Category Archives: memory

The Heat Death of a Wandering Star

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Where is my mind?

For the last 27 years, I’ve kept a diary in which I’ve made entries three to five times a week in a ritualistic obsession to document my life.  To be honest, I’ve also kept the diary to have someone to whom I can talk.  No one but a blank page would ever care to listen to all my complaints and worries (given their number and variety) and no one should have to.  When I was a child, it was my mother who listened.  Now Microsoft Word is my mother.

Many of the entries are short.  Some go on like essays.  But no matter how voluble or terse, joyful or upset I was when I wrote, I’ve been able to use the entries to bend time—essentially to bring my past more vividly into my present.  As a result, I believe that who I am now is more meaningfully informed by who I have been at various other points in my history, affecting the way I view my present place in the world and my sense of momentum through life.

Bending time is one of the most outstanding benefits to keeping a diary, maybe the only real benefit.  It may sound like a kind of hell, endlessly ruminating over people, places, events, and feelings long gone.  And one does pay a price.  I’d be lying if I said my diaristic habit hadn’t aged me in certain ways while keeping me young in others. 

In one sense, I carry a unique emotional weight.  Some things that happened decades ago may seem like they went down yesterday.  And what is happening right now may resonate in idiosyncratic ways, causing me to react unpredictably.  Why am I so angry?  Why did I find that so funny?  Well, you see, back in 1997 . . . I don’t heal very well from past wounds.  Some things I just can’t let go or forgive.  I wouldn’t even say I hold grudges because that would imply an unnatural or inappropriate degree of ill will or resentment over time.  My ill will and resentment are perfectly natural and appropriate, given my perspective.

I’ve also seen personal themes emerge, but I can’t say whether it’s because of character, destiny, or maybe just selective attention.  I only know that I’ve noticed cycles, repetitions, even echoes across the years.  Situations will happen over and over.  Similar personality types will appear and be magnetized to me or repulsed by me or both in their seasons.  People will say the same things.  Headlines will look the same.  I’ll often (though thankfully not always) make the same stupid mistakes. 

I’ll even have dreamlike moments of déjà vu in which I won’t be sure whether I imagined something, saw it in my sleep, or actually experienced it.  But I think I’ve reached the point where I care a lot less about the distinction between daydreams, actual dreams, misremembered dreams, and lived dreams.  Life really is but a dream and, if I experienced something, it was undeniably an experience. 

Ironically, my compulsive documentarianism has made everything seem a bit relative.  I celebrate many anniversaries, births, deaths, resurrections, departures, (not so) sudden arrivals, accomplishments, magical epiphanies, failures, desperate heartaches, humiliations, dignities, and small quiet moments.  I remember a red leaf from a chestnut tree that I picked up while standing in the German WWII graveyard outside Tallinn; walking behind an NYU undergrad through old town in Prague, how his T-shirt had male and female restroom icons made to look like they were at a wedding and the words GAME OVER underneath; dancing with a girl who’d driven down that night from the Flathead Indian Reservation at a bar called the Iron Horse in Missoula, Montana, the same night a friend of mine got high and chased two fraternity brothers through the frozen streets with a razor sharp hunting knife. 

I remember the night I met the woman who’d become my wife; the moment I learned that my father had been abusing my mother right up to the day she went into cancer hospice; holding my first book of stories when it finally arrived; the day I spent acting in a TV commercial; standing in the ruins of the Hell Fire Club on Montpelier Hill overlooking Dublin on a rainy day; lying down on a grave in Savannah, Georgia, and staring up at the night sky through the branches of a willow tree.

I’ve already lived multiple lives, died and been reborn multiple times.  And I feel this has modified the way I see everything, the way I write, how I speak, probably even the structures in my brain.  In a moment of absolute strangeness and synchronicity—not to be believed but true nonetheless—my neighbor is playing the Pixies’ Where is my mind? (poorly) on the piano.  Good question.