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Consider this hypothetical.  You’re standing in your kitchen, cutting slices of cheese with a razor-sharp carving knife.  You realize there are such things as cheese knives, but you don’t have one.  For those readers currently languishing in suburban opulence, who can’t imagine someone not owning a cheese knife, I’m here to tell you such people exist, and they are probably more numerous than you have imagined.

Anyway, you’re cutting some cheese.  It’s not difficult because the knife is a diamond-sharp Japanese “Zebra” blade, perfectly weighted for carving your burned pot roast, which is otherwise as uncuttable as second base.  Now let’s say you drop that knife in a moment of privileged carelessness and it goes point-down through the top of your foot.  Stop screaming.  You’re not going to die.  But there is quite a bit of blood welling up in your slipper.  Better attend to that.  You limp to the bathroom, whimpering and cussing, and start looking for the antiseptic.

In spite of what you plan on telling your spouse (My hand was wet.  It just slipped.), you really have no idea why or how this could have happened.  All you know is that it hurts.  Did you deserve it?  Think about this.  Did you deserve to have a skewered foot?

One argument says, yes, if you hadn’t been worrying about your Bitcoin investments at that moment and whether the new walnut end tables really express your essential joie de vivre, you might have paid closer attention to what you were doing.  You might have taken better care.  Now small ripples of dread and frustration will radiate through your life for the next few weeks the same way pain radiates through your foot. 

Your mindset will be affected.  Your spouse’s mindset will be affected.  Maybe your acuity at your job will temporarily decrease.  Your irritation levels with Ralph, your neighbor, when he decides to fire up the lawn mower at 5:40 AM next Sunday, may run considerably higher.  You might even speak harshly to the cat—a small thing, like the cat himself, but surely not something he, as a fellow living being, deserves.  You’re the one who dropped the knife, you careless dolt.  There are consequences for everything.  Close your mouth and own up to them.  Be an adult for a change.

But another argument says, no, accidents will happen.  No one wants to injure themselves and no one ever truly asks to be hurt.  There are so many opportunities in modern life to harm yourself or others that it’s likely to happen, now and then, even if you aren’t naturally accident prone. 

No matter how much care you take, there are acts of god; there are times you break your foot stepping off the train, even if you’re minding the gap; a tree hits your bedroom wall; a texting teenager rear-ends you 45 feet into an intersection and you almost get hit and have to wear a neck brace for a month; you drop your phone in the airport toilet; you forget your wallet at the register. 

These sorts of things happen whether or not you look both ways, don’t inhale, read Consumer Reports, wear three condoms, and keep your windows triple-locked.  Feeling ashamed and responsible for unforeseeable disasters is just adding insult to undeserved injury.  Sit down.  That’s right.  Have a cookie.  And tell me where it hurts.

Two good arguments: one about responsibility, the other about compassion.  One is not better than the other, but here we stand on the diamond edge of that Zebra knife between them.  Which one seems more persuasive on its face?  Well, that depends on our emotions, doesn’t it?  The argument that resonates more powerfully depends on who we are as emotional beings.  The one we choose says volumes about us and very little about the event itself.

Hold that thought.  Before we decide which argument style we prefer, let’s talk about how this distinction applies and let’s take it even further, foregrounding the discussion by characterizing the “baby boomers.”  Because the boomers have been the deciders, standing on that diamond edge since 1946.  And much of what terrifies us today was authored expressly and overtly by them choosing a flimsy kind of emotional “responsibility for the responsible” instead of the more compassionate feels—which tells us a lot about them, if not everything we need to know.  

The boomers spent the precious freedoms their parents bought for them as traumatized adults in WWII and before that as traumatized children of the misunderstood, alcoholic, Silent Generation—and the boomers act like they earned it all themselves through true grit and moxie. 

Actually, the boomers are the ones who economically fucked over Generation X.  The boomers built the nuclear stockpiles, created the student debt crisis, lusted after Gordon Gekko and Ayn Rand, and are the ones who currently despise millennials more than any others.  Well, we all despise the millennials.  But still.  We know who the boomers are.  We’re still dealing with their fuckery.

There’s an internet catchphrase going around these days, “Ok Boomer,” which the dictionary tells us is used “often in a humorous or ironic manner, to call out or dismiss out-of-touch or close-minded opinions associated with the baby boomer generation and older people more generally.”  Ah.  That sounds about right for the generation that established our current ruinous, self-serving climate politics. 

As Sorya Roberts puts it (quoting Michael Parenti) in “Happily Never After,” as the environment collapses, elite panic in “strong states with developed economies will succumb to a politics of xenophobia, racism, police repression, surveillance, and militarism and thus transform themselves into fortress societies while the rest of the world slips into collapse.”  Isn’t that a lovely vision of the future?  Most of the boomers won’t be around to see it.  They’re going to die on the golf course well before that.  But the rest of us might live to enjoy it.  That is, if we’re the lucky ones.

In the art world, particularly in creative academia, worsening since about 1975, boomer narcissism has taken this form: there is always room for talented people.  Oh, there are no jobs for you?  You must not be one of the talented few (like me).  Too bad.  Even though, in the boomer generation, you could get a tenured position with an unpublished manuscript and no teaching experience.    

“Always room for good people” is a veritable baby boomer mantra, the meritocratic fever dream of those steeped in imperial luxury, who turn beet-red when someone points out that the they got where they are because they were born into a fortunate time and place between global catastrophes; that the emperor is not a god; that the empire is not eternal; and that its luxuries were founded on a pylon of human skulls.  Boomers comprise a large part of Donald Trump’s “base,” the leering retirees in the MAGA hats.  And though academics generally despise 45, they conveniently overlook that he has more in common with them than any other generation.

So you’re a millennial or, hell forbid, a gen-Xer in your 40s and the socio-political-economic Zebra blade has now gone straight through your foot.  Are you trying to stay interested in the impeachment?  Are you crying “Why me?” when you realize that halving global greenhouse emissions by 2030 is neigh impossible at this point?  Have you been taking solace in Oprah’s self-care philosophies and burning Gwyneth Paltrow’s special candle?  Are you ready for what comes next?  Are you one of the anointed few like dad was?

You’re not.  You can’t be.  But why not just pretend you are, just for a bit, after the Bactine and the Band-Aids, while the Parthenon burns?

Read my latest in Splice Today: https://www.splicetoday.com/politics-and-media/jonathan-franzen-can-t-solve-climate-change-for-anyone-who-matters

 

There are many different paths to greatness, not just the ones most commonly identified by conformist culture.  As long as your basic needs are met, where you put your energy—how you pursue excellence—is completely your business.  Realizing this can be difficult and gradual.

It seems true, even if we admit that discourses (value systems) will always compete with each other for dominance.  And one of the most ruthless and rapacious, at least in the West, is that of “meritocracy.”  A meritocracy is inherently based on an assumed set of cultural values.  But you need to realize that you are free to opt out of those assumed values.  What the masses consider to be good doesn’t have to define your life.  

If you don’t accept meritocratic cultural values, merit-based judgments by those who do are irrelevant.  In other words, it is a mistake to impose the rules of a game on someone who refuses to play; though, because discourses will compete with each other, people will usually try to impose their personal values-discourse on you.  Often, they will do so because they’re not aware of alternatives.  They may not even remember the moment they chose to buy in.  And they may not understand that imposing values on someone else is an act of violence.

Remove the question of merit (and its various implications) and the locus of meaning in life shifts (possibly returns) from an external authority to the individual.  One arrives squarely within Viktor Frankl’s “Will to Meaning“—not seeking meaning / value relative to others, but exploring what is already resonant / resident in the self.  “Thy Will be Done” becomes “My Will be Done,” with all the freedoms and responsibilities arising from that shift.

It makes no difference if your private world is idiosyncratic to the point at which it would seem very strange to more common sensibilities.  As long as you’re not behaving like a hypocrite by harming or otherwise curtailing the autonomy of others, your interiority (including the way you choose to perceive the world outside your self) is completely yours.  And it doesn’t seem outrageous to conclude that this is how it should be.  If you don’t own your thoughts, can you ever own anything else?  In fact, it seems that the more you personalize your unique way of seeing and acting in the world, the stronger and more persuasive that uniqueness becomes. 

Because discourse is grounded in conflict and competition, this self-originating, self-describing narrative you are spinning can have a destabilizing effect on others, who may accuse you of being a delusional, a dreamer, someone out of touch with (what the dominant culture considers) reality.  But if it works for you, isn’t it the right thing?  Isn’t that choosing inner freedom instead of pledging fealty to ideas and to a lifestyle that was designed (or emerged) without you particularly in mind?

Walking away from a meritocracy takes a lot of courage and effort.  Because you are a social being, it can involve a certain amount of suffering, alienation, and lonesomeness.  You risk being called a deviant, being labeled as a disaffected undesirable.  Even if you don’t agree with those judgments, they will still hurt.  Hopefully, your growing curiosity about your own sui generis greatness and freedom will mitigate that pain.

You might call this the “inward path,” the “artist’s way,” or “the path beyond the campfire” which leads into dark unmapped places, where all new things wait to be discovered.

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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I write fiction and nonfiction for magazines, work as a freelance writer / editor / journalist, and teach composition and fiction writing.

This blog is mostly dedicated to writing about politics and media, travel essays, creative non-fiction, discussions about books, the MFA experience, publishing, and work I’ve already placed in magazines. But I might write anything.

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Readings for May 2020

Fiction
Last Exit to Brooklyn, Hubert Selby, Jr.
Nine Stories, J.D. Salinger
City of Night, John Rechy
Jesus’ Son, Denis Johnson
Almost Transparent Blue, Ryu Murakami
The Complete Short Stories, Hemingway
New York City in 1979, Kathy Acker
Non-fiction & Creative Non-fiction
Notes of a Dirty Old Man, Charles Bukowski
Child of Light: A Biography, Madison Smartt Bell
Swimming to Cambodia, Spalding Gray
Arguably: Essays, Christopher Hitchens
The Geography of the Imagination, Guy Davenport
Continued from Last Month
Narrative Design, Madison Smartt Bell
Alive Together: New and Selected Poems, Lisel Mueller
Transmetropolitan, Warren Ellis
Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, Hunter Thompson

We are here to unlearn the teachings of the church, state, and our educational system. We are here to drink beer. We are here to kill war. We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that Death will tremble to take us.

— Charles Bukowski

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