Mid-Summer Snippets

FRIDAY, 20 JULY 2018

“I KNOW IT HAPPENS TO EVERYBODY, BUT IT’D NEVER HAPPENED TO ME,” HE SAID. “I KNOW PEOPLE’S MOTHERS HAVE DIED, BUT THIS WAS MINE.”

OSCAR ISAAC, NEW YORK TIMES. 6 JULY 2017.

Isn’t that the process of growing up? Realizing that everything that has ever happened to you has happened before to someone else. What we need to remember, as adults, is that all children, as they grow up, are discovering life all for the first time. Their pain is bright and new and unlike anything they have ever felt before. We must remember that for all the repetition in the sum total of human experience, each individual encounters each of these forgone conclusions as a revelation, something awesome – in both its terror and its glory.

WEDNESDAY, 18 JULY 2018

I ate dinner at home.

Before I left, a little while before, Blueberry had either found or killed (or, at the very least, maimed) a rather large beetle. Not quite a stag beetle – I don’t think we have those in this part of the country – but a 1.5 inch long, glossy black beetle.

She was curious about it and kept trying to eat it, but I got the impression that, legs up, it was too spiky or shocking for her to be able to fit it in her mouth.

She proceeded to scrabble at it, pushing the beetle’s invisible black body along the mess of flat stones which constitutes a walkway, along the edge of the deck, from the gate to the porch door, in that part of the garden.

She would pounce, sniff, taste, rear back, push— pounce, sniff, taste, rear back, push— again and again. Her white paws and startled reaction, the direction of her fixed gaze, the only things to give any indication of where her immobilized prey had ended up.

She must have scraped the body – head-thorax-abdomen – of that poor creature across ten inches or a foot, in a clatter of rough claws on slate, and the imagined rasp of carapace on stone.

Eventually, some significant damage must have been done. She leaned down, her blunt, curious snout pressing against stone and dirt, before lifting up her head.

Pitbull lips flapping, I could hear a sharp crunch-crunch-crunch. Satisfied, she trotted away in to the dark of the yard.


Retroactively published 22 Jan 2019

2018.04.19 : In defense of Cynicism

The opposite of optimism is pessimism; the belief that everything will go wrong, all attempts will end in failure, and happy endings are impossible. This is the diametric opposition of the optimist, who believes that things will be okay, things will work out, and happy endings are always possible.

I am not a pessimist.

Two weeks ago (maybe more, maybe less) a friend and I sat down and started discussing philosophy.

I struggle to get along with optimists. Not to denigrate or dismiss them, because I think it’s beautiful to be able to believe in the best possible outcome. It is simply not something I am always able to entertain or understand. For me, optimism takes work.

The opposite of optimism is pessimism; the belief that everything will go wrong, all attempts will end in failure, and happy endings are impossible. This is the diametric opposition of the optimist, who believes that things will be okay, things will work out, and happy endings are always possible.

I am not a pessimist.

I consider myself a cynic. What does that mean exactly? It can’t be the same as pessimism, despite the fact that the words are often used interchangeably. Why does cynicism feel apt, where pessimism is grating?

The cynic, in my mind, is one who is ever hopeful, someone who dreams of happy endings, who wants things to work out. But. (And there is always a “but” with the cynic, it’s true.) Despite all that wanting, despite the dreaming, they’ve been frustrated too many times to believe that things will work out. The cynic reads the paper in the morning and weeps, because every morning they hope that the news will not be a litany of tragedies (though they know, every morning, when their feet touch the floor, that they should expect something terrible).

The cynic has taken a bad bet. Because the cynic will bet on the underdog, the new-comer, the good man knowing that they will lose. This is where the cynic and the pessimist differ; the pessimist has no desire to be surprised. The cynic is ever hopeful that this time, things will be different (despite knowing the odds).

So who is the opposite of the cynic? It is not the optimist, for they are static, just the same as the pessimist; they both look down the long uncertain road ahead, and see the light at the end, one sees sunlight, the other the on-coming train. The cynic is waiting, hoping for sunlight, and expecting the train. Who sits with them in that uncertainty?

My friend said, “Faith.” And she was correct.

Faith is that which sustains people in times of uncertainty. Faith is not optimism; it doesn’t promise that everything will work out for the best. Faith is an abiding belief in the future, that when the road is long and dark, something warm and safe awaits at the end of the road. Faith never promises a journey absent of strife, danger, and suffering. Faith promises that one can always take another step; look how far you’ve come.

The cynic and the faithful sit together in the dark, they know the odds. They know that the road is long and dark, and they both hope for the best. The difference is that the faithful knows the strength of hope. They know that hope is capable of sustaining someone, so long as you are a true believer.

The cynic, by contrast, is not quite strong enough. The cynic knows what hope tastes like, but doesn’t know how to make it grow, does not know how to harvest it, how to bake it into what they eat.

On days when I have to attempt great works, I sometimes wish I could have the strength of the faithful. There is a certainty to faith, to optimism, to pessimism that can seem enviable.

On every other day, I welcome the spark of doubt that lives within my cynicism. It is a balancing act, a middle path. The cynic can dream of heaven and keep their feet on the ground. One must be able to see clearly to know what is broken and one must have tasted hope to know what is possible.

Without cynicism, I would not be able to do the things I dream of doing. Cynicism is both that which arms to me examine how we have failed as a people, as a species, and where we have done wrong, it is the expectation of being beaten down, of being lied to, of finding victims and perpetrators. But it is also cynicism that makes me believe that we can do better, that we can improve, that we can apologize and heal.

I’m not sure I recommend it. The cynic is always expecting disappointment and, unlike the pessimist, they are not ready to accept it. But it’s a fighting spirit; still hoping for the best, despite their expectations.

2018.04.10:

Over the weekend, I visited the RISD Art Books Fair with a friend.

The first question is what is an “art book fair” – are they books about art? Is the library selling off old bits of its collection? Are they books that constitute art? None of the above?

The answer, as always, is complicated. Over all the event leaned into the notion of “books as art” with a healthy dose of “art fair” holding the whole thing together. Representatives from a variety of organizations of creatives were in attendance. Most of the stalls were RISD affiliated, showcasing the work of RISD students, past and present.

My friend and I spent a solid chunk of time pouring over the table half-covered with little, 2 cm in diameter buttons, each with a colorful background and a handwritten statement on the front. “No thank you” read one, “pseudonym” read another, “kind of a drag” read one that I bought, “solid blood” read one my friend bought. There was no method or reasoning to the text that we could discern, but nor did we care to look for one. It was time well spent swimming through the vague thoughts forms of the subconscious.

I picked up two little chapbooks by a graphic design student from the Kansas City Art Institute.

Selecting art books, like buying other kinds of art, is an exercise in self-discovery. It is never clear why you prefer one thing over another, why you want this work of art and not that one. Nevertheless, the feeling is always concrete, always strong. There is no rationalizing it, no secret formula to understanding it; art one brings home becomes a housemate, a companion. So it is also with art books. They call out to us, and we pick them up, and when we bring them home, we find ourselves sitting there, leafing through, curious, always trying to look with new eyes.

Knowing a piece of art can only happen with time. The thing which originally drew us to it is almost immediately papered over, hidden by every subsequent detail we find which pleases us. We put ourselves in dialogue with the piece by accident; simply by spending time with it, little details are revealed, “Oh, look at that little shape there” and “Oh, that shade of blue reminds me of the first house I remember us living in” and “Oh, how melancholy”. We are revealed as much as the art is revealed as much as the artist reveals. Indirect communication and accidental resonances take over.


Retroactively published 22 Jan 2019

2017.04.25 : black holes

At dinner, an unexpectedly personal affair, we were discussing the differences in our ages. The conversation took a turn on the phrase “I have a body, like Adonis.” (Consider the placement of the comma.) Which quickly shifted us to discussing the nameless quality which goes by “sex appeal” or “fire” or … And the term settled upon was gravity.

Women are like black holes, he says. If you have a group of women in the room, and you can see the social space spread out around them, some of them will have more gravity and will pull the space in towards themselves.

Suddenly, all I can imagine is the gravity wells; at which point have people traveled far enough that they cannot escape? How do you measure the gravity of human being?

We’re used to comparing people to stars: they light up a room, people revolve around them, they sit at the heart of entire systems.

Black holes rotate entire galaxies. All theories of time travel and universal travel are posited on black hole theory because they mark the place where gravity has ripped a hole in space-time itself. What kind of a person has enough weight to rend the very fabric of reality?

The metaphor pulls me in:

A good friendship, a pleasant evening with a potential partner, all exist with some form of quantum uncertainty or relativity analogies. Time passes in uncertain ways, the entire universe can re-orient beneath your feet, things exist in simultaneous and contradictory states, sometimes it seems like the very atoms between two people are mirrored images of each other, knowing and known––

But none of this matters. Physics is not the language of romance or poetry. The mathematics are too complicated, and the uncertainty of the observable is all too parallel between the two. The game is no fun when it is this obvious.

But how do you measure the gravity of a human being? Can you recognize the moment you become trapped in the gravity well of their presence? Is there any choice other than to be crushed under the weight of it, until you travel beyond the moment you left behind, and discover what exists beyond the unanswerable question?

2017.03.31: exercises of the imagination

Sometimes, as I read the news, I try and imagine a different man as president. This other man has been duped into office.
He is a man of limited intellect and even less insight. He is hopelessly ill-equipped to do the job before him, and is scared to do it at all, because all of us fear failure, especially when others are watching.

This man is, moreover, at the mercy of people for whom planning is easy. These people have their own agendas, often in conflict with one another, and this man has no choice but to trust them. He cannot do the job himself. He cannot do the job at all.

This man is instead the lighting rod, the focal point, of all the mockery and the criticism of an entire country. He doesn’t understand why, exactly, because these plans aren’t his plans, the failures do not stem from him. Why is everyone laughing at him and calling him names? This isn’t how it was supposed to be. This isn’t how things were, before. Can we go back? Can it be like before?

He has to trust what people tell him: things will be okay, don’t worry, we have a plan, just go out there and let the people know you’re on their side. He does what he does best, but the heat never let’s up. People are handling things, so things will be okay. Things are not going well.

But I can’t keep this image in my mind for long. I can’t maintain sympathy. I never believed this would be easy, for anyone. I never thought it would be fun. I have never seen this as a choice to be made lightly.

The man in my imagination might exist, but I already promised I would stop forgiving ego, thoughtlessness, and stupidity. Bad judgement is no excuse for bad behavior. We teach our children that they are responsible for the choices they make, even when they didn’t mean for anything bad to happen. We teach them when they are young because it never stops being true. As you get older, the only thing that changes is how much damage you can do.

Sometimes, I imagine what sympathy for my President feels like. But I can’t hold onto it.