Being a Creative Writer in an Age of Anxiety

A colleague of mine, a self-employed commercial artist and science fiction writer I will call “Jim,” recently declared, “If you’re a man getting close to your 50s and you haven’t done something yet, don’t say you’re doing to do it someday because you probably won’t.”  Jim was criticizing another guy in the same industry, who he doesn’t like and who seems to be loudly and visibly struggling in his career. 

Strangely, Jim is also getting close to his 50s, hasn’t done all the things he wants to do, and is also existing paycheck to paycheck, trying to live off his self-published work (which is quite good, in my opinion).  The difference between them is the other guy whines loudly and constantly plugs his GoFundMe, while Jim works harder and (mostly) swallows his frustration.

Jim’s comments on social media are usually criticisms of people who complain about their difficult lives instead of working hard like him.  I can accept that attitude.  If anyone has earned the right to be scornful of the weak, it’s someone who started off in a weak position and made themselves strong or, in Jim’s case, perhaps marginally stronger.  Still, it doesn’t feel good when his angst rises and he starts punching down.

His pronouncement above sounds like flinty entrepreneurial wisdom—Yoda in a self-made, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps vein: do or do not (in your career, in your life); there is no try.  But I know his criticism and anger are rooted in his own insecurities, not in some external source.  We’re always the most critical of our own family, our own friends, our own professional colleagues, members of our own communities and cultures because, when they fail, it makes us feel like we’re next. 

Jim was, to use a trendy term, “triggered,” and he had to release the vapors.  We all have that friend who tries to speak like a philosopher or social critic as a way of purging anxiety and legitimating his concerns.  Sometimes, I do that, too.  So I’m not trying to be inordinately critical of Jim or except myself from a behavior that seems common among sensitive people, particularly artists and writers.  If you’re not bothered by something, you usually have little motivation to write or speak about it publicly, especially on a blog or in a magazine op-ed or on social media.  But in order to understand the criticism Jim’s making, we also have to know something about arts communities and social timing.

A creative community, whether physical (like a writer’s colony, a brick-and-mortar magazine, or a college art program) or on social media, is a perpetual knife fight in a submarine.  It goes without saying that in every creative field, money is always tight, careers are always precarious, hyper-competitiveness is the rule, commercialism undercuts everything, and exploitation is a fact of life. 

These hardships and uncertainties naturally produce immense anxiety, since survival is always at issue on some level, even when you ostensibly “make it” and get famous.  As the actress, Jewel Staite, drolly notes on her Twitter profile, “I like routine, predictability, and living a non-stressful existence, which is why I’ve chosen the film industry.”  That’s darkly funny.  But it’s also true: life as an artist isn’t simple or calm.  You don’t get job security, even when people know who you are.  You’re always on the make.

Keeping this in mind makes it easier to see how tearing down other creatives can become a Malthusian side hustle.  If they’re wounded, the instinct may be to kick them where it hurts.  If they’re down, put your foot on their back.  Do unto others before they can do unto you.  More table scraps for you that way.  You’ll feel less vulnerable, less likely to die in poverty and obscurity, less hopeless, lost, and ashamed that you ever considered yourself worthy to live a creative life.

If publicly criticizing others relieves your constant, grinding dread, even if only for a moment, it will be tempting.  But there’s a problem with that way of being, apart from its meanness and craven pettiness: it makes you less able to do your own imaginative work.  Competitiveness and the anxiety that stimulates it erodes creativity.  It demands your emotional energy, the power you should be channeling into your creative process.  And it makes you feel like you have to court public visibility at all costs to protect yourself from others like you.  It brings to mind Putin parading around his nukes, saying don’t mess with me.  I’m serious business.  That’s exhausting.  Artists should not have nukes.

This is why I have generally avoided arts communities; though, social media has put most writers like me in a perpetual online detention camp with my peers (and the current surge of AI art paranoia isn’t helping one bit).  The pandemic only exacerbated the tensions and forced online interactions that would not have been advisable in any other era.  Add the wave of self-conscious, humorless, social-activist writing still moving through pop-culture and the creative life seems nothing but an exercise in misery.

Western, middle-class, social timing says that by certain decades of life, one should have certain things and be certain things.  But very few people will admit that they fall short of those ideals.  One cannot log onto Twitter or Facebook without seeing some financial marketing come-on that goes, “How many millions will you need to retire?”  In other words, how much money will you need to avert an ugly humiliating end after you retire?  Millions?  Most artists and writers have thousands (or hundreds) in the bank.  Some, who are actually very gifted and good at what they do, live below the poverty line.

So I think I understand Jim when he says if you haven’t done a thing by 50, you aren’t going to.  He’s not talking to you or me.  He’s talking to himself.  Because he’s thinking about social timing and emoting like a neurotic artist in a creative community, wondering if he’s destined to die in the gutter.

While I don’t accept the assumptions that go into the success / failure binary encouraged by middle-class social timing—I think it’s a little more complicated and there’s more room to live how you want to live, if you’re willing to make compromises—I also think it’s better to work hard than pump your GoFundMe for sympathy change.  But I feel sad when I see a talented colleague desperately cutting down some other poor sap who’s just trying to make the rent any way he can.

We get one life.  It isn’t over ’till it’s over.  And ultimately we get to do what we want as long as we’re willing to accept the consequences.  That means, if you really love being an artist, you’ll choose art.  The hard part is making that choice in a relaxed, generous way.

Social Justice and Online Zen

Just about every day, I see idealistic, well-meaning people online proposing solutions to social problems. Many of those solutions reflect utopian, siloed thinking, requiring highly unrealistic, comprehensive overhauls to systems that have been in place for a long time.

It kind of breaks my heart. I know people want positive change and improvement. And I’m not so cynical to think that their ideas are always about online clout chasing and virtue signalling; though, there does seem to be a massive amount of that. But I do think the world is an extremely complex, interdependent web of interests, necessities, and dependencies. It’s usually not possible to accomplish anything even marginally helpful without some degree of compromise. Unfortunately, compromise is messy and doesn’t look cool in an online rant.

My advice, for what it’s worth, is that if you really care about something, go about changing it for the better in unromantic, stable increments. Adopt more of the “community organizer” model and less of the Marvel Superhero model. And learn to get excited about those powerful, local, mature, solid improvements instead of the grand cinematic ones that are unworkable long term and probably impossible to even undertake from the beginning. You might not see a total solution in your lifetime, but you might do way more good than a showboat looking for acclaim and overnight change.

I’m not trying to be depressing, overly critical, or defeatist, just realistic and hopeful that someone, somewhere is coming up with more than just romantic, utopian solutions. I also try, when I can, to walk this walk. But I’m just as limited in time, reach, and resources as the next person.

In the meantime, I’ve decided not to argue with people online about their reactive social nostrums. That doesn’t help, either. I’m maintaining as much of a zen calm about things as I can these days. This post is as far as I go.

You Might Live to be 100

Funeral & Burial Rituals From Around The World | Everplans

Too much death in the air these days . . . 

The truth is you have no idea.  If you’re morbid and enjoy reading tragic stories, you might have nevertheless noticed that the terminally ill, those infected with bizarre venereal diseases (or run-of-the-mill venereal diseases, or even run-of-the-mill venereal Covid), people given personal doomsday clocks by their doctors, and people condemned to death in exotic penal systems often pull through anyway.  They live.

Why?  Nine times out of ten, the odds are bullshit.  That’s why.  You know this whenever you look in the mirror and see a miracle looking back, which is every time.  Every singularity is as remarkable as it is improbable, and it’s a straight-up miracle that you exist because you are that.

It’s amazing that you have enormous student loans; can worry about paying taxes on time; can have an orgasm, even one with another person; can search on the internet for poems by John Donne, who lived 450 years ago, and find them in less than five seconds; and are reading this right now.  Yes, a miracle, a completely improbable singularity, like a fat orange on a snowy day or a fire held in the hand.  You’re magic, kid.

So you simply do not know how long you’ve got, no matter the odds you’re given or the conventional wisdom that says boo-this and blah-that.  First tell me how magic works—i.e. why and how you exist—and then I’ll be willing to accept some metric for longevity that doesn’t have to do with actuarial computation and Big Gerontology.  Don’t swallow another protean manifestation of ghoulish capitalism that seeks to monetize everything, even life and death.  Don’t capitulate to capitalism.

Average lifespans are death propaganda.  Don’t drink that Kool-Aid.  Live.  Live long and motherfucking prosper.  As Sly said, “You can make it if you try.  Push a little harder.  Think a little deeper.  Don’t let the plastic bring you down.”  And know that everything trying to harness your assumptions about your life, how long it will last, and how great it could still be is plastic above you.  Highly profitable plastic, perhaps, but for someone who is not you.

Rather, with Donne, look at the years to come and say, “Twice or thrice had I lov’d thee,/ Before I knew thy face or name;/ So in a voice, so in a shapeless flame” come the angles of our nature, our better angels, our reflections in the mirror getting older, getting greyer, but still here.  We’re still kicking and we’re unwilling to trade the uncertainties of decades to come for the quiet enjoyment of the grave.

Black Ribbon

Then my uncle bought the costume shop.  And, for a while, things got interesting again.  New Years Eve, 1991, he let me borrow a classic notch-lapel tuxedo and some patent leather shoes.  The whole package.  Socks.  A cotton laydown collar shirt.  Onyx links.  And a midnight solid bow tie.

“You look like James Bond,” he said.  Then he turned to my friend, Evert, and said, “You look like James Bond’s hairdresser.”

“Thanks, Uncle Tim,” Evert said.

“Why do you hang out with this guy?”

“I don’t know,” I said.  “But, yeah, thanks.”

Evert was wearing the same thing I was.  But Uncle Tim never felt right unless he was giving somebody a hard time.  He was basically a good guy, funny too.  I was sad when they found him three years later.

This was supposed to be a fun night.  The Hotel Escondido threw a big party every year.  You needed formalwear to get in.  And an invitation.  So Evert and I already had the problem half solved thanks to my uncle, who now sold costumes but also wedding gowns, tuxedos, and second hand suits.

He put three folded hundreds in my pocket and gave me a hug.  “Don’t give any to goofball over there.”

Evert was waiting by the door.  “I can hear you,” he said.

“Be careful,” Uncle Tim said and chucked me on the shoulder.

I was 18.  The year before, Evert and I snuck into the Hotel Escondido in the best clothes we could find.  I was in my old pinstripe Confirmation suit that I had to keep unbuttoned because it had started to tear inside.  Evert wore a sweater and khakis.  We ate canapés, got drunk on fancy champagne, watched the fireworks from a stone balcony, and made out with girls two years older than us, who said they were getting paid to be there.  After midnight, Evert and I escaped through the side entrance one step ahead of security.  It was great.

This year, we were going to do it right.  We’d studied the floorplan.  We knew the exits.  We knew what to say to security.  And with Uncle Tim’s assistance, I felt we were bound to meet some nice girls this time who weren’t being paid.

When we got in my ancient Rambler, Evert said, “Why is your uncle such a dick?”

“He gave us these suits, didn’t he?”

“He’s a dick.”

“He’s old school.  He went to jail a couple years ago.  He had a messed-up childhood.”

“Dick.”

It was somewhat true.  Uncle Tim could act obnoxious, always seemed a little angry, dressed in all polyester, and smoked too much.  But he could pick you up with one hand.  He loved dogs.  And his laughter could almost knock you over.  Nobody talked about why he went to jail.

I parked in the dark corner of a dirt lot seven blocks away from the hotel and set my two steering wheel locks.  Then I pulled the old Alpine out of the dash and put it in the trunk under a piece of cardboard and some crumpled newspapers. Downtown San Diego in the late 1990s wasn’t bad.  And the Rambler wasn’t good. But such were the cars that usually got jacked—the buckets.  And anything Honda.  Evert never stopped making fun of me for using two steering wheel locks on a car like mine, to which I always responded, “Get your own fucking car, then,” and to which he never had a comeback.

The street was ghost empty.  And we could see the Hotel Escondido’s lights turning the everything yellow down at the end.  It had originally been a 15-story office building, built on a hill in 1949 in a time before mirror-glass and rooftop helipads.  It had gargoyles.  The elevators were marble and brass and smelled like old metal.  And there were butt urns set every few feet down the halls.  If you were going to crash a big holiday party, that was the place.

The festivities would be in the ballroom on the ground floor, an enormous space with parallel staircases on either side sweeping up to a vast mezzanine and a stone veranda that overlooked the lights of India Street and the bay.  What most didn’t know was that there was a dirt trail up the side of the hill to a small, unlockable wrought-iron gate.  The gate opened onto a narrow service staircase that led up the side of the building to the veranda.

When I’ve told others about that night, they’ve asked me, “Did you get thrown out?” as if that were the punchline, the most important detail, some kind of moral at the end.  I never know what to say.  Of course we got thrown out.  Was it a stupid plan?  Of course it was.  Were we stupid kids?  My answer to that is all kids are stupid at 18.  The trick to having more good memories than bad is to be the right kind of stupid at the right time.

Later, I waited in the Rambler in front of Evert’s house while he changed into some sweats.  He brought his tux out in a large paper grocery bag, shoes on top.

“Tell your uncle thanks.  But I don’t think I’ll be doing this again.”

I nodded, waved, and pulled into the street.  In the rear-view, I saw Evert standing in the drive next to his mother’s gray Pinto, watching me go.  We wouldn’t be doing this again because Evert was headed to college in a few months.  And I was headed nowhere.  Uncle Tim already said I could work for him at the shop.  I was considering it.  But it wasn’t something I felt like talking about.

When we snuck down from the veranda, we expected a grand ballroom full of people.  But it was half-empty and it didn’t look like the management had paid any models to stand around and look glamorous.  The DJ was spinning solid ’70s disco and nobody there looked under 40.  A few drunk soccer moms were doing something that vaguely resembled the Twist in the middle of the floor, acting more self-conscious than the kids at my high school dances.  No waiters with canapés.  Only a long buffet table with a cashier at the end.

It took about an hour for security to notice us and show us to the door.  We didn’t run.  It was too depressing and low energy for that.  Last year, they’d worn tuxedos, too, and had little earpieces like in a spy flick.  This year it was black windbreakers with SECURITY in yellow block letters across the back.

“Let’s go.”  A windbreakered guard with curly blond hair beneath a black and yellow ball cap that read “A-1” put his hand on my shoulder and guided me toward the lobby.  Evert trailed, looking down, hands in his pockets.

“I’ve got an invitation,” I said.

“Sure.” The guard opened one of the front double doors for me.  “Have a happy new year.”

“You, too,” Evert said, “You have a hell of a year,” as the guard shut the door softly behind us.

Evert lived with his mom and sister about five minutes from Pacific Beach.  After I dropped him off, I parked in an alley near Crystal Pier and walked down to the end.  The beach bars were full.  You could hear the distant shouting and music like little pockets of chaos, little hell caverns, each competing for some sort of reward to see who could be the most crazy and perverse.  The Garden of Earthly Delights.  Every New Year’s Eve, the whole world became that painting.

The pier smelled like creosote and rotten wood.  It went far and high enough over the water that you could dive off the end and swim back.  At least, that’s what everybody said.  Or you could die.  It was a big dare, one of the many opportunities for making a bad decision you encountered as a teen in San Diego.  The bad kind of stupid.  I thought about jumping.  I could give the ruined tuxedo back to Uncle Tim with the $300 and make up some wild story.  He’d love it.  Instead, I leaned against the railing and looked back at the city glittering electric in every color of the rainbow.

To my left, one of the fishermen you saw on the beach all hours of the day and night took a swig of something in a paper bag and said, “Prom?”

“New Year’s.”

“Wow.”  He smiled, adjusting his fishing pole against the rail.  “Fuck that.”

The sky was clear.  There was a full moon.  And you can’t stay at the end of a pier forever, even though there were some nights I’d spend hours there, leaning against the rough wooden railing.  If the beach bars sounded like an infernal Hieronymus Bosch pep rally, the ocean at night was a different sort of hell: black ribbon over glittery onyx, the sound of the surf letting you know there’s a lot going on out in that faceless, trackless dark and you’re right on the edge.  One step off the pier was all it took to be part of it forever.

Time of night changes the darkness on a street, even if it’s beachfront and lit up like New Year’s Eve.  I walked down Ocean Front, avoiding the crowds in front of the bars, made a left on Hornblend, and crossed Mission.  Tourists from New Jersey, Connecticut, Vancouver, New Mexico, all drunk, packed ten to a truck, no shirts, speeding pale through the streetlights, hollering, tossing crumpled beer cans at the dark storefronts.

Growing up in San Diego, I saw them every year, every holiday, every summer night I spent at the beach.  No big thing.  Half of them would be arrested by dawn.  A fourth would go home and make up tales of the vacation they’d had.  Maybe a sixth would believe their own lies and want to move to California someday.  But they’d never be able to afford it.  Or they’d get as far as Bakersfield and learn the true meaning of heartache.

I told myself if the party at the hotel had only been better, I’d feel differently about everything.  I told myself then I wouldn’t feel so depressed.  But none of that was real enough to be true.  It was just a story I was telling.  Truth was, I didn’t feel much of anything.  No anger.  No pain.  No regret.  No sense of missing out or that I had to search for something better.  Nothing but a faint melancholy, a vague tiredness.  High school, my life, was about waiting, everything calculated in terms of how long things were going to take, when I could expect them to end, what I’d have to put up with until they did.

And I told myself Evert had it better.  But what did I know?  “I don’t think I’ll be doing this again,” he’d said.  “Why is your uncle such a dick?” he’d said.  I could have told him some obscure Tibetan Buddhism fact from world history, “Yes, the answer is to just apply yak oil to the icon of Yidam Kurukulla and do the great dance of the Knowledge-Causing Mother-Buddha,” and Evert would have given me the exact same look.  The I’m leaving for college look.  The too bad you aren’t but that’s how it goes look.

Right on Bayard and down past Grand.  Left on Thomas where the old cinderblock apartment complexes rust and crumble to eternity.  At night, they look like industrial back lots for meat packing plants or ball joint factories.  Weird and empty.  Nothing you’d want to spend time in.  Orange-white safety lights always buzzing.  Concrete stairwells that smell like piss.  Some tatted-up, naked guy in a window, holding a bottle of wine.

Where was I walking at the end of 1991 in Uncle Tim’s notch-lapel tuxedo?  I thought the Rambler might have already been towed, which made everything feel even more tiring, more futile.  Home was in North Park, 20 minutes east on the 805, with a mother and father whose idea of a good New Year’s Eve was not having to suffer fools all night and start the new year with a headache.  They were smarter than me.  I told myself next year I’d go to bed early.

One of the apartments, three flights up, was open, light streaming down into an empty courtyard parking lot, stereo thumping.  A woman with long wavy green hair leaned over the metal railing and waved at me like otherwise I wouldn’t notice.

“Come up here,” she said.  Flannel shirt and jeans.  Very drunk.

I looked at her.

“Steve.  Come up and dance.”

The stereo inside was loud.  I had to shout.  “I think you got the wrong guy!”

“Steve!  Get up here!”

“I’m not Steve!”

“Don’t worry about it!”  She waved me up in wide, exaggerated arcs.  I thought she might lose her balance and go headfirst over the railing.

Inside, ten extremely drunk people were trying to dance in the small shag-carpeted living room.  A few cardboard boxes of Bud Light had been savagely torn open and unopened cans had rolled under the plastic coffee table.  On the couch, a very large man snored with his shirt unbuttoned, wet spot on his crotch, unlit cigarette between his fingers.  I looked at his hairy belly, at the green-haired woman who said her name was Ada.

“I’m Steve,” I said.  A joke.  But she was busy telling me how the man on the couch had stolen the beer out the back of a liquor store.

“He’s a genius,” she said.  “He’s Polfrey.”

“That’s his last name?”

She frowned up at me.  “What?”

I smiled and shrugged.

Ada stepped back and took me in.  “What’re you doing in that mod getup?”

“Not a lot,” I said.  And that she understood.

We danced.  We danced slow when everyone else was dancing fast and falling into each other.  Some bleached surfer went face-down into the plastic coffee table, rolled on his back, and laughed.  A girl in a burgundy pencil skirt and cream blouse, looking like she’d just got off work at an insurance office and didn’t approve of any of this, sat on Polfrey’s legs, took the cigarette from between his fingers, and lit it.  Someone sprayed beer on the stereo, on the window, on the splotchy ceiling light.  Someone said happy fucking New Year.

I thought Ada might be in her 30s, but at that time I wasn’t good at judging anyone’s age beyond my own.  She laid her head on my chest.  “You sure are dreamy, Steve.  I could take you home to mama.”

We went out in front of the apartment, kissed for a while, and leaned against the railing.  “But I don’t live with my mama.  You want me to take you home?  My girlfriend wouldn’t like that one bit.  You get high?  Do drugs?”

I said I didn’t and Ada patted me on the shoulder.  “That’s good, sweetie.  You keep that dreamy smile.”

“I should go,” I said.  “They might tow my car.”

She gave me a fierce hug and kissed me on the cheek.  “I’m gonna get high.”

At the edge of the parking lot, I looked back.  Ada was still standing at the railing, silhouetted in the doorway light, waving in slow motion, like when you watch someone’s ship pull away from the pier, not really expecting to see them but hoping you might catch one last glimpse.

Walking back to the Rambler, I decided that when I returned the tuxedo, I’d tell Uncle Tim I met a nice girl and we danced all night.  He’d say something like, after you ditched that moron friend of yours, right?  And I’d say yeah, that’s right.  Exactly.

What’s Left?

My mother used to lecture my grandmother about wearing a seat belt when we were in the car together.  I found this fascinating.  Usually mom would be driving; though, on the occasions my father allowed himself to be browbeaten into some lacklustre family outing, he became the driver by default.  My grandmother would always be up front.  I would always be in back, listening, carrying on my side of the conversation in my head.

Mom would cite statistics, deaths that could have been easily prevented, grisly anecdotes from last week’s Union-Tribune on who’d recently catapulted through a windshield and how they died or, worse, lived on forever disfigured, unworthy of love, and incapable of joy.  It was all because of their stubborn refusal to wear a seat belt.  Over time, I came to suspect my mother was lecturing me as much as grandma, even though I was too young to have a license and always did wear my seat belt.

Grandma, one of the hardest, meanest, bitterest women I have ever met, would stare straight ahead, cut from marble, holding the seat belt across her body, the only concession she was willing to make.  If you didn’t see that the belt wasn’t clicked into the lock, you might wonder about all the tension.  But there she was, often in parity with my father, two stone-cold sufferers obligated to participate in a pantomime of family.  Pent up together in that car, I often felt like we couldn’t be further apart.

What I didn’t understand as a young teenager was that my mom was the only adult present.  She’d take issue with my father’s unsafe driving, at which point, he’d yank the car into a turn without looking—far more dangerous and impulsive than doing 80 in the slow lane.  She’d tell me that if I let my hand dangle out the window, I could lose it.  How’d I like to go through life with a hook for a hand?  She’d remind my grandmother of the latter’s horrific wreck in which her little white Datsun crumpled like tin.  And grandma would simply look out the window.  Nobody likes the voice of the superego when it’s coming out of someone else’s mouth.

After the Datsun accident, grandma spent time in the hospital and did a little physical therapy (before she got fed up and quit).  Mom and I were with her every day, helping out, cooking, cleaning, carrying things, making sure she could keep running her cleaners and laundry without losing business.  But I think grandma stopped caring about life after a certain point.  My mother constantly lobbied for her to quit smoking.  I asked grandma why she didn’t, and I remember her looking at me the way one looks a broken toilet, saying, “What’s left, then?”  At the time, I was too young to understand what she meant.  All I knew was that my mom took care of everyone, and it was usually a thankless job.

The lonely and the angry have their comforts, small respites from the unhappiness of their lives.  And many of us have an inner refuge overlaid on liminal spaces—a certain pond that freezes green in winter, an old chain swing in the park, a type of alcohol we drink when we’re alone and the house is quiet, a sandwich at a little table in the deli.  Such things matter more than we care to admit, keeping us sane, keeping us going, helping us endure.

A Shakespeare professor of mine once called it “thinking past the problem.”  He said whenever there was an immovable obstacle, an intractable personality, a wicked problem that stopped him short, he’d go for a walk and smoke his pipe.  Some people open a bottle at midnight.  Some get their surfboards out at dawn.  But take their pipes, scotch, and surfboards away and they might ask, “What’s left?”

After getting abandoned by a dissolute husband in an era when the blame for that nearly always fell on the wife; putting three daughters through college; and running a small business ten hours a day, six days a week, grandma developed a certain flinty resistance to the emerging safetyism of the 1970s.  She laughed loudest when others were suffering the consequences of their own bad decisions.  And she didn’t like men very much at all.

But visiting grandma every summer with my mom throughout the ’80s, I began to notice a growing quietness in her.  Sometime mid-decade, she got robbed by knife-wielding junkies and spent a day locked in the store’s bathroom.  That changed her.  The hard-edged entrepreneur, who’d mocked her customers’ vanities and seemed ready to fight about anything, slowly gave way to a person who no longer seemed involved in life and didn’t like to talk. 

Once a year, she took the Greyhound to Lake Tahoe for a weekend to put quarters in slot machines—her solitary vacation amid the sort people she used to refer to as idiots.  She watched more and more TV.  And, in the end, after retiring, what got her wasn’t smoking, crazed junkies, driving, or drinking.  It was household carbon monoxide poisoning.

I believe there’s a song lyric about life having a sick sense of humor, but the line only became a fixture in my head after watching grandma slowly lose her mind in a way nobody at the time (not even her doctor) could understand.  She just went crazy and her health rapidly declined.  Sometimes, I think she didn’t deserve the hand she was dealt.  Other times, I think of how I’m here because of her.  And I wonder if that changes anything.

Everywhere Under Your Feet

“[Bilbo] used often to say there was only one Road; and that it was like a great river: its springs were at every doorstep, and every path was its tributary. ‘It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door,’ he used to say. ‘You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.’” — J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

No one, not even the healthiest person, is immune to the vicissitudes of life and death.  Or, as the T-shirt says, “Eat right.  Stay fit.  Die anyway.”  There’s always the runaway bus, the surprising terminal illness, the stray bullet, the jet engine falling through the roof, the unanticipated venomous snake, the sudden vertigo on the bridge, perhaps even the rational consideration that you should go out while you can still pronounce your own name.

We laugh at the absurdity of such things—what are the chances!—until the Road sweeps us off our feet.  And we learn firsthand how all attempts to insulate ourselves against death are futile, given that death is an indispensable complement to life.  Get one, you get the other, and no amount of wheat germ and sit-ups will save you. 

How will you die?  Do you ever seriously ask yourself that question?  Or do you, with such middle-class arrogance as to tempt a corrective bolt from the heavens, ask, How do I want to die?  As if it will ever truly be in your power to decide.  We immediately think of suicide as the supposedly ultimate act of self-control over life.  But is it?  When Hunter S. Thompson blew his brains out because he could no longer write, was in great physical pain from an experimental surgery, and was depressed, what actually killed him? 

If those things had not been operative in his life, would he have pulled the trigger?  If my high school friend, Michael G., hadn’t been angry at his philandering plastic surgeon father, would Michael have dropped a ton of acid and fried himself on some power lines?  We’ll never get a chance to find out.  But we all ask questions like this about somebody we used to know.  Are their suicides really voluntary acts or did the gods just decide, in their boredom and perfection, to flip the switch this time? 

Is Putin executing families on the streets of Bucha or are there deep historical and psychological forces working through him and the war criminals under him, like primordial daemons written into human DNA, like the Balrog awakened when the dwarves delved too greedily and too deep?  Can one man understand anything, do anything, by himself, of himself, without the proper aesthetic, sonic, kinetic, temporal, and existential keys being invoked?  Do you seriously think you have a valid answer to this?

Answerless, I’ve been asking impossible questions.  I’ve been thinking about the protean nature of death, pointless literary conceits, stupid war, initiatory dread, insufferable hubris, prescient science fiction, and the Lovecraftian titans shaping our world, which we commonly name deregulation, tribalism, debt, pandemic, climate change, populism, structural violence, siloed thinking, and imperialism—all alive and well in various daemonic and mundane forms, visible and invisible, physical and metaphysical, and actively determining our lives this very minute.  As a result, I’ve been, understandably, a bit more gloomy and mordent than usual.  (Ah, c’est la vie.  It’s my blog and I can cry if I want to.)

But it’s an interesting conundrum, choosing to presume that one has or can someday have control over one’s life up against the Old Gods, Lovecraft’s very alien titans from beyond the pale.  We’re inclined to cite the aforesaid “corrective bolt” and call it fate, but it seems a bit ill-advised to anthropomorphize what we don’t understand, which evidently includes most things in life.  British art-scene tantric, Phil Hine, puts it like this in his Pseudonomicon:

The Cthulhu Mythos displays a recurrent mythic theme; that the “titanic” forces of creation and destruction—the Great Old Ones—have been cast forth from the earth and “forgotten” by civilised humanity and its narrow, materialistic vision. However, whilst they may be forgotten, they are at the same time ever-present, lurking at the frontiers of order, in places where the wild power of nature can be felt. They are chaotic, in the same way that Nature is chaotic, and they retain their primal power since they cannot be “explained” (i.e. bound) or anthropomorphized. They exist outside linear, sequential time, at the border of “Newton’s sleep.”

We can (and, to a certain extent, we must) impose a rational false consciousness on our perceived experiences to stave off insanity.  But the world, as we’ve known from our earliest years, is not rational.  And we suspect we’ve always been unfortunately (or fortunately) out of control.  It seems like a cop-out at first but, the more I think about it, the more I come to believe that the whole point of this circus is to buy the ticket and take the ride, as Dr. Thompson famously said—to bear witness to how the alien machinery of life does its work.  

The non-linear, non-sequential, non-Euclidean, inhuman angles underlying our reassuringly tidy Potemkin assumptions seem fairly determinative if we can only catch a glimpse of them in the Malthusian depredations of capitalism or in the eyes of a dying loved one.  Maybe we don’t need to get better, get clean, get saved, and get ourselves together, since we’re always-already coming apart.  Instead, as Luc Sante’s anonymous speaker pleads at the end of “The Unknown Soldier,” maybe we need to think of ourselves as verbs, not nouns:

[G]ive my eyes to the eye bank, give my blood to the blood bank. Make my hair into switches, put my teeth into rattles, sell my heart to the junkman. Give my spleen to the mayor. Hook my lungs to an engine. Stretch my guts down the avenue. Stick my head on a pike, plug my spine to the third rail, throw my liver and lights to the winner. Grind my nails up with sage and camphor and sell it under the counter. Set my hands in the window as a reminder. Take my name from me and make it a verb. Think of me when you run out of money. Remember me when you fall on the sidewalk. Mention me when they ask you what happened. I am everywhere under your feet.

War is a Failure of Imagination

I’ve been reading St. Teresa of Ávila’s The Interior Castle, not because I’m a Catholic but because I’m always looking for perspectives on how to lead a meaningful life. She was a mystic with a lot to say on the subject and she had a lively mind. She didn’t put it exactly this way, but reading her book gave rise to one of my own, perennial themes: if there is no eternal soul, physical existence is merely a brief, trivial moment in time. If there is an eternal soul, physical existence is still merely a brief, trivial moment in time.

In other words, whether part of us lives forever or all of us dies tomorrow, whether the most meaningful emphasis falls on “this life only” or on “life after death,” makes little difference to the fact that we’re here right now and have to lead our small lives, such as they are. Earthly life will be relatively short, either way. So it should mean something in itself, as itself.

Of course, St. Teresa believed in an immortal soul, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting. But we don’t have to believe in all those things to see the wisdom here. The question that arises is far older than the Catholic Church of St. Teresa: “How do you want to spend your brief time on earth?” which is another form of “What is good?”

It’s a useful thing to ask, whether you’re a postmodern reductive materialist, a 16th century Christian mystic, or somewhere between those extremes. Maybe it’s the ultimate question one could ever ask. And for most of us, the answer will be personal. The good life for me may not be (probably shouldn’t be) the good life for you. Conversely, most of us will agree that certain life experiences are definitely not good and to be avoided whenever possible.

We may agree more on what we want to avoid. That might be due to some shared Pleasure-Principal bias—avoiding pain usually seems more compelling than seeking pleasure. But it could also be that there are simply more things we’d commonly like to escape than experience as a members of the same species. War is undoubtedly one of those things. 

Adrienne Rich described war as a failure of imagination: “War is an absolute failure of imagination, scientific and political. That a war can be represented as helping a people to ‘feel good’ about themselves, or their country, is a measure of that failure.” It’s the failure to imagine and pursue better options. And there are always better options.

War seems like an extreme form of cultural and psychological dysfunction, one of the foremost things people would like to miss, along with terminal illness, poverty, public disgrace, imprisonment, and loss of career. Yet all these things exist and are experienced by large numbers of people every day. There is always someone at war, just as there is always someone dying or becoming destitute or being put behind bars. We just hope it isn’t us.

Inevitably, sometimes it is—probably through no fault of our own. There is the stereotype of the naïve youth, who enlists out of idealism, because he thinks war will be heroic and exciting, or because he wants to prove himself. Still, the vast majority of people aren’t that daft. Most of us carry a deep instinctual knowledge that armed conflict is bad for one’s health and that the promises governments make when sending you to war become rather empty when you catch a bullet.

But let’s also try to be as honest as we can be: sometimes you have to go to war. That’s when it’s particularly tragic—when someone else’s failure of imagination means you have no choice, when your country is being invaded, when it’s a fight for survival. That’s how it seems to be in the Ukraine right now. Putin has said the Ukrainian citizenry won’t be harmed, but don’t you believe it.  He is not a world leader known for honesty.

Aside from the inevitable collateral damage and death that comes standard with explosions and chunks of metal being shot through the air, there’s the rumour of political kill lists and the Russian army’s need to suppress (essentially to hold hostage) an unwilling Ukrainian population. There will be domestic insurgency. There will be terrorist acts and guerrilla warfare. There will be disappearances and injustices and crimes against humanity. Sadly, these are the unavoidable adjuncts to acts of military conquest.  They are part of its grand failure, the slow-rolling catastrophe that always characterizes war.

No one in the world is buying what Putin’s selling. He’s chosen a Hitlerian Anschluss, the annexation of a sovereign democratic state under false pretenses.  It will become a legacy of self-destruction for him and a cause of lasting suffering for his own people as well.  Putin will never be free of the infamy that comes from playing the brutal adventurer.  And the world will despise him for it forever.