I like Smoothie King. It’s one of my favorite places to get healthy calories on the road, especially of the high-protein, low-sodium variety. But this article, my goodness — let me just say this. Pick your three favorite alcoholic beverages. Take a shot of beverage no. 1 when you see the word “journey.” Swig from beverage no. 2 when you see the word “mission.” And take a long pull on the bottle of beverage no. 3 when you see the word “vision.” If you’re conscious at the end of the article, you’ll probably need a liver transplant. What is it with this touchy-feely corporate jargon? I wasn’t sure if I was reading a business article or a cult pamphlet.
It is allowed that vocations and employments of least dignity are of the most apparent use; that the meanest artizan or manufacturer contributes more to the accommodation of life, than the profound scholar and argumentative theorist; and that the publick would suffer less present inconvenience from the banishment of philosophers than from the extinction of any common trade.
— Samuel Johnson, “Petty Writers Not to Be Despised“
“How’s it been for you guys?” we asked our frequently-seen grocery-store buddy. “It’s so strange!” he said. “People are thanking us! Is this how the troops feel? I mean, I just put beans on the shelf!” I remember once hearing a lawyer from one of the sub-branches of copyright law joke about how if he and his colleagues went on strike, no one would even notice, but if the garbage collectors went on strike, we’d all be dead of cholera within two weeks. Thank goodness for the non-glamourous keystones of society. As the saying goes, they also serve who only sit and work the register.
As a writer, I might claim to have been in training for this moment all my life. Solitude and silence have been agreeable, indeed vital, companions to me. And to that extent recent days have not been that different from any others. Apart from performing the new chores we all must carry out, I spend my days as I always do at home. Inside, I migrate between my writing desk and piano. I enjoy the garden more. And yet in the gaps that have opened up the bigger question hovers. I suppose my own answer is a doctrine of a kind. Which is that we are most likely to find meaning in the places where meaning has been found before. That what has seen our forebears through, and nourished them, will see us through and nourish us in turn. I don’t listen to the news much. If the church is open I will sit in it. I remake my acquaintance with great music. In the evenings I read Anna Karenina.
Activity diffusion seems to work along the same principles as the molecular version. If a lot of space is suddenly opened up in one’s schedule, whatever chores and hobbies remain will expand to fill the vacuum at an equal concentration. Things take as long as they take, in other words. TV-watching, formerly occupying maybe one evening every week, now becomes a nightly ritual. Yardwork can be spread out over several hours instead of compacted into a couple. Overall, it feels as if we’re suspended in between an inhale and an exhale, just waiting to see what happens when the arbitrary deadline for the return to normality arrives. Will we have work to resume after an enforced three-week vacation? Or will we suddenly have to scramble to find new sources of income?
Even that concern feels slightly surreal. It’s like the joke: if you owe the bank a thousand dollars, you have a problem. If you owe the bank a million dollars, the bank has a problem. If millions of us suddenly owe the bank…? There’s a paradoxical liberation in having little choice in the matter. As usual, fearful anticipation tends to be more painful than the experience itself. Things are what they are. We’ll adapt if we’re forced to. As long as we remain healthy, I find I don’t much care about the rest.
It was time for the first grass-cutting of the year yesterday. Last year’s stray leaves were all methodically shredded into mulch. The yard looks greener every time I look at it, the straw-colored winter grass in full retreat. The firewood is stacked for drying throughout the year. The peach trees and redbuds are stationary pink clouds, and the windows are open day and night with the dreaded dust storms of pollen yet to arrive. We awaken to a chorus of birdsong and fall asleep to the graveyard-shift orchestra of spring peepers. There is suddenly time for aimless doodling on the guitar, and at night, there is still Montaigne, Shakespeare and Samuel Johnson to read.
In spite of it all, we are free now. Any fashion, sensibility, ideology, set of priorities, worldview or hobby that you acquired prior to March 2020, and that may have by then started to seem to you cumbersome, dull, inauthentic, a drag: you are no longer beholden to it. You can cast it off entirely and no one will care; likely, no one will notice. Were you doing something out of mere habit, conceiving your life in a way that seemed false to you? You can stop doing that now.
For someone like me, healthy and relatively unaffected by this viral disruption, it would be glib to celebrate it as some sort of cleansing agent, scouring society free of frivolity and cant. Besides, frivolity and cant are like the dandelions and chickweed of human nature. They’ll never be absent for long, no matter how zealous your efforts to uproot them. As the poet said, humankind cannot bear very much reality.
Nonetheless, I do find the occasional mordant joke coming to mind. Yesterday, while walking into Target, we saw the sign informing us that the first hour of business operations is now reserved for the “vulnerable,” especially the elderly. “You think anyone’s tried that yet? ‘But officer, I identify as vulnerable and at-risk! And I’m trans-aged!'” Saying it out loud makes it clear: that kind of chutzpah is a decadent luxury, only to be indulged in comfortable times, when sane people can afford the indulgence of a tolerant eye-roll.
Later in the evening, I wondered how many anti-vaxxers will be in line next year for the inevitable vaccine. There’s nothing like having reality tire of your inane chattering, seize you by the lapels, and pull you in face-to-face with his rictus grin long enough to gag on his reeking breath, to help you get your priorities temporarily straight. Later on, when you’re safe again, you’ll be full of bluster and tough talk about what you would have done if he hadn’t let you go, but at least for a little while, you’ll remember: once he deigns to fix his gaze on you, reality will never blink. Fortunately for our sanity, we blink thousands of times a day. Fashions, ideologies, worldviews, hobbies, and countless other eyelids provide us with constant respite. It’s involuntary, and with good reason.
[Originally published Jul. 29, 2013.]
Lady, people aren’t chocolates. D’you know what they are mostly? Bastards. Bastard-coated bastards with bastard filling.
Falling in love with a book is a unique and sometimes strange experience; it’s not hard to make the leap from adoring a novel to adoring its creator. The writer Justin Cronin compares it to a celebrity crush: “When you read a book, you spend hours in intimate contact with the mind of another person — it’s an intense, but one-sided relationship. If any reader knew who we really were, it’s guaranteed they’d find us disappointing. The experience of a book is so much better than the experience of a person.” The author Elizabeth Gilbert agreed. “When I meet readers, I feel a responsibility not to disappoint them. But how do you not disappoint someone who’s invented you?”
…But some writers enjoy discovering the darker sides of their favorite authors. “I’m always comforted when writers and artists I admire have terrible problems in their lives, as I did,” the novelist Kate Christensen told me. “I like reading about their struggles and misbehavior.” The poet and memoirist Mary Karr is also forgiving of flaws. “Tolstoy I’m sure was an incredible jackass, but I still love him. I still love Stevens, I still love Pound. If we didn’t read people who were bastards, we’d never read anything. Even the best of us are at least part-time bastards.”
If I had to credit any particular text with being a formative influence on my intellectual and psychological development, well — I’m afraid I’ll have to reveal my utterly mainstream, lowbrow roots and name RIP magazine. For those who don’t know, it was a hard rock/heavy metal magazine, produced by Larry Flynt’s media empire, that existed for about a decade in the ’80s and ’90s. The first issue I got had Lars Ulrich on the cover with a long interview inside, and with that bait, I was soon hooked on what I thought was the best rock journalism around (there may have been better for all I know, but this was pre-Internet, and I was limited to what I could find in the mall bookstores). Lonn Friend, the editor during the magazine’s heyday, has, on a couple occasions that I’ve seen, summarized a large part of RIP’s guiding philosophy:
Because one of the edicts was that we weren’t going to prostitute these artists over their bad behavior. If it fell into the story, we would discuss the party and then whatever else. But if it was to damage or hurt the image of an artist rather than the heroic image of the artist because that’s what RIP was all about — heroes — then I chose not to.
RIP definitely erred on the side of generosity in its articles. A lot of magazines — especially British ones, I noticed — specialized in reporting the seediest gossip and exulted in sneering mean-spiritedness toward their subjects, but RIP, even though half its lifespan was spent covering the most decadent, trashy Sunset Strip glam-metal, never went that route. Bands were always presented in the best possible light, and the music was always described in terms of its highest potential, rather than its (frequently) humdrum reality. Even the most generic hair bands were treated as capable of moments of transcendent artistry.
It was largely through years of reading RIP while dreaming of a career as a musician that I formed my weltanschauung (there, perhaps that ten-dollar word will redeem my intellectual pretensions!), my ideal of a life lived in accordance with low-key, bohemian foolosophy values. I had an idealized image of the rock/metal world as being something like an itinerant tribe of minstrels, poets and plainspoken philosophers who devoted their lives to pondering the meaning of it all in between ritual musical performances. An insight here, a perspective there — I clothed my burgeoning sense of self in a patchwork quilt painstakingly stitched together from the scraps of interviews with creative people. I assembled an idealized personality that would take years to fully grow into. And of course, the flawed mortals behind those pull quotes and aperçus were bound to disappoint upon closer examination, as they often did. But the ideal they all contributed to is no less powerful for all that.
The discipline of walking as it relates to art should not be mistaken for a leisure activity. Take, for example, walking as a flâneur or as a pilgrim, or going out for a promenade, for in each of these pursuits there are goals: the flâneur sets out into the city streets to investigate or procrastinate; the pilgrim ambles toward the holy land for the sake of a blessing; an evening stroller seeks digestive benefits as well as social interaction, whether walking with a companion or encountering neighbours along the road. In all cases, there are ends to be gained.
You thought you’d mastered this “walking” thing way back in your toddler years, did you? Well, yes, it’s once again time for professional thinkers to tell you how you’re making a complete mess of things.
Regular readers know that I’m a bit of a connoisseur of this genre. For nearly a decade now, I’ve been taking note of essays which turn the basic act of putting one foot in front of another into yet another status-seeking activity. At this point, I feel like a veteran teacher of middle-school social studies bracing myself for another year’s crop of derivative essays about the importance of MLK, Jr. There’s hardly any new ways to make fun of this silly conceit, let alone write about it. In this case, I will just note that Kaag and Froderberg’s attempt to infuse walking with a Kantian sensibility comes up against the same problem that students of Buddhist meditation encounter: Who is it that desires to stop desiring? Isn’t the effort to empty the mind and purify the soul still a goal-oriented activity? Isn’t this just another attempt to elevate oneself above the humdrum world and all the benighted cretins that populate it? You don’t need to walk in the right location at the right pace with the right frame of mind to realize the absurd egotism of this pursuit; in fact, as those meditation students know, you can realize it while sitting on your ass.
If a new book is a monologue, a used book is a conversation. Underline a passage or write a note in the margin and you have left a message for future readers, or for future versions of yourself… Like having a child or planting a garden, annotating a book is an expression of hope for the future. Adding a comment to a text, I affirm that I, or someone, will pick up the volume again someday — that books will endure as objects of interest in a civilization not wholly digital.
By this logic, the people who spraypaint the rocks at a scenic overlook or carve their initials into a tree are also expressing a “hope for the future,” a desire to have a “conversation” with other visitors for whom natural beauty will continue to endure as an object of interest. Need I say more, or have we successfully reduced this sentiment to the absurd? Most of the highlighting I encounter in books leaves me thinking something along the lines of, “What kind of simpleton thought that was profound?” or “You honestly couldn’t have remembered that point without coloring it in?” Not once have I encountered the droppings of some doodler, scribbler, or codex vandal and thought, “Now, there’s someone I wish I could have known and conversed with.”
I admit, I used to use a red pen to enclose noteworthy passages in my reading between small, unobtrusive parentheses marks, but I don’t even do that any more. In recent months, I’ve been using Post-It tape tabs where necessary, which makes finding a relevant passage again much easier than scanning page after page looking for the telltale red pen marks. There are tradeoffs in anything, though, and in this case, some of my most thought-provocative books look like the United Nations building, with all those colorful flags fluttering from the page edges. It’s not as aesthetically pleasing, but it’s a bit less destructive to the book environment. “Take nothing but ideas; leave nothing but easily-removable sticky tabs.”
Consolation of the imperilled. The Greeks, in a way of life in which great perils and upheavals were always present, sought in knowledge and reflection a kind of security and ultimate refugium. We, in an incomparably more secure condition, have transferred this perilousness into knowledge and reflection, and we recover from it, and calm ourselves down, with our way of life.
— Nietzsche, Daybreak
In an age of widespread affluence and leisure, it’s strange to see people attracted to “revolutionary” ideas and lifestyles. As soon as life is no longer dangerous or unpredictable, people get bored and start inventing mischief. Even the modern magic of technology loses its spellbinding power over an increasingly-jaded audience. Only time will tell if our current pandemic is a mere anomaly or a true world-changing event, but I’ve already seen an increasing number of people retreating to the Stoicism of Marcus Aurelius for comfort.