tab room being just another notch in a life once again built on doubling down on debate and hoping the rest of the details sort themselves out.
I never make unmitigatedly positive statements any more, especially when looking at my own life and its meandering browbeaten path. But I can at least be thankful to debate as a whole and this league in specific as a heck of a safety net that’s been there to catch my terminal velocity this annum. That does bring me to the brink of an unknown on the verge of a summer without much clear form or shape other than letdown from the weekly adrenaline surge of competition. But it also provides reassurance at the constancy of having found a community I can always enjoy and feel a mutual benefit in relation to. In some ways, it may not seem like much; in others, it feels like the early fruits of most people’s lifelong quests.
The goal for the next 72 hours? One of the oldest in the book. Find a way to have some fun, to carve some joy from the sheer intensity. As long as they have music at the banquet, it shouldn’t be too hard.
Yesterday, at 3:00 PM Pacific time, Pando’s wonderful and heartfelt caretakers for the better part of a year drove her to the vet and said goodbye for the last time. She’d been sick and on painkillers for about a month, slowly fading away. She’d formed a real bond with Em’s cousin and her daughter, living in a house of cats in a certain isolation while she waited for me to be able to handle the emotional implications of bringing back an animal who was a living reflection of the marriage that was taken from me. Sadly, she didn’t make it to that day. I didn’t make it to that day. And I couldn’t be with her on the day she shuffled off the mortal coil, wriggling out of it like the blue harness I used to walk her in on sunny days in Berkeley and Princeton.
A search of “Pandora” on this website reveals 83 resultant pages, “Pando” adds 26 more. The cat was an essential feature of my life for eight years, non-coincidentally the eight years I lived with Emily before she left me. Those eight years make Pando the longest-running pet in my life’s history, surpassing Bags and Tappy, prior beloved felines, as well as Patty Duckworth (duck), Cadbury and Nepal (rabbits), and even Rilla (another rabbit). Eight years can seem like a short time, I guess, given that it’s only a quarter of the era I’ve logged on this planet so far, but it’s feeling remarkably like eternity right now, those eight years in particular. Pandora witnessed the happiest, most fulfilled time of my life and was no small part of that sense of fulfillment.
We welcomed Pandora to our home, the tiny studio on Curtis Street in Berkeley, on 8 November 2002. She was about four years old at the time, born probably almost exactly when Emily and I met in a novice semifinal round at Brown University in November 1998. Emily and her partner ran one of those classic “there is a law cases” about something busted in Louisiana, made all the more aggravating by the fact that the case wasn’t at all clear from her partner’s opening constructive speech (and there were no points of clarification sessions in those days). Suddenly the case became clear in MG when Em got up to speak, leaving my partner to construct the real opp to the case as we now understood it. We dropped the round and I was annoyed (the next week’s Waltham Weekly included this scathing review: “We debated 5 rounds against both novices & non-novices, then proceeded to novice break rounds, losing semifinals on a 2-1 decision to a snotty Princeton (am I being redundant?) team.”), but the MG had nonetheless caught my eye as both attractive and intelligent, launching a nearly three-year interest that I wrestled with as she displayed poor judgment in her choice of relationships and yet did just enough to keep me interested.
Where was Pando during all that time? What was she up to on the mean streets of Berkeley? These things are not recorded, were unknown to us when we got her. About all we knew was this when we picked her up:
We have a cat! She’s a 4-year-old gray tabby/tortoise mix who ends up looking like a mottled mix of gray, brown, & black. We got her at the no-kill animal shelter about a mile away. It took her about 3 hours to really warm up to the house & us, but now she’s feeling pretty much at home. A name is pending.
The next day, 9 November 2002, I wrote this on Introspection: “Last night, I was falling asleep while reading a solid book, holding my future wife, & listening to our new cat purring in my lap. I think in that hour, I truly discovered inner peace.”
We named her three days later, both deciding to replace the shelter’s temporary appellation of “Charlotte” with a more interesting and apt descriptor. I’m not really sure what drew us both to “Pandora”, though we both quickly discovered the power of box jokes for the lifetime indoor feline. Somehow those failed to get old for pretty much the rest of her life, if the testimony of her last caretakers is any indication.
Pandora, of course, spent most of her life in conflict with said box, which became a major source of strife and tension for those dealing with her. She was fine and well acclimated for a couple months, but when we left her in the company of a local friend for a lengthy December trip to Albuquerque, we returned to find that she had soiled the bed utterly. She was never quite the same again, often confusing cloth and bedclothes and futons for her litterbox. She would go through periods of improved behavior and seem to be on the mend, but much of our lives were spent with plastic sheeting on cloth-covered furniture whenever we left the house.
It occurred to lots of people during these years that we were making a lot of sacrifices and bending over backwards to accommodate a cat who had a little bit of a screw loose. But she was honestly the sweetest and kindest animal I think I’ve ever encountered, though Patty Duckworth may be competitive. She actively desired human contact at almost all times, approaching with her trademark headbutts as she bid whoever her targeted human was to look away from the computer or book and pay attention to her. She enjoyed TV and movies at times, lively eyes darting to keep up with the rapid movements on the screen, but also taking advantage of the sedentary human attention that left laps open and hands free for scritching. The top of her head was her favorite place to be touched, but she also liked the chin. Her defensiveness about her hindquarters and the tufts of hair there seemed to indicate she may have had a litter in her days as a stray, but this never kept Emily from pushing the envelope at times to rub her belly. Only at these times would Pando actually bite and Em took such bites personally at times even though she admitted egging them on. She jestingly said that Pandora liked me more than she, but I don’t think she ever really meant this. At this point, though, who knows.
Pandora moved with us from Curtis Street to the Big Blue House on MacArthur, becoming a fixture in the long sunny hallways and befriending our roommate Fish with all the wrong moves (frequently mistaking his bed and his laundry pile for the box). They had a bit of a rivalry at times and she probably had more to do with his eventual decision to move out than any one single factor, but they also had plenty of good times, including and especially Fish’s discovery of her theme song, an obscure Tori Amos number:
Many was the afternoon Fish would serenade Pando with either a capella or pre-recorded renditions as she darted around the high notes and looked altogether uncertain what was being expressed to her. She did spook easily, a product of never going outside, prone to mewling plaintively whenever she was in transit to the vet or a place to board and often scrambling full-tilt across a hallway or room when she encountered unexpected movement. She would jump at insects, but rejected all possible toys she was showered with except bread twist-ties and the occasional hair-tie, and, discovered far too late, pipe cleaners. This latter was the only lasting thing she enjoyed competitively with drowsing in an attentive lap.
She never particularly photographed well.
But she followed us back to Berkeley when we moved into Grant Street, adjusting well to the reduced space and falling into a rhythm of slightly better behavior. I drove her down to LA contemporary to Jake’s wedding in 2009 as we prepared to move across the country in a long slow roadtrip and here she was first introduced to the household in Altadena where she would conclude her days. She stayed there for a good bit of the summer and Em’s mom flew her out to Tiny House in Princeton to spend a good year in cramped quarters. We’d taken to walking her in the yard in Berkeley on a blue harness and continued this tradition in Princeton, allowing her to chew on tall grasses that swarmed in the heat surrounding the decrepit building, though such encounters were often cut short by encounters with passing cars or dogs or people, sending her darting into the house and taking cover ‘neath a couch. Those lazy sunny days in the grass, few though they were, stand out like monuments to a happiness I am fairly certain I will never feel again.
The last day I spent with Pandora was one of the most frustrating, described in incredible detail in this post from June 2010. She spent the whole day before resisting insertion into her cat carrier like never before in her life, and I recall thinking that she was sending me some sort of message that in retrospect seems plain and compelling, nestled as it was roughly halfway between Emily flying to Africa and her undertaking the events that would unravel our marriage. I was flying to the wrong place as it turns out, taking too much time and attention to friends on the opposite part of the planet from that which might have kept my life together. I had no way of knowing at the time, of course, as constantly reassured and missed as I was by Em, but the lessons best learned are the ones that only become clear over time. So we spent a day in the Philadelphia Airport together, me desperately concerned about Pando’s hydration and ability to get through that much stress, waiting for a backup flight that would wing us to LA, back to Altadena, and to what would eventually remain her home.
I would never see her again.
Granted, of course, this was by my choice. Pandora, as is clear, was a symbol of Emily and I, a representation and living manifestation of our time together. We lived together for a handful of months in total without Pando, she was born when we met and died just now as we struggle with the effort to talk to each other every couple weeks without upsetting each other. I was in no position to take her back and take care of her in her final months as she struggled to hang on, as I myself struggled to hang on as I continue to do. I have spent enough time dodging ghosts and pictures and reminders and mementos to not have to hold the living, then dying manifestation of what I have lost.
And yet I feel guilt, of course. I was worried that even the mere trip back to the east coast would kill her, but I feel tremendous guilt for leaving her to die without me. Not that she was not loved or taken care of, and I am deeply indebted to those who did so, but I still feel a gnawing, chewing sadness that I was so distant from her in her closing year.
All I can come back to for solace is another post, a giddy night in October 2009 when the world seemed alive with presence and feeling and meaning, when I tried to bank the sense that the universe made even in the face of tragedy. The whole post is called (grandiosely but simply) “It All Makes Sense” and you can see the whole thing here. But if you yourself are rushing, are exhausted by the 2,000 words on display mixed with these images and overwrought emotions, I can leave you with this summary.
It opens like this:
This post is an antidote, a message in a bottle, a documentation of a sensation and a perception about the world that is here and irrevocable. It’s something that I may lose, but no one can take away from me. And this is me, planting my flag, staking my ground, putting forth my chronicle of feeling this way and knowing these things at this time.
It all makes sense. All of it. What happens, what doesn’t, when, why, how. We are all so blessed and so privileged to be able to participate, to take part in this experiment with free will and this existence that is at once driven by our own whims and yet interminably destined to make itself work. It is punctuated by tremendous pain, yes, and tremendous anxiety, but it is all so very worth it. And I can see the pain and see the past and I know that every bit of it is worth it for everything.
And closes with this simple line:
I went inside to find Pandora staring at me as though she’d been waiting this whole time.
Mariners’ record this year: 2-2
Mariners’ record this year with me watching: 0-2
Mariners’ record this year without me watching: 2-0
I might want to keep track of this over the course of a season, but it might be too depressing. There’s something very 2010-feeling about the above statistics, making the whole thing seem retrograde and unfortunate. I’m still getting mail from the Law Office of Trudi G. Manfredo, slowly training me to not let my heart leap when I see a large envelope or package waiting for me by the mailbox. No wonder so many adults used to hate getting mail. No wonder people have so robustly embraced e-mail and the postal service is having to run pyramid schemes to stay afloat.
Dissolution. There’s an apt word for you. The solution is getting dissed. Amen.
Got my copy of The Pale King today, the first new book I’ve let myself purchase since I started getting mail from Trudi. I am palpably excited about it, despite the fact that I know it won’t finish, perhaps especially because, since David Foster Wallace’s books never really finish and often almost die mid-sentence. They are about the journey and the exploration and in this case, about the descent into madness that accompanies a final chapter, a final submission, the narrative into suicide. Which is not to say, of course, that this book killed him, but it probably didn’t help. Electro-convulsive therapy is what killed him, of course, which I’ve discussed before. I’m now faced with a dilemma about abandoning or suspending my progress through Underworld to pick up the new tome, which feels somewhat compelling because my interest in DeLillo only came from running out of Wallace to read. However, there’s something to be said for savoring and delaying things, especially when they are the last of things. Once I get through The Pale King, there will be no more Wallace fiction in this lifetime.
What of apprehension, then, of surprise, of anticipation, of expectation? I have been on a new mantra lately, a big kick, something that stems from my interactions with Trudi and friends, yes, but also a longer scope of life writ large. It’s that what we can see coming is never that scary. Dental visits, deadlines, interviews, departures. We build them up in our minds to be cataclysmic moments of potential doom, but rarely does the actual moment even push the meter of our stress levels. They may not always be pleasant, may not always turn out, but not a one of them ranks as the top fifty worst days of any of our lives. It’s the surprises that count against us, the things we don’t see coming, the car accidents and sudden deaths and blindsidings and phone calls in the dead of night. There’s some relaxation and sobriety to be gained from all this, and I’m not even certain the sum of the information is reassuring. On the one hand, we’d be well served by just calming down about everything we dread. On the other, we must constantly look skyward in a more overarching dread for the calamities which may fall therefrom.
Of course the nature of surprise is that it can’t be anticipated, so the idea of this creating an overall aura of creeping dread seems silly in some ways. One could ruin every day one has remaining caught up in negative anticipation of death and I know many who do it (or would, or start whenever they come close). Some people even mistake my own hyper-awareness of mortality for this, though it’s actually the opposite – it’s a comfort with the concept designed to fuel energy into the living days, not a draining dread instead. (Incidentally, I know I keep overusing the word “dread” instead of synonyms, but it’s to hammer it home… and isn’t there an onomatopoetic beauty to the word? Does anything sound like “dread” so much as that solemn dead syllable itself?) No wonder we love surprise parties and surprise gifts and surprise whirlwind trips to the Bahamas. It corrects our vision of where the badness comes from, reminds us that positives can come from traditionally negative sources. That the clear blue sky is not just waiting to kill us, but perhaps also to elate us, that the random cacophony of wills involved in shaping our world can be on our side as well. No wonder I chose to delay telling the Rutgers team some particularly excellent news I have for them tonight so they could savor the nature of positive anticipation as well, so they could suspend their lack of faith in the notion of surprise.
Of course this last is a dual-sided sword, for in having time to anticipate so-called surprises, there is the inevitable churn of disappointment that correlates quite cleanly to the relief of surviving dreaded events. How many Christmases, birthdays, long-planned dates lived up to the expectation, the savory sweetness of mental pre-hyperbole? If someone tells you to go into a room and imagine the best thing you can, what are the odds of that getting exceeded? We are an imaginative species and capitalism trains us to be disappointed with whatever we actually have available to us in the face of what we could have. This is why we are so unhappy as a society. This is why we have drug and alcohol problems. This is why, yes, marriages so often dissolve into mailed paperwork as a replacement for one-time dreams. Reality is almost always short of our expectations, our best hopes. And it is all too easy to trade in reality for a lottery ticket, literal or figurative, suspending the idea that one’s chronic disappointment is a product of the very nature of expectation itself rather than merely unlucky circumstances that could hypothetically be changed. All too often, the unhappiest people learn far too late that it is their mindset, not their means, that have led them to disappointment.
My creative pursuits have found massive suspension against the backdrop of unexpected employment and intensified responsibility. The May 15th deadline for the fourth novel is entirely laughable at this juncture, long ago mentally erased if not literally so on my year-long plastic wall calendar. The summer arises as a possible boon to the creative and imaginative pursuits, a resurrection of quizzes and novels and the things I spend my life promising myself to do while usually getting caught up in more directly personable and interactive pursuits. Is it against my nature to sequester and write, to scribble and shun in order to communicate in a wider, broader, more explicable way? Should I be more comfortable with the 1-on-1, the 1-on-10, the small-scale but somehow attainable pursuits of change? Is this my true calling, in spite of what my ten-year-old self concluded? My ten-year-old self was sick of people, felt rejected and isolated. Every year since, with only romantic exceptions, I’ve felt more welcomed and included and inspired by the people in my life. Perhaps it is there, in iteration and not stagnant text, that I have the most to offer. Or perhaps it is a balance, as feedback rolls in from the prior two tomes of my own, perhaps there is something quality in scaling these pursuits against each other, in alternation, in the much vaunted middle ground.
I can’t even update Duck and Cover on a regular basis these days, it seems… today all but destined to be another gap in the already reduced weekday schedule. Part of this is a logistical paper problem – I’ve worn out the month of Oscar themes, but need some supplies to rejoin the regular tread of the other eleven months. Of course I feel an additional disconnect when facing the political world, however, namely an inability to relate to the events of the world around me. The US has become a hyper-militaristic state, never flinching from a conflict where anonymous bombing can destroy buildings, lives, and morality. And all the people I warned about Obama starting a war, I wrangled with about his Afghanistan comments and said he would find countries to invade in his tenure, that it’s become almost required action from each Presidential term, they can’t wait to sign up as being “in” on the Obama campaign on Facebook, can’t wait to commit to four more years of death by sky. There are no Democratic or Republican ideals, there is only a commitment to big business, big war, big money, big death. This is America’s role and influence on the world and the only hope is that someone eventually gets sick of it. But it won’t come from within, that’s increasingly clear. The next generation has been co-opted, far too susceptible to the idea that whoever America replaces bad leaders with will be better even in the face of plethoric counter-evidence everywhere in the world. The simple notion that killing can lead to progress has done more harm than any other single concept, and yet it remains close to its most pervasive at this very moment in history. Six-thousand years, no real progress. Just flashy machines and technological advancements to bring us our books from far away, our mail from law offices, our bodies to one continent or another, while our minds and emotions fail to keep up.
It’s no coincidence that the most satisfying aspects of our lives are the most ancient. Yoga, oral discussion, the warm feeling of connection to another human soul. It is at our most rooted that we are the most secure, happy, able to trust and hope. Put away the phone, unless it is really helping you communicate directly and robustly. Put away the screens, the bells, the whistles. Sit. Think. Read, maybe, or maybe just talk, even to yourself. The core of our experiences are no different than they were 6,000 years ago, or maybe longer. The best hope for progress may, in fact, be regress.
There is a difference between being lonely and being alone.
Lonely gets down in your bones. Lonely is that feeling that tells you it’s empty, it’s over, it’s all meaningless, and it always was. Lonely isn’t a feeling at all, it is the absence of feeling, it is that achy nothing that sits between your ribcage and your spine just chewing a little hole in the space that holds the air and blood and replacing it with a little pocket full of nothing. Lonely is getting up and knowing that no one will miss you today, no one will think of you today in just that way, that however much you are loved in a high esoteric platonic sense, no one is thumping in their soul for you today and probably not tomorrow either.
Lonely can be claustrophobic, it can be that sense that you start crying and ain’t nobody gonna come fix it. That you can just sit there crying in your bed and no one is going to come for comfort and there’s nobody who could provide that comfort even if you cried out and they came running somehow. It is the empty light absent feeling on the left hand, second finger in from the abyss, how that is so much harder to get used to than the weight and encirclement ever was. It is the sinking feeling in the dark of night and in the dawn of day that tomorrow or this will be a day of contact without connection, of emotion without feeling, of missing and not being missed. The kind of feeling that one didn’t even know one could miss because it was so full and free, that there would always always always be one person in the world who gave a shit, who cared more than anything, and lonely is that person’s indifference, the indifference of the wind, of caprice, of a world without a face.
Lonely is enhanced and hardened by not being alone, by being surrounded in groups and among pairs, of being besieged by the freneticism of community only to have it wash up on the shores of one day or the next suddenly unplanned, unscheduled, free to let lonely swoop down like a bird of prey and snatch you out of the water and leave you hooked and gasping. How you flail and resist for a while, then go limp, dead numb, knowing that lonely’s got you and won’t let you go till you find some other environs that can distract you from your true state again. And you can call out and you can remember God and you can say hey God, you and me, we got this, but God won’t give you a hug because that is not in God’s nature. And God says you and lonely, you got this too, and you have to get cozy and friendly and romantic with lonely because that’s all you got. And God is wise but God is not going to save anyone from anything, least of all lonely, because lonely is the way of the world.
Lonely is wondering, lonely is wandering, lonely is knowing that it doesn’t matter if you pick up the book or turn on the computer or put on the movie or amble outside, lonely is patient and persistent and will be waiting for you behind whatever veil you try to put up. Lonely can be like a blanket, maybe not sopping wet, but sort of ragged and flearidden and vaguely mildewy, it offers a sad smelly sort of comfort, like this is your shit and you might as well lie in it because no one else will. And you lie there, sort of settling in, because you know this blanket and you gave it its flaws and you could no more run out into the street waving the blanket around and attract the right kind of attention than you could repair it to new. And in that, in the blanket’s adaptation, its confirmation to your body and skin, there is a softness, a tearful kind of softness that pads the harshness of the empty ache and the light finger and the inability of anything to enclose you enough.
Lonely is a dog whining and wheezing at your heels. It is a single bird squawking for the flock in separation as night draws near. It is the muffled sobbing of your own breath as you try to figure out what you did to deserve this. Lonely doesn’t mean to be cruel, doesn’t mean to judge, it just sits there biding its time in mild indifference, slowly kneading into your chest with infinitely incremental additions of force. You could almost get used to it, but one day you wake up and your torso has collapsed.
The Raritan River flows gently southward, bedecked on either side by paths, one cracked red asphalt raised high above the waterline, the other muddy disintegrating soil strewn with the exposed roots of sickly trees. On one side, western, the vantage from which the students relax in over-comfy soporific chairs and procrastinate, there is a mass of technological construction, well sealed lightbulbs above aging tennis courts with absurdly high chainlink fences, brick structures for respite from the precipitation just blown through, right-angled walkways for the runners pacing ever up, ever down, seeking internal retribution for the pounding of their feet against hard human-made solidity. On the other, eastern, the distant wild side, green-brown patterns peek through stripped winter trees, offering glimmers of nature’s eternity in defiance of the structure and order thumbing its mechanical nose from across the river. The tension and rivalry implicit in the face-off cut by the swirling wind that washes the water down toward the vastness of the weary Atlantic, a body that will take these molecules to the shores of colonizers and their one-time slaves.
There is anonymity in critique, anonymity the vaunted valued safeguard against bias, nepotism, subtle hints of racism or sexism or clues to prejudice. But with the anonymity a lack of accountability, much maligned in this unseen framework of empty crackling air, the ability to levy lobs of vitriol or one-upsmanship with no fear of reprisal, repercussion, responsibility. How the increasingly popular sense that there is nothing larger or more meaningful, nothing beyond, nothing worth worrying about in the future, how it all conspires to reinforce the lack of any internal check. That what is within will remain forever locked, hidden, guarded for all time against the prying of other minds and thus the meaning is truly what we make of it and nothing has value innate or given. That there is something not only of value and meaning lost in this series of conclusions, but actually something of hope or inspiration that also vanishes, that in the futility of being able to get away with anything, there will never be anything worth accomplishing but what is presented in the falsely trumped-up over-filtered court of celebrity or fame.
“I’m giving one star for the originality of the idea simply because I can’t tell what idea is being pursued.”
Creativity is not rewarded in this format, originality and risk-taking not the quest of those who like stories as spoon-fed reiterations of the home movies they watched when they were barely toddling. There is something to the straight narrative, to the predictable, to the time-honored tradition, but these hackneys must be viewed with the same cynicism which the overly happy might view a moment of depression. “Isn’t life sad enough already?” they asked. Isn’t life truly predictable enough, dull enough, that not everything needs a clear sign, a roadmap, a series of bright lines pointing us homeward and within? Is there no room for the thought-provoking, the mind-bending, the exploration of uncharted territory? Not in this format, not at this time. And with that, as with every setback, the exploration of crossroads and goals and work/payoff risk/reward ratios and re-examination of the eternally damaged self. That every voice of negativity becomes a chorus, not just for me but perhaps for most, and that chorus fills its lungs and exudes glass-breaking arias of doom from which there is no hope but to shield one’s eyes against the flying shards and reopen them in the newly windswept ruins of a transparent gallery.
Giggling undergraduates walk in, creep up to the seats, plant a computer down before them to begin to gawk and laugh and compare notes on those they find attractive. It is the diversion of the moment, the best use of the opportunities given, perhaps just a way to bond and blow off steam while they ooh and ahh and chuckle in nervous embarrassment of the exposure of their most secret, twilit thoughts and desires. Does it change the narrative if I tell you they are girls? That they are guys? That they are straight? That they are not? Does a gendered perception color your vantage of what might be okay or what is harmful, harmless? Does it strike as frivolity, as necessary development, as something insightful or inciteful?
“I’m not even sure that unlivability is a real word.”
It’s not, perhaps, but it’s a concept, and what point is there in articulating the absolute rules of a grammar used to strap us to mast of the lack of innovation? The language itself can be a form of oppression among those unwilling to use it to elicit thought. A quest, perhaps, for the best paint-by-numbers regurgitation, a memory contest, a lesson taught in the old traditional style of read, listen, repeat. Dynamism as the enemy. Liveliness danced into the distance. The specter of spontaneity, surprise, unexpected revelation to be held at bay with so much garlic, crossed fingers, and gnashing of frothy teeth.
But this is only half of the story, maybe even less so. There was another whole perspective, one ready to advance the work, one ready to join with friends and holdouts and the lingering supporters in the belief that human creativity can expand beyond what has already been established. “This is a strong, original concept and piece. The editing is good. There are no obvious errors. I enjoyed reading it and am curious what the next chapter would bring in terms of connecting these images. Great work!” And the inevitable disappointment of that reviewer that there is nothing more to read, almost rising to match my own sadness of same, offering a breath of acknowledgment and hope in the face of capricious dismissal. And the inevitable wrestling match to follow, just spoken of in other contexts, the voice of shelves and counterspeech rising boldly against the droning narrative of worthless rejection and, worse, callous indifference and change of heart.
The train traverses the looping rain-dripped bridge in the distance, one of stone or concrete pillars dipping soggy feet in the duck-splattered water as it tours past the campus. There are countless people aboard, each of them contemplating their own mostly post-work discombobulation as they roll toward New York City in search of food and rest and the promise of waking on a Friday with a little more hope than this morning. And it is easy to contemplate these minds untouched and feel the abyssal futility of despair, the distance they each might be asked to climb from the mundane tradition of their lives in order to find something deeper, more valuable, a more lasting way to be the part of the change I wish to see in the world. And yet there is also their underlying humanity to consider, the adaptability of our species that turns each tragedy into triumph, each disaster into rebirth, each catastrophe into some sort of redemptive glimpse at the power of progression. That each person thereon, ensconced in seats in the fading light and perhaps their own fading consciousness, is nonetheless thinking, breathing, capable of greatness. That their mere movement across mile of repetitive track signifies a greater capability of movement across a mental landscape if only they were so prompted, so inclined, so awoken.
The birds come in, unseen in their approach, suddenly gathering to swoop to floaty rest on the half-land marsh of the water’s-edge trees. They will feed, commune, flap and settle, and eventually be scared by something, take to the air, and leave.
We are no better than the birds. And they are no better than us. Each living being seeks connection and comfort, meaning and sustenance. This place can fulfill us all, if only we care to let it. But to do so, we must all believe that such a thing is possible. It is obvious and innate before us, but we have to know how to look. You are, at this moment, walking in a metaphor. But the metaphor, however fake it may ultimately be, is more serious than anything else. It is a painted shadow of the world that carries more weight than all the rock beneath us.
I don’t know whether I find it more remarkable that I haven’t been to the Brandeis campus in nearly four years already or that I haven’t posted here in over a week. Both of them strike in the way of sudden jolts punctuated by the morbid dread of rising tides. The nature of time and its passing being capable of swallowing whole swaths of time whole and rendering an empty landscape in its wake. The cold sinking fear that one could awaken at a certain molded age unaware of how the last few epochs even transpired.
It is a good problem to have, frankly, that I have been busy enough in the last few days to not notice minutes in their flight. Compared to the endless drone of ticking seconds in agonizingly steady progression of the prior few months, a session of too-full overwhelm is precisely what everyone was prescribing. And yet filling that prescription and cashing that check has prompted quick unanticipated concerns about how much time was endured in limbo and whether sufficient long-term decisions were made there. Uncertainty is not the favored state of most beings, but I am not most beings, by definition, nor do I share much with them. In the freedom/security balance, I have always been for not only closing Gitmo, but also opening all borders. I mean this in equal measures to be about my own life and everyone else’s.
It has been a good month, the first of a new age, and I mean that in a relatively unqualified stance. It has been a great month, considering, but even a good month on its own standalone merits. Any of the recently coined measures of quality of life, the leading emotional indicators of the current existence and stance thereon, are setting record highs and aiming for new barriers ahead of any prior sketched schedule. Time is not to be thanked for any of this, of course, but circumstances, though a skeptic could surely argue that one creates the other. Time in a vaccuum, though, I will always argue, does nothing without concrete tangible changes therein. And a vaccuum is where time seems to have been going, both micro and macro.
So I relish the return to alma mater, to a drive even that I perfected with love and deftness over the course of consecutive weekends. To replace the hat I gained in 2007 on last visit and lost somewhere along the way, along the journey from a literal picture of distilled happiness to a newly wandered path with destinations unknown and even less predictable. To sit in an unpredictable living room among old cohorts of this very campus and shake one’s head in wonder at the luge-like course of echoing time, of the dictates and mandates of sequential decisions that in narrow order make sense but sum to unheralded madness. How condemnatory I am of others in such downhill flight, yet how I must shrug and smile and stick my tongue out at its reflection in my own uncontrolled trajectory. How I know the difference to be a certain moral check (perhaps this is my sled, or my sled’s possession of a rudder), but this is more to mitigate the slopes and angles and not erase them entirely. Is it sufficient to enjoy the ride and the howl of the wind of relativity in one’s hurtling escape from the mountaintop? Or should the aim be to find time to reflect and direct while amidst a breakneck decline?
I am peeking through the helmet now, just briefly, before tucking and driving into the next hairpin turn. The exhilaration of having never seen this course, never practiced this run, is both what makes the effort irreplaceable and terrifying. There are no previews, no redos, no maps or graphs. There is something to be said for milisecond decisions replacing measured observation of the same blind corner, though. Ice is ice and tunnels are tunnels and there are only so many ways a course can turn or bend or tilt. In the end, the most we can do is steer our damndest and pray that the earth will stay flat, the supports stable, and that the bottom of the course is still above water.