Category Archives: Death

Goodbye America

One thinks: this shit’s never gonna end. Puerto Rico. Idiot with a bump stock on the the 32nd floor. Nuclear Viagra giving Trump an intercontinental hard-on. Hurricane Maria, Irma, Harvey, take your pick. My friend’s house underwater in Houston, his dog on an inflatable raft. Girls stabbed in Marseilles. Girls with acid in their faces. Girls shot in a club. Catalonia blowing up. Spanish police hurling voters down the stairs, zip ties, broken jaws. It will never, ever end.

One thinks: on a long enough timeline, the probability of any given thing in the United States becoming a horrific instrument of death rises to about 99%. Maybe puppies, water lilies, and soft serve ice cream are exempt, but you’d be surprised. America is a lethal place. More lethal this year than last year and you know why. There is no fate. No grace. No help from above. Just you and me and the justice we make. But maybe I don’t know what’s just anymore.

One thinks: if we could figure out what justice is, we might make a little more of it in the time we have left before the Empire falls and the barbarians come wailing in to roast mom for dinner. But, you see, mom has it coming. The Empire is always collapsing. That’s part of what makes it the Empire. And mothers are the ones raising a new generation of infantry to help it all along. Mothers are secretly to blame. If you really want to be the change, just don’t breed. But you can’t help yourself, can you.

I once dated a girl whose mother had retired to Coronado Island after 30 years of running a large farm in the Midwest. The woman now lived in a pristine four-story mansion with stained glass windows and aged admirals as neighbors. The story of how she got transported from a farm to a high-end resort off the coast of San Diego unpacks like a cliché movie of the week: illegal pesticides, cancer deaths, enormous lawsuit, and an out-of-court settlement that made everyone but the families of the farm laborers obscenely rich.

Mom was, as they used to say in Northern California, hella happy with the outcome, even though (or maybe because) her second husband also kicked it in the process. She was the Laughing Farmer Buddha of corporate hush money. Though after she met me, she was perhaps less amused by life or by her daughter’s choices in men.

When we shook, she twisted my hand open in a death grip, looked down at my palm, and said, “Hmm. Soft hands.” Then she stepped back, crossed her arms, and frowned at me the way you would at a corpse just dragged from a polluted river, the corpse of the man I could have been but obviously wasn’t and never would be. Watching the exchange, her daughter—who I’d been out with no more than two or three times before that night—seemed ready for good bit of fun. It was then that I began to feel that none of us were destined to be best friends.

One thinks: there must be a reason I had this experience, some sort of magnetic resonance floating out around my navel, pulling in all manner of bigots, racists, fools, prevaricators, sea lawyers, farmer savants, red-mesh-cap-wearing bumpkins with absolute opinions on everything they don’t understand and fear. Why does Donald Trump exist, you ask? Why does wedding cake taste like shit? Why can’t we have nice things before those things try to kill us? Scott Pruitt works for the EPA, for one. But maybe you don’t like that answer. Pay no attention to the pesticide behind the curtain.

Toward the end of dinner, her mother told the story of how she’d come into her millions. It was a yarn she seemed to have told at many dinners over the years. She’d refined it with certain references to the overall stupidity of her late husband, racial slurs aimed at the farmhands, clever allusions to the worthlessness of a college education, hints at an ongoing Zionist conspiracy, and various artful insinuations that such evils were all rooted in the basic homosexuality of our times. She was, in short, one of the most repulsive people I’d ever encountered.

She was so offensive that I began to wonder whether it was all a practical joke. But by the end of the night, I saw the truth. This was a suitability test being run by her daughter. If I could deal with the repellent overbearing mother, I was worthy. If not, well, there are winners and losers in this wide world and the daughter was only interested in the former.

For desert, we had mother’s old-time funnel cake topped with sweet cream. We took our plates to the den, where mom started up the fireplace and handed out glasses of cheap bourbon to go with the cake. I saw my date wink and pour hers into the philodendron by the couch. But the plant was not within range of where I was sitting. I thought about pouring it between the cushions.

“You gonna drink it or look at it?”

I smiled and ate some funnel cake. Mom was already into her second glass.

Then her daughter said I was trying to be a writer, which made her mother guffaw and suggest we play a game of Scrabble. Because writers are supposed to like Scrabble. And so did mom, who saw it as a kind of IQ test. She even owned a Scrabble dictionary, no doubt for those late-night bourbon-fueled disputes about whether “gherkin” was a 170- or 180-point word.

Needless to say, mom won the game. I don’t remember the specifics, but I do recall her mix of satisfaction and disappointment, as if she’d once again proven to herself the uselessness of liberal intellectual book learning and what a waste it all was.

One thinks: why didn’t I run out the door screaming when I had the chance? Maybe because I stayed (and because others before me had probably excused themselves long before the funnel cake), the daughter decided I was good boyfriend material. She kept calling long after I gave her the Let’s Not Even Be Friends talk and blocked her number. Her mother had done her part for Big Farm Poison and the Hitler Youth while Jesus Camp and Rush Limbaugh were riding high.  Now her daughter was running free on the earth.

This was long before we ever thought Trump would be anything more than bad TV, before he started referring to our present non-nuclear-holocaust moment as “the calm before the storm.” This was before the end of America, the grand finale, the New American Century with Slim Pickens riding the bomb down to bring on the Rapture. I know you believe it. So stop shaking your damn head. You were there in Charlottesville. I know it was you.

“He wishes he had never entered the funhouse. But he has. Then he wishes he were dead. But he’s not. Therefore he will construct funhouses for others and be their secret operator—though he would rather be among the lovers for whom funhouses are designed.” – John Barth, Lost in the Funhouse

She’s married now, lives in a suburb of Boise with husband and kids, supports Donald Trump, the white identitarian movement, and a particular identitarian organization of which I gather her husband is a card-carrying member. She must be a genius. The public posts on her FB timeline are mostly family photos, lifestyle articles from Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop site, comments about the coming race war, and Breitbart. I know she’s not an evil person. But I can’t make fun anymore. It’s hard to even smile.

And so one thinks: that’s all over now, the thought, the hope, that the system would right itself. The system is what got us where we are. The system is wrong if it has produced this. I’m almost to the point where I’m ashamed I voted at all, even if it was for Hillary. Let’s not ever be friends, okay?

You go make America great again until your gene pool becomes so homogeneous that you start sacrificing people on step pyramids in the forest. Only the steps of those pyramids will be made out of bullet casings and the skulls of immigrant children. Go ahead. If your sister doesn’t mind, I won’t say no. I’ll be in hiding. I already am. Don’t come looking for me. And don’t keep calling. I’ve got soft hands. I like books and classical music and non-violence. I don’t own a bump stock. I don’t even own a gun to put a bump stock on. I won’t be manufacturing any justice in my basement today. I just want you to stop fucking with me. I’ve got my ear to the tracks.

Advertisements

The Professional and the Superior Man

A long time ago, I watched a black-and-white movie about the French Foreign Legion in Algeria. The title escapes me, as does most of the plot, but I vividly remember one scene. A young recruit had snuck off to a local village to visit a girl he liked and was arrested for deserting his post. He was brought before his commanding officer, who gave him a lecture very similar to a bit of dialogue in Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, a film I have watched over and over. I think that’s why I remember the scene from the former otherwise forgettable film.

In any case, the lecture went something like this: You think you care about this girl, but you’ve already seen people die all around you. You think you want to go back home someday, have a family, and grow old comfortably. But these are civilian dreams. You are not part of that world. You have no need for that world, and it has no need for you. The recruit is visibly agitated, angry, surprised. He asks whether they aren’t there to make the world a better place as they have been told—to fight the National Front for democracy and to preserve social order. The commander shakes his head and says: Today, we fight them. Tomorrow, we fight with them against somebody else. Politics changes like the weather. But we stay the same.

I’m reconstructing this conversation from memory. So it may not be exact, but I think I’ve captured the essence of the dialogue. It was a good scene, maybe the only good scene in the movie, but still very romantic in how it evoked the “this life is not for you” sense of doomed heroism we love in stories about the cult of the warrior.

For many years, I’ve rejected this romantic perspective. I’ve thought about professional soldiers the way I’ve thought about sport hunters: anachronisms at best. More often, they seem dangerous and cynical, full of misplaced machismo and the need to justify their existence with bullets instead of brains. So I felt annoyed when someone recently referred to my freelance writing as “being a hired gun.” Not only is that inaccurate—though I can see it in terms of private investigators, lawyers, even lobbyists—but I think it sensationalizes what is basically a very humble line of work.

While there is a lot of professionalism in the field, writing content for media sources and corporations has always struck me as nothing like being a mercenary, a legionnaire, or even a samurai. It always felt more like being a craftsman who specializes in a very specific sort of product. Still, it got me thinking about what a “professional” actually is in a philosophical sense. And now I’m not so sure about these distinctions. This morning, I gave myself a writing assignment, something working writers, especially freelancers, need to do on a regular basis. I set a goal of 700 words in response to: what is a professional?

The Existential Condition of the Professional

I started thinking about that Foreign Legion movie scene and the moment in Seven Samurai when the samurai have successfully defended the farmers against the bandits; though, their friends have died in the process. Kambei Shimada expresses the inherently Pyrrhic nature of military victory: “Again we are defeated. The farmers have won. Not us.”

Again we are defeated…

It’s a melancholy moment that resonates with You have no need for that world, and it has no need for you. But, thinking about it in terms of my many varied writing jobs over the years, I think I’ve come to a deeper understanding. Being a professional means walking the path of mastery and radical individualism. So while it may be true that “civilian life is not for you,” such a path seems more like an existential choice than involuntary alienation from normal life.

It seems to me that if you are a true professional, you engage in one thing so deeply and exclusively that it emerges as an aspect of your nature. Your will, your inner self, and this thing you do are indivisible, indistinguishable. Essentially, you learn that it is who and what you have always been. It’s an inner part of your character that has now found expression in your life as some kind of career or activity.  This emergence ultimately transcends existing categories of normal, mundane life, realigning your values with the profession as the most profound and worthwhile source of meaning. All else must take second place or no place.

The I-Ching alludes to it in hexagram 32, Heng / Duration: “The dedicated man embodies an enduring meaning in his way of life, and thereby the world is formed.” To embody an enduring meaning is to become synonymous with it, to presence it such that you are its student and its conduit. As Yeats says at the end of “Among School Children,” “O body swayed to music,/ O brightening glance,/ How can we know the dancer from the dance?”

The Superior Man vs. the Inferior Man

Not everyone is called to be a professional in this esoteric sense of the term. Its exoteric definition simply indicates a level of proficiency where one can expect to be paid for one’s efforts. But there seems to be a deeper stratum of self-awareness that emerges in some practitioners. The I-Ching calls this person the “superior man,” meaning that he or she operates on a more profound, more philosophical level.

32, Heng

The “inferior man” is someone content to live more superficially within existing, inherited cultural frameworks. Above all else, the inferior man values gratification and relief from the problems in his life and offers up obedience to conventional society in exchange. Conversely, the superior man seeks mastery and will pursue it to the detriment of family, friends, finances, and even social respectability—which is not to say she automatically gives up these pleasures. Rather, she assigns them second place in her life.

In The Hagakure: A Code to the Way of the Samurai, Tsunetomo Yamamoto, a 17th century Edo samurai in the service of Lord Nabeshima Mitsushige, writes “Even if it seems certain that you will lose, retaliate. Neither wisdom nor technique has a place in this. A real man does not think of victory or defeat. He plunges recklessly towards an irrational death. By doing this, you will awaken from your dreams.” To a samurai, “awakening from your dreams” means accepting death as the most likely consequence of your profession. It is pursuing the path of mastery regardless of the consequences. And it is therefore the way of the superior man, who embodies an enduring meaning in his way of life above and beyond the conventional joys and trials of mundane existence.

Seduction of the Youth

This way of life can seem very romantic. The young, in particular, are often attracted to its emphasis on integrity and its ostensible clarity. This is how it should be. If the long painful road to mastery didn’t enchant and seduce people from an early age, humanity’s deepest knowledge would eventually be lost to time and mortality.

And yet, very few set foot on the path of Duration fully realizing how much they will be asked to sacrifice. In the fullness of time, they will die to their old lives and be reborn in the image of their chosen profession, which is to say, they will embody this thing which now sustains them, which flows through them, and which has come to define the purpose of their existence.

Consider the difference between these two expressions: he is a dancer versus he dances. The first describes a professional. The verb of being shows equivalence. He = dancer. There is no distinction between the two. Contrast this with the second expression where dancing is something he does. It is an action undertaken by a noun, not an existential state. He does some dancing. It is not what he is.

Many people who are frustrated with their lives, especially teenagers and disappointed young adults, fantasize about being absorbed into the lifestyle of some profession. They think, if only I could be like so-and-so (often a professional athlete, artist, or celebrity), then I wouldn’t have these problems. But becoming a true professional involves as much pain as it does pleasure. It can mean cutting out everything that is not the profession—a high price to pay that becomes a brutal requirement for those trying to progress. Lawyers will sometimes say, “law is a cruel mistress,” which is undoubtedly true for all professions where mastery is concerned.

Who Becomes a True Professional

Anyone can do it, but few will, since the obstacles are wholly internal. Time, age, finances, social permission, and starting ability are ultimately irrelevant because the path of the true professional is a state of mind. Only the inferior man has to worry about those external things, since he functions primarily within the constraints placed on him by others. The true professional, being the superior man, develops his own set of constraints organically by paying attention to his character and the dictates of his heart.

Jean Reno showing one-pointed focus as Leon, the Professional

This is a matter of discernment, of self-understanding, which makes the professional mindset possible through a succession of insightful shocks or moments of clarity. Such realizations often come when certain sacrifices have been made.

For example, the time, money, and logistical arrangements necessary for living in a remote cabin for three months in order to finish your novel will produce not only work product but also greater awareness of what you really want to write and who you really want to become. This, in turn, will provide a vision of the next step, the next goal and its necessary sacrifices. Every step entails a sacrifice to be made, something material that will be given and received, a self-insight, and an altered state of consciousness.

In some philosophies, this pursuit of mastery is considered dangerous, an outlaw ethos. It’s seen as “antinomian” (anti / opposite or against + nomos / rule or law) in the sense that it often disregards approved social norms. Those who have become proficient to the degree that they have “awakened from their dreams” have disregarded the desires and statuses manufactured by consensus culture. They threaten the system by their very existence. They have undertaken a path of radical individualism that privileges subjective personal meaning and depends on mastery and self-understanding for forward progress.

It is very hard to control such a person with conventional rewards and punishments. The path of the true professional stands in stark contrast to lifestyles that interpolate people into preexisting categories designed to provide gratification and relief in exchange for obedience in thought, word, and deed. Instead, having transcended superficial levels of meaning, the professional finds himself enjoying hidden pleasures and suffering from unique pains. He can talk about his discipline to beginners and to the uninitiated, but only to a point. There are things that can only be understood by those with eyes to see and ears to hear, developed through firsthand experience.

There is no Going Back

It’s not hard to see that the path of the true professional, being extremely demanding and fraught with difficulties, is not for everyone, nor should it be. There is something to be said for the joys of a simple mundane life and the fun of dilettantism. Moreover, as you walk the path of individuation, you may come to a sobering realization: once you took the first faltering steps toward what would become a life-defining quest for mastery in your field, there was no going back.

In a sense, as the commanding officer says to the legionnaire recruit, you reach a point at which you have no need for that world, and it has no need for you. The path has changed you forever as you’ve sacrificed and been reborn again and again. The Egyptologist, Isha Schwaller de Lubicz, expresses this beautifully in Her Bak: the Living Face of Ancient Egypt, a speculative account of initiation into an Egyptian mystery cult where radical self-transformation is the highest goal:

What is life? It is a form of the divine presence. It is the power, immanent in created things, to change themselves by successive destructions of form until the spirit or activating force of the original life-stream is freed. This power resides in the very nature of things. Successive destruction of forms, metamorphoses, by the divine fire with rebirth of forms new and living is an expression of consciousness that is independent of bodily circumstance.

When the dancer is the dance, both emerge as an expression of consciousness, a state of mind above and beyond the movements of the body. This is the reality of the true professional.


Realpolitik and Kittens

I have been reading about pro-Nazi exiles recruited and paid by the CIA. I can never read such things without feeling powerfully upset. But I also keep in mind Ludwig von Rochau’s idea that “the law of power governs the world of states just as the law of gravity governs the physical world.” Rochau supposedly coined the term, “realpolitik,” which originally had to do with achieving Enlightenment ideals in a world that didn’t operate according to those ideals. Reading about the CIA’s support of the Svoboda Party in the Ukraine led me back to Rochau, someone I haven’t thought about since my undergraduate years.

People seem shocked when they first learn that American Imperialism (like all imperialism no matter what costume it currently happens to be wearing) involves propping up murderous dictators, victimizing the weak, and destabilizing the social order of disobedient nations. Every nation that reaches a certain level of power becomes amoral. This is not to say it’s alright from an ethical standpoint. This is just the nature power politics–inherently pragmatic and opportunistic.

The inherent viciousness of such governments is held in check by two closely related things: the press and public opinion. Laws have nothing to do with it. Laws can be changed or ignored–as we see happening in the UK and the USA. But look at what has happened at the town hall meetings across the States. Those are a large part of what caused the lack of GOP support for Trumpcare. Fear of an angry mob gets things done in Congress, yessir.

Exposing a government’s essential Machiavellianism will not change the imperative for realpolitik in the world, but it can blunt the essential cruelty of decision makers, opening up a space for the weak and poor to evacuate to the hill country. Get grandpa dressed and fire up the sampan while there’s still time, why don’t you.

Picture an enormous rock rolling down the side of a mountain. The rock is moving in accordance with universal law. If you’re smart, you get out of the way. If you’re not so smart, you try to argue with gravity. I propose the wise course is to pay attention to what’s going on, know when to get out of the way, and live to read more books, complain about the murderers in power, and play with more kittens in your hut. Then maybe you can write political pieces on the inherent nastiness of the rulers and live to see them published.

Alternately, you can die for your beliefs. That is very heroic, but gravity will keep the boulders rolling down the mountains and there will always be bullets flying through the air. There will also always be empires and bloody strongmen and fools wearing crowns. It’s up to us to accuse them, argue for reform, and cast blame where it belongs. But we can’t do that face down in the canal.

And it’s alright to say, “But who will look after my cats?”


Way Up High in the Manhattan Sky

Reeling this morning from my all-Trump-all-the-time ulcer-inducing news feed of despair, I closed my eyes and focused on my breathing. I’ve been a compulsive news reader since I learned how. And, for the last few months, my morning habit has evolved into a kind of shamanic pathworking. Not the startup-bro takes ayahuasca at Burning Man to dream up new apps sort of thing. More like: I drank the cobra venom and I might be having an aneurysm but, if I live, I’ll probably learn something. Because that’s why we read the news, right? To learn something?

My wife walked into the room, looked at me breathing in front off the laptop, and walked out. After living with me for close to two decades, she deserves a merit badge for humanitarian service. I accept this. Nevertheless, we can’t bring ourselves to compromise on certain things—when the enfant terrible will be impeached, for instance, or when certain GOP representatives will disrobe and start flinging fecal matter at Rand Paul live on CSPAN. You can’t agree on everything.

But one thing we do agree on is that, after reading political posts for an hour, one should not look at emails, blogs, or news about the academic job market or the entertainment industry. Doing so inevitably weaponizes the cobra venom to such an extent that instead of a golden journey to Ixtlan with Don Juan, one finds oneself slipping down to Xibalba with the Lord of the Smoking Mirror. Ghost jaguars. Shrieking bats. Night winds. Tentacles. The American Healthcare Act. Steve Bannon in a bone necklace gesticulating at the moon. A real bad trip.

I was just about to read some Penelope Trunk on why it’s better to marry for money and get therapy instead of going to graduate school for an MFA when my wife came back in and asked me if I’d lost all sense.

“I’m, uh, reading.”

“Why do you do this to yourself?”

“Because, um—what am I reading? Shit!”

I was still in a trance. Penelope had already led me partway down to Tezcatlipoca’s Place of Fear and Torment. I closed her blog and the five newspapers I had open in the browser before I could go any further, but the damage had been done. You never emerge from a news pathworking unscathed.

For example, I’d read in the L.A. Times that Dave Chappelle just cut a $60 million dollar deal for 3 Netflix comedy specials at $20 million per special. And, in all honesty, I got the same feeling I’ve had in the past while reading about Trump filing Chapter 11 six times and defrauding his contractors while possibly laundering money for the Russian mob; Bannon and Puzder beating their wives; and a recently fired U.S. Attorney getting headhunted to teach at NYU as a sweet payoff in which he can “continue addressing the issues I so deeply care about.” Right.

There’s something sickening there, like justice has nothing to do with any of it—just graft and lots of vigorous lying. How many gold-plated toilets do any of them need? I got a very unsettled feeling in the pit of my stomach as I tried not to think that such things exist in the same world as the famine in Sudan or North Korean death camps or the East Chicago water supply so full of lead that 1000 residents are being asked to relocate. Don’t play in the dirt, kids. Just Netflix and chill.

Still, reading about Chappelle was a nice break from the moral Andrea Doria taking place on Capitol Hill, even if the obscene payout did make me a bit nauseated. I think Dave Chappelle is one of the funniest people on the planet. He’s brilliant. There is a very small cadre of extremely talented comedians in the world, of which he might be the foremost member. Very few entertainers are on his level and he definitely deserves to get paid for his work. There’s no question about that. But $60 million on top of all the millions he’s already made seems a bit excessive, no? How about that children’s hospital in Sudan where so many children need help that “the hospital has run out of beds”? I wonder what a quarter of a million could do there? I wonder what $1000 could do.

If anything, the article on Chappelle caused me to start thinking philosophically about what an amount of money like that really means in the life of any individual. I know you can buy a lot of bottles of Pernod-Ricard Perrier-Jouet. And I know you can reach a level where everything becomes relative. If you’re partying with the rich and famous all the time, $60 million might still be an important chunk of change, but maybe it’s not as much, relatively speaking, as one imagines at $50,000 a bottle.

I find myself thinking, what if Dave took 2 of those $60 million (he’d still come away with $58 million, which would be enough to purchase several small islands and a Bavarian castle) and devoted that fragment of his inconceivable wealth to changing someone’s life or the lives of several people who could would clearly and directly benefit? What could be done for someone who can’t afford a prosthesis, for example, or someone living in a shelter who doesn’t have the resources to get back into the workforce, or a family in the Rust Belt living in a transient hotel because they lost their house? Such people aren’t hard to find right at home in the great United States.

Moreover, it may be that someone with over $60 million in the bank could easily hire the right assistants (a whole team, a task force, an entire building’s worth of henchmen and secretaries) to make something like that happen ricky tick. We’ve seen far stranger things in the media lately. We’re bound to see stranger things in the months to come.

Cool dude.

I know Dave has been involved in a lot of charitable events and donated his time to good causes—all of which is as admirable as his talent. But I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about direct action in the lives of people who would be forever changed. Is that naive? It’s certainly not as easy as giving a NGO a big tax-deductible donation or volunteering to participate in a charitable event. Then again, genius-level comedy isn’t easy, either. It takes guts, brilliance, a gift, and the determination to make it happen—just like anything good in life.

Someone in college once said to me, “Yeah, money can’t buy me love, but a certain amount of money will give me the power to make finding it more likely.” I thought about that for years before concluding that it was pure garbage. You can find love in a ghetto. You can find love in a refugee camp. You can find love after everything has been taken away and you think your life is over. As my wise grandmother used to say, “If someone loves you, they’ll come and spend time with you while you mop the floors in a slaughterhouse.”

That seems right. Quality is not quantity. And love, happiness, tranquility, and the satisfaction of doing good work are all priceless, being essentially internal achievements and therefore free to all human beings. But one thing money can do is create conditions for healing the world. And that matters, maybe more than anything. Why do I bring this up after too much Sean Spicer on a Wednesday afternoon? Because it’s been making me ask myself the same old question: What is good? And, once again, I must conclude that quality and quantity are mutually exclusive categories. Show me what you’re doing. Show me how you’re going to heal the world. Then I’ll tell you what’s good.

What is it like to be Dave Chappelle—to be a brilliant artist and to have so much money that it sets you apart from every other artist in your field, except for a very exclusive group of people who happen to be as fortunate and gifted as you are? I have no idea. I do know, like most people, I love his work. But, at the same time, I think of the dreams most people have of a little house with a dog and a garden somewhere quiet where they don’t have to live in fear, of no more crushing debts, of a dental plan, of their kids having reasonable chances to work for a decent future, and of some kind of profession that doesn’t produce night terrors. And I know what it isn’t like to be Chappelle.

These are very modest dreams, but they’re ones that most sincere people have. Most people don’t need half or a quarter of a million to realize such dreams. Most people don’t need or want a super yacht, don’t need to be on the board of the Bank of Cypress, don’t need a tower in midtown Manhattan with their names way up on top in gold. Shit, most people don’t even need tenure—even though the failed sideshow entertainer who passes for our President wants to destroy PBS and the NEA just for kicks; even though, for 30 years, the academic job market has been run by people who dress up in SS uniforms and burn offerings to Ronald Reagan in their secret masturbatoriums. But I know reading about such things is imprudent. It’s Paul Ryan’s Popul Vuh.

So I’ll be trying to detox from the news for the rest of the day. Maybe I’ll work on my novel while I wait for the next paid writing assignment to appear in my inbox like sweet life-sustaining mana from heaven. One thing I won’t be doing is reading any more about Dave Chappelle discovering El Dorado. Because I feel reasonably certain that today someone’s going to die because of money and it won’t be him.

 


Darkness Visible

This morning, there was an enormous bumblebee on the inside of my bedroom window. I didn’t know how it could have gotten through the slatted vent near the ceiling, but that was the only explanation. I sat on the edge of the bed and watched its shadow crawl up my arm. A bumblebee! Enormous but tiny, just like me.

I am lethally allergic to bee stings. And so I found myself imagining once again how I might die from the anaphylaxis that could be brought on by such an enormous tiny creature. It could have stung me in my sleep. Of course, the engine of a 787 could have fallen through the roof and killed me in a giant conflagration of bloody bone fragments, busted two-by-fours, and smoking metal. Or my heart could have simply exploded at the stroke of midnight, all those muffulettas catching up with me at last. You never know.

Anything can happen and sometimes it does. I sat there and imagined my death for at least 45 minutes before I realized I was doing it. Then I got mad at myself. I just wasted 45 minutes of my life imagining my death. I can never get those 45 minutes back. It’s like I’ve been dead for the last three-quarters of an hour. But I also had a back ache. After a few more minutes thinking about the pain in my back and imagining myself in a wheelchair—how hard it would be to take a shit in my tiny bathroom if I were paralyzed, how I’d never have sex again—I thought, well, at least the bumblebee got my mind off of my back pain for a while. Now my back’s going to hurt all day. What a miserable day. Fuck my back. Fuck that bee. Fuck all creation. Life was, once again, a festival of misery and hate. A friend of mine in high school once described it as “a shit show for the devil,” but we’re not friends anymore and, if that were truly the case, I tend to think god would be the one laughing the loudest.

I got back in bed and pulled the covers up over my face. On days like this, I will sometimes lie in bed thinking horrible things, crying sometimes, unable to concentrate, unable to motivate myself to even stand, but feeling certain that death owes me a favor and it’s time to pay up. Today I had all the symptoms: intense pressure in my skull like my brain was trying to push its way out, racing thoughts, overwhelming world-veiling all-consuming guilt with no rational explanation, and that persistent little voice always telling me I deserve everything I get (What makes you so special, anyway? Who says you’re more worthy of taking shits and having sex than the next guy who’s probably paralyzed, constipated, and horny and yet still a better person than you? What have you really accomplished? All you’ve ever been is a horrible humiliating failure. Let’s relive some selected memories . . . ). So it goes and it never stops. Until it does. And then, suddenly, I’ll be fine again. The sun will come up. I’ll get out of bed. No one will have noticed. And I won’t mention it.

The longest I’ve ever been down in one of my “spells” has been three consecutive days, three days of black torment that almost caused me to take my own life. But that was an extreme. I’m more often down for 24 hours or less. And since I set my own work schedule, it’s still possible for me to function as a professional. I can usually feel it coming. Almost like a drug addict who, from bitter experience, knows to lock the house down and draw the curtains before shooting up in the basement, I log out of social networks, turn off my phone, put journals, mirrors, and alcohol away.

In Darkness Visible, William Styron puts it like so: “Depression is a disorder of mood, so mysteriously painful and elusive in the way it becomes known to the self—to the mediating intellect—as to verge close to being beyond description. It thus remains nearly incomprehensible to those who have not experienced it in its extreme mode.” Sadly, it is not incomprehensible to me. Of all the friends I’ve had, it’s the one I know will never abandon me.

So I lay there—thinking about all the worst possibilities in my life, all the horrible outcomes I’d probably brought on by being defective and weak and cursed, while running a search through my past to find the elusive Turning Point where I must have transitioned from an innocent kid with potential into the embarrassing failure I was now—and felt the bumblebee land on my face.

Granted, I had the bedspread completely covering me. But it landed directly over my eyes. I could see it through the fabric walking around, fluttering its wings a little, its feelers rotating.

I’m not a flower, I thought. I sent it telepathic messages. I’m not a flower. I’m a human. And if you sting me, I will fucking end you before I die. I felt extremely angry, infinitely angry, so angry that it was hard to keep still. The worst part was I didn’t know why. The bee was innocent. It was as much a victim of circumstances as I was. But all I could think of was how stupid it would be to suffocate from anaphylactic shock in bed with the covers over my face like a suburban burial shroud. The Shroud of Michael. More than I’d earned but no less than I deserved.

I had perhaps one of the oddest sensations I’ve ever had, feeling like my emotions were clawing at me, trying to pull me apart, and yet having to focus on remaining completely still—all while my mind was defocusing into the irrational haze of a depressive fugue. I thought about Styron, how I didn’t know enough about his life; about some of the people I care about, how I knew even less about theirs; about Hem and Fitzgerald and how much my high school students had hated A Movable Feast and how I’d loved it; about my early failure to become a classical pianist; about my subsequent failure to become a lawyer; about my failure to get on the tenure track; and about the failures of various students over the years which I’d carried like a sack of rocks on my back, each one somehow traceable back to me, to my fault, my mistakes, my defects. And though there may have been some faint light blinking at the end of the dock, something I could focus on, something to tell me that yes, there was an end to this just as there was to all things, I couldn’t see it.

Then the bee flew back to the glass. Slowly, ever so slowly, I crept up, opened the window, and watched it fly away, over the rock wall, into the trees.

I sat back on the edge of the bed. The clock read 8:03 AM.


Freedom

There are only two sureties in life: that we have been born and that we will die. The rest, at least from a finite human perspective, is variable.

No True Answers, No Answerable Truths

Contemplating the mystery of our birth—why was I born?—is likely to cause a certain degree of anxiety, at least for those of us who judge ourselves to be in mundane circumstances: my family is not wealthy; I am not wealthy; I am not famous; my job is not glamorous; my children are unimpressive; my spouse is boring; I am not exceptionally beautiful or witty or gifted; and, though I secretly tell myself I’m smarter than most people, I just as often fear that I am not. Erase me completely and there will be someone very much like me to take my place. Why, then, do I exist? The world is quick to provide temporary relief and sell us an answer to this unanswerable question. If we’re honest with ourselves, maybe after purchasing a few bottles of snake oil (and who can blame us for that), we will eventually come to the conclusion that if we can’t know about the reason for our own lives, no one can.

Death is a similar mystery with no good answers or reasons. We know what happens biologically after the cessation of life, insofar as we are able to agree on what actually constitutes life. But we do not know whether mind is coterminous with brain. If it isn’t, then where does the mind go after the body rots? If it is, then human consciousness is an epiphenomenon of matter and is therefore unlike any other thing (event? concept? process? ghost? singularity?) in the known universe—another unfathomable mystery. As Marcus Aurelius says: “Providence or atoms” (Meditations, IV.3). Life comes down to one or the other, even if we can’t know what either truly is.

Only We Care About What Our Lives May Mean

Even before we’re naught but dust, we will watch ourselves vanish by inches. Consider that in a few years, society will tell us that our significance has already passed. We won’t be dead yet, but we will still be told that it is time to retire and make way for those who are younger and therefore more socially relevant. Our worth will be judged according to what we have earned for ourselves in 20-30 years of active adult life. And such judgment will be based on the social values of the moment—ideas presently in fashion, not even, necessarily, what we were thinking about when we started the company, wrote the book, or climbed the mountain.

We will still be asking, Why, then, do I exist? And, as we reach retirement age, we may find others asking us that, too. Moreover, we may complain about the stereotypical characteristics of the Millennials, but every generation (like every individual) judges the world according to its own perspective and values. We, in Generation X, also judged the Baby Boomers. And they cruelly judged us as well as the Lost Generation, etc. Tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis. Times change, and we change with them. And so goes the world.

But in spite of our all-encompassing solipsism, we will still have regrets. We will either have worked very hard in practical ways to do what was expected of us (and feel that we never fully addressed our inner potential) or we will have pursued some path of inner realization (and feel that we never got to experience conventional kinds of success and recognition). This may be an oversimplification, but the principle is sound. We will eventually realize, on some level, that we cannot have it all because we are going to die and our time is limited. This may make us cry because we can’t stop asking why we had to go through all this anguish and absurdity just to wind up in the ground. Or it may make us free because the inevitability of death puts all the anguish and absurdity into perspective.

Freedom From the Burden of Meaning

There may be some value when we contemplate life in terms of death. Embracing the inevitability of death can free us from what we may feel is a mundane and meaningless existence. Someday soon (especially if we consider the relative shortness of life), we will all be dead. All the people we know will be dead. All the things we cared about will have changed, some far beyond what we could have imagined. And those who follow will not think about us much. How often do you think about your great-grandparents? Your grandparents? Your great uncles and aunts? They are not a relevant or functional part of your day to day existence, even if you do have some way to regularly honor them.

At best, the people living after us will have certain ideas of who we were, since it is impossible to convey the dimensionality of a human life. If we are lucky, we will be summarized in terms of our professional achievements and historically significant actions (if any). Our images may be preserved in photos or videos, but those images won’t be us, either. People will never know who we really were inside, what we truly thought, how we truly felt. In every way that counts, we will be gone, questions silenced, problems solved, story told.  We will be free.

 

I met a traveller from an antique land, 
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone 
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand, 
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown, 
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command, 
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read 
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things, 
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed; 
And on the pedestal, these words appear: 
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; 
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair! 
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay 
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare 
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

“Ozymandias,” Shelley’s Poetry and Prose (1977)


A Meditation on the Inevitability of Death

To myself, regarding death:

You are going to die.  You may not like to think about it, but it’s going to happen.  Maybe tomorrow.  Maybe in 50 years.  Who can say?  That’s the bit you can’t know (thankfully).  But you do know where you’re going to end up sooner or later.  You do realize how short 100 years are, don’t you?  You do realize how many people don’t even make it that far.

You are going to die.  Everything you loved and feared, all your petty remonstrances and trivial irritations will be dust.  Time will bury everything, wonderful and hateful, lies and truth.  And in a few short years after your death, it will be as though you never existed.  This alone should make you cling to every passing moment—no matter how monotonous or unpleasant—but you’re as dumb as a post, forgetful, myopic.  You don’t understand a thing.

You are going to die.  Yet you waste your days worrying about the opinions of others.  After you die, people will actively try to forget you—and will largely succeed—because you will remind them of their own mortality.  Even now while you are still alive, the only time people want to consider you or something connected to you is when it somehow makes them feel better about themselves.  How different will it be when you’re nothing but rotting meat?  At best, the thought of you will inspire grief and a sense of loss—at worst, revulsion, resentment, aversion.  No one will want to care.  Eventually people won’t take the time to speak your name—the word which used to stand for you but which now stands for nothing.

You are going to die.  Still, you waste time planning and striving as if worry and toil could add days to your life.  There is no life but the one you are living.  You don’t get more days.  You only get fewer.  And every moment spent enslaved to a meaningless job, a tyrant, an empty social obligation, an imaginary god, vain status seeking, or the quest for symbols of wealth / worth is an act of fraud against yourself.  The great herd trots into the slaughterhouse, worrying about tomorrow’s breakfast—never thinking that it will, in fact, be them.

You are going to die.  And until you realize it in your heart of hearts—until you embrace the specter of death and kiss its grinning skull and know and accept and understand that your time is painfully, stupidly short—you will not have begun to live.  Time will destroy everything but death.  There is no morality.  There are no obligations.  There are no commandments or requirements beyond this one realization.