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.
Long ago, I was an English teacher at a private high school in central California. It was a good, if demanding, job and unlike many of my colleagues, I seemed to manage occasional moments of non-misery in the workplace. In fact, the two years I spent working there taught me more about human nature than two decades of university teaching, freelance writing, and working abroad ever did.
Without a doubt, teaching over 100 adolescents each semester schooled me not only in how people will behave when going through some of the worst years of their lives but the extent to which many parents are feverishly inadequate when it comes to raising kids. With respect to family, no one wants to admit they have no clue what they’re doing. Everyone must pretend things are running smoothly and they’re in complete control.
I found this pretense interesting, particularly during parent-teacher conferences when ashamed, bewildered parents would whisper, “What do you think I should do?” as if my ability to manage large groups of adolescents somehow qualified me to give them advice. At first, I would explain that my two degrees in English plus minor gifts in speaking in front of people and writing did not mean I had a solution to why Jimmy couldn’t sit still or why Leticia cried through every class and felt compelled to layer everything around her in Purell, or why Leo circulated pictures of his girlfriend’s vagina. Over time, I developed a less draining response: “I do not know.” All Quiet on the Western Front may prepare us to think about the meaning of war, but it will not prepare us for Leo’s girlfriend’s vagina.
I suspected then, as I still do, that confronting such situations is not within the job description of a high school English teacher. But maybe, in the hundreds of outrageous situations in which I found myself in that job, I could have done more. The questions I ask myself now are the questions many parents asked me then: what should I have done? Was there anything to be done at all? There must be an expert somewhere, a veteran administrator or someone with a PhD in education theory, who can speak to this. Maybe a prison psychologist.
I wish I could believe that. In spite of my lingering questions, I think I’ve come to believe the opposite: there actually are no rules—not just for teaching or parenting, but for any area of human experience. A friend once said to me when we were going through our own high school torment: “This is the meaning of life: we all suck and we’re nothing.” I don’t think he fully appreciated how profound that statement was when he said it. 27 years later, I’m still seeing it prove out.
We all suck: no one—and I mean this in the broadest, most inclusive, most general sense—actually knows what they’re doing to the extent that assumptions and judgment calls are unnecessary. Perfect human understanding does not exist and human error is ubiquitous. Even our attempts at artificial intelligence are subject to our limited assumptions about what intelligence actually is (or can be). What can we know beyond a shadow of a doubt? The truth is: nothing, unfortunately.
Surely an engineer will feel confident that, say, as energy is transformed or transferred, an increasing amount of it is wasted. Surely something as dependable and consistent as a physical law (in this case, the Second Law of Thermodynamics) is immutable, absolute, not a matter for interpretation. But even something as ironclad as a law of physics is not without its exceptions. Some things are givens within the parameters of a particular knowledge paradigm, but those givens are always relative to and dependent upon the parameters themselves.
For example, within the agreed-upon bounds of thermodynamic theory, basic laws obtain as a reliable set of rules for the behavior of energy, entropy, and temperature at thermal equilibrium. But we also know that even within that theoretical framework, an empirical finding like the Second Law is subject to exceptions. In 2002, researchers at the Australian National University, in a paper entitled, “Experimental Demonstration of Violations of the Second Law of Thermodynamics for Small Systems and Short Time Scales,” found that “systems can undergo fleeting energy increases that seem to violate the venerable law.” And while this is only one small example, it is by no means isolated or anomalous to the extent that we could dismiss all such exceptions out of hand.
In fact, our entire narrative of scientific progress is predicated on discoveries which alter existing assumptions about how the world works. As Thomas Kuhn observes in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, “though the world does not change with a change of paradigm, the scientist afterward works in a different world.” The scientific narrative changes. Because it was always a narrative, never an unassailable, omniscient catalogue.
Nothing is beyond interpretation, not even the bedrock assumptions of our most materialistic sciences. Rather, ways of knowing amount to best possible premises always subject to discourse and development over time (to say nothing of the complexities of the information technology we rely on to document and transmit that discourse). We do the best we can. We develop and codify optimal principles for a given field. And then we work with those principles until we encounter a paradigm-disruptive discovery that forces us to revise our theories.
But we’re nothing: Even the most qualified and intellectually responsible claims are part of a conversation (discourse) which is grounded in work that came before and which will be superseded by discoveries and realizations that follow. In many cases, an individual contribution to any field is no greater than a minuscule inch forward with vastly disproportionate implications.
Still, there are careers to develop and Cessnas to purchase and grants to chase and colleagues to slander and books to write and mistresses to support and students to convince. In Polishing the Mirror, the guru Ram Dass—then a social psychology professor named Richard Alpert—describes what he felt was a hollowness at the center of western academia:
In 1961, I was thirty and at the height of my academic career. I had a PhD from Stanford University, and I was a professor of social relations at Harvard. I had arrived at a pinnacle of life as I thought it should be, professionally, socially, and economically. But inside there remained an emptiness—a feeling that, with all I had, something was still missing. Here I was at Harvard, the mecca of the intellect. But when I looked into the eyes of my peers, wondering “Do you know?” I saw in their eyes that what I was looking for was nowhere to be found. In a social or family setting, people looked up to me and hung on my every word because I was a Harvard professor, and they clearly assumed that I knew. But to me, the nature of life remained a mystery.
In Ram Dass’ use of the term, we “do not know” much about the world in any absolute sense. We cannot know because our intellectual tools are as finite as the time we have in which to use them. This is not to argue that we should be content with ignorance. But it is a way to foreground a simple suggestion: speculation is absolutely necessary when it comes to developing knowledge.
Assumptions are necessary. Ultimately, belief is necessary. Kuhn, at least, seems to agree: “Normal science, the activity in which most scientists inevitably spend almost all their time, is predicated on the assumption that the scientific community knows what the world is like.” This seems reasonable not just in science but in any field of human activity.
So what remains to be done if we can never fully know our world and ourselves? Everything! Our inability to attain perfect understanding is no reason to abandon the pursuit of outer and inner knowledge. Rather, it leads us to an acceptance of our limitations as individuals and as a species and, in that acceptance, a very personal yet very real sense of freedom.
Maybe the right answer to those parents who wanted advice should have been: you already know how to raise your kids because what you think is best will be the best you can possibly do. Maybe, as my high school friend seemed to imply back in 1989, we are not static, monolithic, isolate objects. We are no thing.
Instead, we are dynamic, dialectic, fluid collaborations—living syntheses of what was known in the past and what will be discovered in the future. Maybe “discourse” is the most accurate metaphor for human experience. If so, all we can do is try to engage in life’s conversation as robustly as possible. Maybe there are no rules beyond that.
“Baby,” I said, “I’m a genius but nobody knows it but me.”
― Charles Bukowski, Factotum
She was my first real girlfriend and she terrified me. More precisely, the possibility of her getting bored with me terrified me. And she was always at great pains to remind me that boredom would have dire consequences. Boredom was the end.
I had no idea who she really was and neither did she; though, I had developed some ideas over the months we’d been dating. I’d projected and imagined. Meanwhile, she thought I was Ross from Friends. She’d say it all the time: “You’re just like Ross. Oh my god.” Sometimes, she’d say, “You’re just like my brother,” but, mostly, it was Ross.
Between her brother and his collection of hot mustards and Ross, there was a very narrow margin for keeping Christina entertained. Still, I tried like a motherfucker. I was 18 years old and fully believed she was The One.
She broke up with me while we were sitting in a theater before a movie. I don’t remember what movie it was, but I do recall that it was a Sunday afternoon and it was extremely hot outside. She told me she needed to feel safe and protected. And she didn’t think I could do that. She needed someone who would fight for her. We stared at the blank screen and listened to the Muzak. Then she said she hoped we could stay friends.
For the next two hours, Christina rested her head on my shoulder while I contemplated the infinite tunnel of grief and abandonment I had just entered. I suspected the real reason she was breaking up with me was that she’d gotten bored. And I hated myself for letting it happen when I’d known ahead of time THAT WAS THE ONE THING THAT COULD NOT BE TOLERATED. 25 years later, I still remember her saying, “You don’t even own a gun.”
To my credit, I did not run to the corner gun shop and buy a nine. I’ve always felt that having a gun around would make it too easy for me to permanently check out. But I thought about what she said for a long time and eventually the reality of who Christina was blossomed in my mind. She was, for all intents and purposes, an idiot. But then, as the wise man once said, stupid is as stupid does. Her point about me not owning a gun would prove to be the set-up for a 25-year-long joke, the punchline of which was delivered only last week . . .
My 9x19mm Parabellum Romance
At the end of Games People Play, transactional psychiatrist Eric Berne suggests, not unlike Orwell in 1984, that most people are concerned primarily with reproducing and distracting themselves while they wait for death. However, Berne notes that exceptional individuals can transcend the default monotony of an unexamined life:
THE somber picture presented in Parts I and II of this book, in which human life is mainly a process of filling in time until the arrival of death, or Santa Claus, with very little choice, if any, of what kind of business one is going to transact during the long wait, is a commonplace but not the final answer. For certain fortunate people there is something which transcends all classifications of behavior, and that is awareness; something which rises above the programming of the past, and that is spontaneity; and something that is more rewarding than games, and that is intimacy. But all three of these may be frightening and even perilous to the unprepared. Perhaps they are better off as they are, seeking their solutions in popular techniques of social action, such as “togetherness.” This may mean that there is no hope for the human race, but there is hope for individual members of it. (81)
I’ve entertained this idea for a long time. In fact, it has bothered me enough over the years that I’ve structured a large part of my life trying to be an individual who isn’t caught up in mindless self-distraction and reactivity. But sometimes I feel incredibly afraid of this binary. I’m never sure if I’ve succeeded in avoiding groupthink or if success is even possible.
It’s not Berne’s “fright of the unprepared”; rather, I think I get afraid because I worry that the binary itself is oversimple and therefore misleading and impossible. Can I honestly believe that individuality is directly and cleanly opposed to conformity and that these are the available options in my life? I sometimes wonder whether I’ve fallen prey to false assumptions in this respect. Frankly, the thought leaves me cold.
For example, I think, I’m going to avoid going to that melodramatic tear-jerking romance. How boring. Looks like Titanic in space. Having seen over a hundred similar formula-bound period pieces, I feel on some level that I must be right. But then I have to wonder how many people out there are thinking the exact same thing. How many people, by selecting out of the Mindy Project-Titanic-Atonement-A Walk in the Clouds-Bridget Jones demographic, have opted into the anti-Mindy Project-Titanic-Atonement-A Walk in the Clouds-Bridget Jones demographic? How many of these “non-conformists” are straight men within a certain age group? How many of their life choices could be predicted based on the Facebook groups they follow and don’t follow? Should I then run out to buy a TEC-9 to impress my empty-headed girlfriend? What sort of man would make her feel safe and protected? Who decides for me if I don’t? Who decided for her?
Your Brain in its Vat will be Tangy and Scrumptious
There appears to be a marketing angle for everyone as soon as we learn that someone has written a mass-market manual, entitled The Art of Non-Conformity. But isn’t this about more than just marketing and consumerism? Isn’t it really about whether we’re sleepwalking through our lives? How does one lead, in Berne’s terms, an aware, spontaneous, and intimate life? Do any of us know what these things mean such that we could define this sort of life in a sentence? Or is such an existence necessarily so idiosyncratic that it resists generalization?
Orwell wrote that the proles “went to work at twelve, they passed through a brief blossoming period of beauty and sexual desire, they married at twenty, they were middle-aged at thirty, they died, for the most part, at sixty. Heavy physical work, the care of home and children, petty quarrels with neighbors, films, football, beer, and, above all, gambling filled up the horizon of their minds.” That sounds a lot like most people. But it’s certainly not the picture of an aware, spontaneous, and intimate life—is it? How can we tell?
If, like Orwell, we assume that there is a persistent objective universe that could be mediated at all times by the political ideology of a state apparatus (or a Cartesian brain-in-a-vat AI), then we can’t be individuals unless we assure ourselves that we know and can act meaningfully on what is objective. We can’t lead authentic lives unless we have both knowledge and agency grounded in an objectively persistent material world.
Moreover, as philosophically complex as this becomes, I have to wonder whether it is even possible to determine whether an objectively persistent material world even exists—back to Descartes and the problem of the Cogito. In the end, there are no definitive answers and it would be naive to expect them. There is only the eternal interplay between narratives and questions. What do we prefer to believe?
My Killing Joke
The punchline came when a mutual friend of ours tagged her on Facebook and the hand of the past reached out to tweak my nose. There she was in the same town, SUV, kids, cop husband. Over the last 25 years, she got exactly what she wanted. I avoided all that, which is exactly what I wanted and I still don’t own a gun. Have either of us changed? Or are we both still playing the hands we’ve been dealt, telling ourselves we’re special and authentic and clever? There’s no way to know. We can believe what we like.
In the end, it seems, the joke is on us. No matter who we decide we are—no matter if I’m actually Ross or Christina’s actually a rocket scientist—there’s no central authority to tell us what’s objectively real and what isn’t. This is not Oceania and there’s no dominant newspeak (yet). Instead, we’re forced to carry the burden of meaning as individuals: “Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible” (Frankl 131).
The most responsible thing might be to keep spinning narratives and keep asking questions. If nothing else, we can be consistent in that.
Berne, Eric. The Games People Play: the Psychology of Human Relationships. Ballentine, 1996.
Frankl, Viktor. Man’s Search for Meaning. Beacon P, 2006.
Guillebeau, Chris. The Art of Non-Conformity: Set Your Own Rules, Live the Life You Want, and Change the World. TarcherPedigree, 2010.
Hickey, Lance. “The Brain in a Vat Argument.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://www.iep.utm.edu/brainvat/. Accessed 26 September 2016.
Orwell, George. 1984. U of Adelaide, Feb. 2016, https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/o/orwell/george/o79n/index.html. Accessed 26 September 2016.
Skirry, Justin. “René Descartes (1596—1650).” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://www.iep.utm.edu/descarte/#SH4a. Accessed 26 September 2016.