Today I went down the valley and out of the mountains and drove down to Boston, and then I drove back. It’s quite a journey: my little town calls itself a city, and on its own scale it is, the bustling urb to a handful of even smaller nearby towns. For me life here is more than full: there’s plenty to keep me busy, and I forget sometimes how small this town, this little corner of the world really is. Of course, I tell myself, by our standards today so many of those great ancient cities were “just little towns.” Athens, for example. Rome, the first five hundred years or so. Or Boston, back when it was great. They were all just camps, once.
Mine is an interesting town: I do love its energy and creativity, but Brattleboro does have a deep streak of noir to it. Especially at night when the streets are wet and somebody, somewhere, is badly playing a saxophone… I write in my studio sitting right beside my open window: you hear stark, brash shouts from the trash that wander our streets, you hear children’s laughter, feet running, the mutter of pedestrians, always the pulse of steel and gas through our arteries, the chirping of birds and our machines… Look with the right eyes and any place is full and rich and interesting, but with Brattleboro it really doesn’t seem that you have to try that hard… still, for all the nice little shops and art and progressive values, that’s just the dayside of the town; there’s another side that has whisky running in its veins and blood in its gutters, a side that I’d gotten to know all too well over the years.
So I became a hermit for a while.
I don’t want to be noir anymore.
And you know, I don’t think any of us do.
Can’t you feel it? This strange… shimmer of possibility? Change? Hope? These cautious watchwords don’t fall on our ears in quite the same way that they did five or ten years ago… I don’t know about you, but I cried at Obama’s acceptance speech, and actually, that was a very curious thing, because while I thought he was the best candidate, I wasn’t over the moon for the man, not in the fanatical way so many seemed to be. And I really don’t cry all that often. So it was curious, and I thought about it all day long, the day after the election, as I wandered town, talking to people, observing the same astonishment, the faces recently dried, the exercise of rusty hope. And as much as everyone was feeling what they were about the election, I think most folk were just as astonished to see everyone else feeling so… cautiously, desperately hopeful.
We all know that this was not how life was supposed to be.
But we’re not sure that we can honestly expect anything more.
I think we’ve all realized that we can’t all be astronaut Presidents. But there is far more to life than careers and expensive homes… far more to life even than a chicken in every pot: history has only very rarely gone easy on small segments of the human race for short periods at a time (and often that’s something of a myth a prosperous culture tells itself: most “middle class” people are closer to the bottom than they realize), and yet in every age and every tribe one finds evidence of the human genius. Wealth is not a prequisite for a rich life.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not about to find myself a begging bowl any time soon. The point I mean to make is that most of what we really want out of life is intangible, only loosely related to material conditions, if at all. The secret is within. Getting more stuff just doesn’t do it. And getting more stuff can actually be pretty hard to do. I think you all know what I’m talking about.
But when we dreamed of being astronaut Presidents, what was the real substance of those dreams? Part of it, of course, was the dream of seeing the Earth from space, but I think the real substance of the dream of being an astronaut President was that life would be an adventure. OK. So we all know that we’re not going up in a shuttle anytime soon, or signing to a record label, or winning some world cup… why does this mean that we can’t have lives full to the brim?
When I went to Italy I was told, (with a slight sneer) that when Italians ask “what do you do” they don’t want your job, they want to hear about what you do. Take wealth and fame and respect and even the promise of success out of the equation and… you can be an artist, a scientist, a writer, anything you want: you’re suddenly, magically, free. You’re off on an adventure, and you’ve found and internal source of growth and change, a little bubbling spring of hope. You can tell yourself, if it’s absolutely necessary, that they’ll understand your genius after your death… but it really isn’t necessary. That’s just the abstract version of a big shiny SUV. You don’t really need it to be happy.
The secret of happiness? Sorry. Don’t have it. But I do know this: we have enough. I, writing to you; you, reading this: we have enough to be happy. Roofs over our heads and food in our bellies. And for all their frustrations, we also have computers–beautiful tools for thought and learning and art (if we care to use them). But more to the point you’re here, you’re reading, you’re thinking, you have eyes that can see and learn… you have all you need.
So what will you do?
It’s getting harsh out there. I just came out of the leanest winter, well, of my life. When the grille I work at closed down for the winter, I thought for sure I could get some other job: after all, I’m both a cook and a carpenter, and with that skillset you’re always supposed to be able to find work. But not this winter. This winter there was no work to be found and I found myself counting pennies as things got darker and the snow piled up, closing me in…
I made it through. Ran out of money just as the grille opened up again. So I’ve made it through, and I’m already squirreling away a new winter fund, having learned the lessons of last winter. One good thing about this recession: it will teach us to manage money a lot better than we’ve been doing: it will teach us to save, and to invest with consideration. But I hope it’s not just financial wisdom that we take away from this…
I used to be dark: now I try to be light, so when bad things happen I start looking for the good side, for any good side, for any glimmer of silver lining I can find. Just shot yourself with a nailgun? Well, if nothing else it adds spice to an otherwise dull day of nailing things: that’s how I tend to operate these days, and it works, it really does: just practice at it… keep to it. It isn’t always easy… but well worth the effort. And the more you practice… the better at it you get.
So I think about this recession, these dark times, all the dire predictions for the future… and I think… well, it won’t be easy, but maybe this is an opportunity. Maybe it’s a wonderful one: maybe this is one of those points on which history hinges… maybe, just maybe… a whole new world is at hand.
Over and over, I return to this idea, this premise, which I haven’t voiced very often… this is its official debut: the reason we chase after money and careers and security is that we want, we want more, we want rich, full, beautiful lives. But that’s silly, right? We all know that money can’t but love, and a whole host of other things beside, like happiness, and satisfaction, and, well, all the best things.
So how do we get those things?
Because we want, right, and that’s what we want: love and happiness and satisfaction:
Maybe we need to forsake money and seek other kinds of wealth.
The recession… that’s kid stuff. Look at the forecasts for the future, fifty years, a hundred. You won’t find a single one that isn’t grim. More and more people, the waters rising, global warming and the resulting violence of weather, and already tent cities here, in America, richest country in the world… It will get leaner still. Our obese years are over. But this can be a good thing, if we treat it right. We will go hungry, and become keen, long of muscle and sharp of eye, and, just possibly… we will become a little more human.
How do we create wealth beyond money? I think there are so many ways… Art, love, shared activities, spending a long loving time cooking a meal… I think of the parable of the loaves and the fishes, which I’ve always taken less as a record of miracle, and more as an allegorical statement of the power of sharing freely. We’re all in this together, but sometimes it seems we’re all so far apart…
We will have less and less money. Less and less oil. Less and less things. Less and less space…
But we stand to become richer than we ever imagined.
So: it’s been a long time and I was even beginning to ask myself whether or not I would just write this blog off as another of many abortive experiments from over the years, but things have changed, so many things…
It’s been a long month and too many things have happened to list: I left VT for the first time in a long, long time; I set up my studio and cleaned the house top to bottom; I even got rolling on the schoolwork that I’ve been keeping at bay with my most recent existential crisis. But the big event was that I think I’ve finally met the girl. That’s right. The girl.
But that’s not exactly my story to share, not in this (in theory) public forum. Instead I’d like to muse briefly on just what this has done for me, because it’s nothing short of remarkable how much seems to have changed in me, but I also want to suggest something that might, maybe, on the surface of it, seem a little unromantic: that while she’s inspired me, these changes come from within. Now if that’s unromantic, consider this: if these changes come from within (and I think we’re all familiar with “love” changes, i.e. happiness, singing and dancing, increased energy and productivity) then the possibility is always there.
OK, so if this possibility for happiness and personal growth is always in there, well, maybe we can learn to unlock it in other ways. This is a variation on the problem of learning to love yourself, so that you might learn to love others: this is a technological question of a metaphysical nature, and that’s one of the things that this blog is supposed to be about. I lost my confidence in that original idea… but she’s inspired me to restore it, and so to continue groping my way towards this admittedly unusual thesis: that the full powers of humanity will be unlocked from within our minds, our (though I hesitate to give the wrong impression in using the word) souls, and that this can be figured out.
I’m 27. I don’t get kicked to the kid’s table anymore, and I’m starting to like the feel of the years. It’s like old Polybius said: we study history because when you boil it down there are really only two ways to learn: from your own mistakes, or from those of others. The latter is preferable, of course, but the first is vital. A one-line version of my first twenty-five years might read that I did most of my learning the hard way; the last couple of years, though, have been marked more by restraint and reflection than regret. I’ve been learning to love myself, and I’ve actually been getting there: slow going, sometimes, and rocky, but well worth the effort, because these last have been some of the best years of my life.
So what is it, then, about some inspiring other that suddenly makes this effort so incredibly easy? Because while I’ve been working at it… suddenly my confidence is restored. I feel like that wild brash boy again, like I could do anything. There’s something here, something about being seen. Over the years you pick up fears and the list of things that bit you grows and grows and before you know it you’ve hidden, like a secret: unseen. The reasoning only rarely surfaces, and then generally only in moments of irony, but we do this in an effort to make ourselves safe. We go to such lengths, contort our hearts, produce such elaborate bleak poses and all to avoid pain, even when we know that the only thing to do is gather what courage remains and face the possibility again, and in the mature, hard-earned knowledge of exactly what’s at stake.
It’s not just love, of course: we all grow increasingly hesitant with age. Some time back the issue of somersaults came up. I used to throw a pretty good somersault, in my time… but I found that I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t hurl myself into the air the way I used to. As a kid, of course, I didn’t have a blasted back that could go out and probably would with such athletics, but that’s exactly the point: I got that blasted back by hurling myself out there into space and, on more than one occasion, by falling to the ground, and that’s where the fear came from.
She’s my age, beautiful, intelligent, accomplished… and she likes me? I mean, I can babble, and I do so when I get nervous, sort of like an octopus farting ink, and so she’s really seen me babble… and it seems as though she loves it. And this feeling like I’ve been seen for what I really am, more or less, is what’s allowed my confidence to roll back in. So how did I forget, for so long, that I was loveable? How does this happen? What can be done to prevent people – our loved ones, our friends and family – from feeling this way? And how can we rescue ourselves from this ugly fate?
Two separate questions. I have one partial answer for the first: look at compliment-giving as an art, and practice it: tell people that they are beautiful, and good, that they’re wearing a nice outfit. Say it.
The second… tougher… further posts to follow.
So, while nobody posted a comment on my second-to-most-recent post (Mania… or Passion?), I received a number of them through email, and in person (since for the most part my readership, at this point, is still just friends and family), and by far the most consistent criticism of that post is that I came off sounding pretty arrogant.
We all have our flaws. I recognized long ago that arrogance is one of mine.
But so is this odd quirk I have of speaking from within the ideas or emotional states that I’m trying to describe. I really wasn’t trying to say that most of humanity is effectively useless, I was trying to report on the emotional currents of learning and thought when it’s driven by our passions. On my own emotional currents. Sometimes I still think some pretty nasty, arrogant thoughts. But we all have those ugly thoughts that never go anywhere, unless you’re trying to explain your inner emotional logics. Unless you’re feeling confessional. And I think that came through, though perhaps not so much as I would like… back to the writing board on that one, I guess, and maybe next time I’ll be able to make this clearer, but the real problem comes in when I start to analyze the thoughts and emotions of other people using this method.
My long and ongoing path out of arrogance began with Camus, or maybe Sartre, one of those guys, the one where a man hears someone crying for help from a bridge over the Seine, but does nothing. I still find “judgmental” a fairly incomprehensible criticism, since the way I see it judgment is not only necessary, but highly desirable; but when we call someone judgmental what we mean is not that they judge too much, but too little. It was only when I finally became honest with myself about my own failings that I started to accept the failings of others. And it was only then that I was able to begin to enter into the mature and healthy judgment that I’m talking about.
And this got me rolling. Suddenly I could understand, or, to be precise, I was now capable of understanding human failure – and I’ve had a doctorate-level education on the topic in my life since then. I don’t pretend to have x-ray vision, but I do believe that I’ve managed to leverage these basic insights – that, applied evenly, judgment is a fine thing, and that all human beings have their failings – into a pretty decent understanding of people. And even when you don’t understand a thing about someone, it’s a fair bet that they have their failings too, and in that case plain simple compassion goes a long, long way.
The next major breakthrough was realizing that there’s Logic, and there’s logic. I’ve always been a little top-heavy, someone more comfortable with abstractions than with his emotions, and it was the average person’s failure to reason quite as sharply as I could that fired my arrogance. But Logic is often strikingly illogical, at least by human standards, and I was no exception: ironically, my lack of understanding of human emotion was now revealed as illogical in itself–because in this world, there’s nothing less logical than failing to learn how people think, because they refuse to think “logically.” And I realize that this paragraph’s quite the nasty traffic accident, but the basic point is that there is a logic to people that isn’t always logical. That’s just the way it is.
So that’s my real opinion on the matter: I judge, but I judge myself too, I understand that everyone has failings, and I understand that human logic gets messy. And I find that I’ve become very capable of “putting myself in someone’s shoes,” even those I detest–even those that I plain hate (a word, in my dirty mouth, that feels like a true curse). And in fact this “putting myself” in other perspectives has become such an important part of my own method that I often forget to make all the appropriate caveats and explanations, to use all the fussy signal phrases and equivocations that properly distance a writer from a statement, that even, in cases of excessive umming and ahing, distance a writer from his own statements.
Of course, that’s a problem that pops up when I’m discussing, say, savage acts of war or the behavior of the religious right, and I start speaking from their positions. It’s not a criticism leveled at the post in question–it’s the explanation for why I might have come off sounding as if I was making stronger statements about the hoi polloi than I ever really intended.
That said, I do still feel that there’s a certain qualitative difference (as with any black-and-white, there’s plenty of gray, but bear with me) between those who choose to be dynamic, and those that prefer to approach some sort of balance, or equilibrium, which is really just a euphemism for stasis, which, since change is constant, amounts to a very unhealthy approach to the world. It has nothing to do with actual intelligence or ability or knowledge and everything to do with commitment to growth. Since change is constant, we have only two choices: we can engage with it, and grow, or disengage, and rot. A friend of mine wrote me a somewhat cryptic email in response to the post in question, saying that he once had a very curious cow. It took me a while to realize that he was saying that even the cattle are curious. Which is a wonderful thing to know, and I apologize for my rash statements about cattle–but this just makes it all the more tragic when a human beings’s curiosity dims, flickers, and dies.
Since I was moved to start this blog, I’ve wondered why. What in the world was I hoping to do with this? I want to publish books, not blogs; I still feel a little uncomfortable, just using the word. There’s something strange about these tech words, about the way they rest in your throat, like they’re there to stay, like postnasal drip. I ask my friends about it, and get more answers than I have friends: no guidance there.
And, of course, I don’t have all that much of a readership. Not like I ever expected much of one: I know how to look up search statistics and multidisciplinary historical studies isn’t that high up on the list. But in considering any kind of textual production, you consider its context, its author and audience. I know that I’m writing to a few friends and family and the odd person who stumbles onto my site: that’s my audience. That and the all-seeing eye of…
In my last two posts I’ve described something of what’s been going on with me the last few weeks: essentially, one thing led to another and in the end… I decided it was finally time to become a mad scientist. I’m already a feral philosopher and a rogue historiographer: I think we all knew that mad science was always a possibility.
As I’ve written previously, there was a time when I wondered if I’d ever feel my mind catch fire again. I don’t even know how to describe a state so sublime: I can only appeal to the reader’s experience. I write this in the relative certainty that those who’ve never felt passionate about ideas aren’t reading my blog; but if you’ve never felt it… I’m truly, deeply sorry. It’s not too late: you can still find it. And if you’ve gone flat, two-dimensional, if your mind has gone deaf and dumb like mine was just a few years ago… you can rise again.
You’re not dead yet.
In any case, I spent the last month or so thinking of nothing but technology and electromagnetism and code (oh my!), reading page after page like an archaeologist working over hieroglyphics, forgetting to eat, reading literally hundreds of different sources and webpages, losing track of time, re-reading relevant material from my mathematical studies, fueling myself with coffee and cigarettes and the odd burrito, writing endless lists of terms to define and mysteries to pursue; I would go to bed with Maxwell’s equations on my mind, and dream of waves and copper. And in the morning I’d wake up with isotropic dreams lingering and I’d set to work immediately, checking my most recent lists, so that I could plan out my day during my morning ablutions, queuing up the mysteries and monsters I’d attack over the course of the day, and when I did my morning yoga I’d smirk to myself as I chanted Ohm…
If you’ve been there before, you know how it is: you can’t think of anything else, you can’t talk about anything else, you can’t hear, or even see anything else. (About a week ago, someone handed me a framed picture, and all I could pay attention to was the fractal patterns on the frame, very similar to certain types of antennas.) This is why people in this state tend to withdraw, to close themselves off. Because even though you can barely produce or even hold any off-topic thought, you can see how people react to you. You can see the eyes glaze and watch the doors slam shut; you can see their utter and abiding lack of interest in your profundities; you might try to explain–and you find, to your amazement, that they will not let you.
It’s hard not to hate them for it.
To start thinking of them as empty husks. As cattle that make sounds like real speech.
To think to yourself, what’s the point?
What do they have to offer me?
My mind is exquisitely alive, you think. You know what it’s like. You’ve been there. One foot in front of the next, one day after another, work, eat, sleep, talk about the weather. You know what it’s like, life as a ghost. And now that you’re alive you can’t imagine why anyone would want to stay dead.
Or perhaps it’s just me. But I don’t think so.
But there’s another side of the coin, one you won’t see with the cattle, with the nameless faceless that you can dismiss with a flick of the mind: usually, it takes someone you love to show it to you, this other side of the coin.
I’d been using the word “mania” to describe my state of mind these last few weeks. I used the word jokingly, even as a way to assure my loved ones that I know that I get strange when the spirit takes me. A way to tell them: take me with a grain of salt. Not because I think they’re right to do so, but because I love them. Because I don’t want to scare them, or worry them, or push them too far with my insistence. Because I need to keep laughing or I’ll rage and shake and scream “WAKE UP!” And the people in my life now, they usually try to meet me halfway. They’ll ask a few questions, try to be interested, and sometimes they find that they are.
But I used the word “mania” in an email to an old friend on the other side of the continent, and he picked the word up with a few grains of salt, but not enough. He worried. We’ve seen our friends go genuinely manic before, and it’s a terrifying thing. And all he sees of me these days are my wild, breathless emails.
When the ghosts, the people with dead minds, the cattle, when they call you crazy… who cares?
But when it’s a loved one, when you see that fear in their eye, or hear that tone in their voice, or simply read that concern in a letter they’ve written you… it doesn’t take much. Just a whiff, just a glimpse, just a glance and you’re spinning. Because you think, maybe I really am going crazy. Maybe this beautiful, exquisite, sublime joy is in fact psychiatric disease. Maybe this person that I love and trust sees something that I don’t. Maybe there’s something wrong with me. Maybe I’ve flown too close to the sun. You start to wonder…
when I go down, how hard am I going to hit?
So I shot an email back to my friend assuring him that I was fine, not wanting him to worry… but as I typed I could feel the wax melting and the feathers coming loose, and fear that felt like a thing in my body, coiling round my lungs, clawing at my guts, shitting cold sharp rocks into my stomach. A living thing, like a disease, like a sin, like long worms with teeth. Is this passion? Or is this insanity?
The Buddha, who advises you to “seek out your own salvation with diligence,” formed the monasterial community for this reason. Because real, deep, profound learning is not safe. Because meditation can make monsters. Because before you can become something new, you need to give up what you were, but there’s no guarantee that you’ll make it to the other side. Everything in life comes with certain element of risk, but with things of real value there is no hedging of bets. Ya rolls ya dice and ya takes ya chances.
When I turned fifteen, my father gave me a poem. I wish that I could cite it, but I’m transcribing from the note he gave me, which doesn’t cite sources:
If, by Rudyard Kipling.
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or, being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;
If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with triumph and disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to broken,
And stoop and build ‘em up with wornout tools;
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breath a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on”;
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings – nor lose the common touch;
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run -
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man my son!
If you’re reading this, my friend, don’t worry. I’ve found my way back. I rolled the dice, and this time, I won.