The Heat Death of a Wandering Star

A fortune teller in Northern California looked at my palm and said, “You’re going to lead an unnaturally long life.”  Then she slid my money back across the table and added, “I feel bad for you.”  This was in 2008 or 2009.  My memory of the year is less distinct than the mournful expression on her face, how she pulled off her chintzy Madame Sofia veil, leaned back, and lit a cigarette as if to say, sorry, kid, that’s how it is.

I was supposed to pay her $30 for 30 minutes, but we sat there for almost two hours while she read my tarot cards.  By the time she got around to looking at my hands, she’d already told me three important things about my future.  I was going to travel across an ocean.  I was going to do things no one in my family had ever done.  And I was going to outlive everybody I knew.  As of 2018, two of those three predictions have come true.

It’s amazing how quickly life can change.  You leave the house every day and say, this is the job I do.  This is the market where I shop.  This is the person I live with.  These are the faces I see as I walk down my street.  This is the field with daisies nodding in the wind.  This is me.  For the moment, at least, this is me.

And if you succeed, if you’re healthy and disciplined and dedicated and proficient, if you don’t weaken and get that regular colonoscopy and save your money, you might last long enough to see all your variables change.  Then you’ll say, this is me—isn’t it?  But you won’t know how to answer.  You’ll remember the fortune teller saying, “I feel bad for you,” and you’ll understand what she meant.  You won’t know how to recognize yourself.  You’ll be a survivor.  And nobody actually ever wants that.  The last man standing is, by definition, all alone.

Some of us die and are reborn in a single lifetime.  In my four-and-a-half decades, I’ve already lived several full lives, played roles that had perfectly formed inciting incidents, climaxes, and denouements, which in earlier times or in other places could have described the total breadth and depth of a person’s lived experience.  I’m 44 years old, not too old but not that young, either.  Most days, I look 10 – 15 years younger than that.  Is that good?

I spend a lot of time lost in my own head, reading, walking around and looking at things.  And I’ve managed to orchestrate a life where I can do that.  I can become fascinated by very simple experiences, the wind in different kinds of trees, for example, or the way sound echoes on the canal beneath my bedroom window.  There’s a lot going on everywhere you look.  Sometimes, it’s hypnotic.  Sometimes, it’s beautiful.  Sometimes, it makes me want to scream for a real long time.  The world is too much.  It isn’t interested in making sense or being rational.  We’re the ones who make it matter.  But do we really?

I don’t recommend going to fortune tellers very often.  If they’re good, you’ll know too much.  If they’re bad, you’ll be wasting your money.  If they’re stupid, you’ll feel stupid.  And if they’re clever, you’ll feel even more stupid.  A fortune teller is like a bad pizza.  You paid for it.  So you’re going to eat it.  You might feel disgusted afterwards.  You might not want to talk about the experience.  You might want to put it away in the file labeled Decisions About Which I Will Feel Forever Ashamed and vow never again.  But you’ll probably be back. 

It’s how magical things work.  It’s how art works.  You go see the performance piece at the museum and it has some guy drenched in urine and suspended upside-down by fish hooks from the ceiling for hours over plaster of Paris horses having sex.  And you think, wow, that is neither pleasing to the eye nor conceptually interesting.  It’s pretentious and it’s trying way to hard to be something that isn’t boring.  You write scathing things about it on your blog.  You try to put it out of your mind because you know that every minute you spend thinking about it is a minute you’ll never get back.  But six months later, you go, I wonder what’s showing at the museum.  So do you want anchovies on your plaster horsefucking pizza this time?  Of course you do.  Want to know the future?  Just let me shuffle these cards.

I took piano lessons as a kid.  I was very serious about them.  My teacher was a professor in the music department at the university.  He was a lot like Mr. Rogers.  He radiated that improbable blend of whipsmart intelligence shrouded in simplicity and humor.  He was a remarkable man, a truly gifted person who knew how to appreciate life.  And one of the things he really appreciated was teaching children classical piano.  I learned an immense amount about how to be a decent human being just by spending time with him. 

I remember us sitting in a room with about 50 grand pianos.  He played a single note and we listened to it until it passed away.  Then we discussed its shape, its color, its temperature.  There was an entire life in that sound, a whole universe from the big bang to the last chapter of the Book of Revelation with dinosaurs and empires and prophets and an Industrial Revolution and fiber optics and climate change and insane politicians and Mad Max and the heat death of a wandering star.  All we had to do was listen.  And, like gods, we knew we could always play another note—that, in fact, we or someone of our great pantheon would play another one and would inevitably bring another cosmos into being.

Years later, far away at a different university, I’d study the Metaphysical Poets and I’d encounter Thomas Traherne’s poem, “Shadows in the Water.”  It contains these lines:

I my companions see
In you, another me.
They seeméd others, but are we;
Our second selves these shadows be.

And I’d write a half-baked undergraduate essay on the metaphysics of sound as expressed through the semiotics of Traherne’s mirror imagery.  Fabulous.  The only important thing about it was that I remembered listening to my piano teacher play that note when I read “Thus did I by the water’s brink/ Another world beneath me think” and thought: exactly.  Our second selves these shadows be.  The gods look down from Olympus and see their reflections in us as we, in turn, look and listen to our own universes encapsulated in the breadth of a single note—as above, so below.  Quod est superius est sicut quod est inferius, ad perpetranda miracula rei unius.  I’ve lived many lives, been reborn into many universes.  Godlike, I’ve brought universes into being.

All being depends on context, which is to say, on the existence (meaning) of a universe.  One of the many reasons I love Carl Sagan is that he said, “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.”  This is as true for the pie as it is for the pie maker—they both depend on the existence of a universe to contain them and give them meaning.  By extension, if the pie maker is the last man standing in his universe, all meaningful correlation between the existential condition of the pie and that of the universe eventually breaks down. 

In short, one can only eat one’s own apple pies in solitude for so long before one goes insane.  The existence of a pie implies both future and past in space: in the future, someone will sit in a landscape and eat the pie which the pie maker made in the past.  Because of this, if you succeed at the game of life, I will feel bad for you. 

You will outlast your universe; your apple pies will no longer be meaningful.  You will survive and will have no one for whom you can make an apple pie or anything else.  You will see the sky fall, the stars burn out, the destruction of the world.  You will be haunted by memories of times long past and people you loved and wars that no one remembers.  That is a truly horrible fate.  Do you want to win this game?  For your sake, I sincerely hope not.

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You Are Somewhere Else


In Front of the Mudd Club, 77 White Street

“Two rich couples drop out of a limousine.  The women are wearing outfits the poor people who were in ten years ago wore ten years ago.  The men are just neutral.  All the poor people who’re making this club fashionable so the rich want to hang out here, even though the poor still never make a buck off the rich pleasure, are sitting on cars, watching the rich people walk up to the club.”

— Kathy Acker


One Job

For every good writing day, I have 20 bad ones.  A good writing day is one in which I feel inspired to make progress on a piece.  But that doesn’t ensure that I will be able to finish it or feel satisfied if I do.  It doesn’t mean that I will think I did a good piece of work or that I will be able to trust that judgment over time.  All I know after a good day is that I felt good.  All I know on those other days is that I felt frustrated, uninspired, and aggrieved whether or not I produced pages, whether or not I think (or will think) that those pages are worthwhile.

Optimal conditions rarely exist for creative work.  There is always something getting in the way, some defect of body, mind, or circumstances that conspires to obstruct progress and generate despair and self-doubt.  The only answer is to keep writing, to admit that I can and will generate unsatisfying work, to avoid wondering about my talent, and to just get on with things.  As my trombonist friend, Mike Hickey, once said about being a musician: just keep playing.

Just keep writing.

No one feels they have talent all the time.  In fact, most people feel the way I do: it’s hit and miss, always a struggle, always an emotional upheaval.  If literary geniuses really do exist outside the marketing generated by a hypocritical and terrified publishing industry, they would, by definition, be critical of themselves.  History confirms that creative work is hard, even for the most famous and memorable writers.  And it can’t be genius to believe it’s always easy or that your talent will confer all the pleasures and none of the agonies.

Just keep writing.

I tell myself to forget the people who have advised me not to give up my day job; they don’t know and can’t judge.  Forget the family members and acquaintances who wanted me to reflect their own lack of talent and resented me for trying to develop my own; they can only see disappointing reflections of themselves.  Forget the graduate school competitors, the half-starved adjunct professors, the depressed self-diagnosed creative failures, the cynical postmodernists declaring everything already over; they’re all too emotional.  They’re like sick dogs.  And sick dogs don’t typically write fiction.  Don’t be a romantic.  Be methodical.  Cultivate a classical mind.  Stay dedicated to the work and just keep writing because all these feelings and emotional people will disappear.

The only thing left will be the words I’ve written down.  Whether there are many words or just a few is irrelevant.  The point will be that I wrote them and kept writing them.  In the end, that’s all I will have because the books will get put away on a shelf or recycled or lost.  The computer files will get forgotten or deleted.  What I wrote will be no better than a half-remembered dream.  Just as what I intend to write is nothing more than a flimsy possibility.  A trombonist is nothing without his trombone in his hand.  If he keeps playing, he’s a trombonist.

Nothing exists except for this moment and what I do in it.  So if I call myself a writer, I have one job.


Rara Avis

All libraries contain secrets, even the most sterile and unwelcoming collections.  One thinks this must be why conservative politicians despise public libraries and continuously go after their funding.  It can be frightening to imagine that the public has access to knowledge that those in power have neither the time nor the inclination to discover. 

A library represents free information and therefore runs contrary to the ethos of authoritarian capitalism and consumerism: if something is free, it’s suspect because nothing of value can be free.  So when corporate culture and its politicians aren’t creating more poverty to criminalize, they devote a certain amount of their free time to portraying libraries as cesspools of homelessness.  People can’t be going there to learn.  The knowledge marketplace demands that information be endowed with a certain market value.

Libraries are all too often described as places where bad-smelling, mentally ill, bearded men spend their afternoon snoring with titles like Les arts de l’Asie centrale or A Catalogue of Turkish Manuscripts and Miniatures, volume III as dusty pillows.  No one sleeps in Amazon.com or on the stack of Reader’s digests and Wall Street Journals in front of the local newsstand.  And that’s how conservative America likes it: if you’re not going to buy anything, please go away and die somewhere discreet.  And maybe take The History and Development of Ancient Chinese Architecture with you.  No one wants to buy that.

But I, for one, find unwashed old men in libraries reassuring if not a little endearing.  Just as when it rains, I take solace in the regularity of storm clouds, when I hear that tell-tale snoring, I enjoy the thought that some vet named Burt will be sitting around the corner in the Dewey 930s, pretending to read a text in Arcadocypriot Greek when the librarian passes by.  If you look closely, you might notice that the book is upside-down.  But you won’t look that closely.

At the end of the day, when one of the librarians picks up the book to reshelve it, she’ll no doubt experience a sense of wonder: someone finally came in search of that obscure Peloponnesian dialect—and casually to the extent that the person didn’t even feel the need to check the book out!  The possibility that it was merely being used as a sad old man’s headrest would be too cynical for a true librarian to entertain, at least straight away.  Instead, she’d prefer to believe that someone walked in determined to learn more about the world of pre-Dorian Cyprus.  And that is why true librarians are wonderful people (people filled with wonder).  But, as with anything else in this late age of revenge politics, throwback Enlightenment scientism, and YA fiction for adults, true anything is rare.

Still, libraries, like museums, are meant to preserve such rarities.  So it makes sense that a library might contain hidden practitioners of true arts the same way it secrets knowledge away from the broadcloth-and-pearl-wearing delinquents currently ruining the United States and demeaning the arts and sciences of the West.  Maybe Burt was (is) a sculptor.  Maybe the gentleman with the Fu Manchu and the Army surplus jacket at that table in the corner has a masters in historical musicology.  Maybe the toothless wonder currently snoring into a puddle of drool once wrote a dissertation on the rejection of evidentialism in religious epistemology.  You never know. 

Maybe a star seen through a library window at midnight is actually a symmetrical angel—too distant to be clearly perceived in its full geometry.  Yet, if viewed from within a dark library with one’s feet in the proper position while speaking the right Arcadocypriotic line from Pausanias’ Description of Greece, one might have a rare insight into stars and angels.  One might even begin to comprehend the range of symmetrical possibilities that converge on a functioning library card: that a library is a city of doors, that it gratefully accepts the snores of sleeping homeless men the way the hills accept the rain, and that it is, above all else, an infinite palace of vaults and ritual chambers in which one finds all the angels, devils, and true adepts resident in the human imagination.

How many people will come along with the necessary Arcadocypriotic, having read the Pausanias’ prescribed ancient manuscript (even right-side-up in translation), and capable of accessing the library at midnight in order to stand by the dark window on the appropriate night and have this mysterious realization?  Very few.  This is how libraries veil their secrets.  The information is available, but you have to do the work of discovering it.  And then you have to engage with it beyond merely using the book as a headrest.  The librarian believes in you.

If you succeed in this, unlike Betsy DeVos, you may attain a level of knowledge and conversation with the deeper mysteries of the library and what it represents; though, you may not reacquire your teeth or find a place to sleep after closing hours.  But you will grasp the golden chain of true insight that has come down, unbroken, through the hands of countless artists, scholars, monks, philosophers, scientists, and mystics—the other end of which may be held by Venus or may disappear in the source of all books, a cloud of unknowing silence which nothing but silence can express.


Writing out a few sentences by Nakamura to see how they feel.

There was something evil in the glow of the room’s blue lights.  I felt the weight of the man on top of me.  He could no longer move.  His eyes were closed.  I stared long into his face.  I realized that I wanted him.  I wanted the passion he had until a moment ago.  I wanted his shoulders, which were quite muscular for his age, and his naturally tan face.  I got out from under his body, sat in a chair, and lit a cigarette.  I had to wait like this until he fell into a deep sleep.

It was raining outside.

The Kingdom, Fuminori Nakamura (trans. Kalau Almony)