It’s All Relative


Terms
February 24, 2009, 1:17 am
Filed under: 1

 

I remember the angled slope of the roof above her bed. Above that single bed shoved into the space between the chimney and the wall. The triangular white of the plaster coming down at your head. The ceiling so low that on top, she had to bend over me, her hair hanging in my face.  I imagined her sleeping there. A claustrophobic comfort alone, with two, it felt like squeezing into the back seat of hatchback.

 

We got to the park early. The grass was still wet on the ground. It seems so early now. There were elderly people out for their morning walk and half awake parents with toddlers running up and down the paths. I remember birds and long shadows. It was almost cold when we arrived and I didn’t take off my jacket until later.

 

I’m suspicious of my memory. It seems a bit too idyllic. I can hardly imagine why I would have been there so early.

 

 A picnic blanket laid out and we sat on it and talked. Almost a year to the day since I’d last seen her. And we sat and things seemed so much the same. 

I had just wanted to come and say hello before I left. I was trying to cleanly bookend so many relationships and commitments. I had this absurd sense that things were actually ending and that the me that returned later would be so different that this was the only chance to say goodbye.

 

I’d come as a friend. That was the stated purpose. We both had resigned ourselves to circumstances. But sitting on the blue and white on the green, it was the same. It was immediate and available and clean. I was happily just there, in that moment. 

 

I don’t remember if I kissed her then or back at her house. I shouldn’t say ‘I’ kissed. The best thing about her was how mutual everything felt. And not in the clunky mechanistic agreement to agree. In the most spontaneous and miraculous sort of coming together. Just matching up, before and without a need to say it. 

 

And back in her room, I almost wished we weren’t. The physical so overwhelming that the memories jumble together. Not so clear and bright as morning in the park. That image I can hold so immediately. The sex just runs together.

 

I was housesitting in Queens the next weekend. She came down, slipped out of her graduation ceremonies and family parties. Came down to New York and we bought a $14 six pack at the bodega down the block and we sat on the couch.

 

So for a moment neither of us was visiting. We didn’t need to be introduced around or stand patiently back while the inevitable small things of the other’s day to day passed above our heads. We were in a space just together. We made dinner and she stood behind me with her breasts against my back and her arms around my waist. Her head turned to the side, ear against my spine as I stood over the stove. I think we drank two beers. 

 

Touch is so practical a sense that I forget how much more than a tool it can be. There’s no picture for holding someone in the dark. For feeling their ribs and skin as they breath slowly and regularly. For feeling their heart and for some reason yours too beating at the same time.

 

She was parked down on Broadway. She’d somehow found free overnight street parking in Manhattan and I was amazed. I was sure that the car would be stolen or towed. Goodbyes are so often a sharpening of the things we’ve felt. We’re pushed to say these things that we haven’t because we’re out of time now and we can’t wait anymore for the right moment or the right way to say them. But I didn’t have that. The crowd was swelling off the sidewalk into the street and the cabs were backed up four deep in front of the intersection. Her window rolled up and it was ten minutes before she got far enough into traffic to disappear from sight. But I wasn’t sad. Some part of whatever that was was continuing in me. Underneath everything else. 

 

And away, when I was gone, I just had the pictures, the tiny space of them on the back of the camera. The same video of us that last morning over and over until it seemed like a caricature of itself, like grooves in a record worn deeper and deeper by playing until the sounds draws out and lengthens. And the things you say sound dumber each time you play them over. “We sucked face.” I said. And I said it again and again and again. And each time I cringed as I watched her smile and laugh. 

 

Pictures strip our living memories of their vitality. They reduce them to blunt, frozen details. Like a sinkhole swallowing houses, they pull in the living memories of a moment until it’s reduced to a dry and tidy object. Until that morning was no more than a series of stills and a single 35 seconds of voice and movement; the time in between evaporated and the pictures piled atop one another like a gap-filled flip book.

 

Her presence in my life has been so isolated from everything else. Each visit or encounter a strange and vivid island in the midst of routine. Maybe that’s why cutting things off seemed to make sense. Maybe that’s how I rationalized it. I was just compartmentalizing it for later, the same way we had before.

 

When I called her in January her number had changed. She was hesitant to talk and her voice had this hollow warmth to it. I’m the one who did it, I know that. I’m the one who refused to bend to the moment and denied the present. And then I came back, expecting we could just put aside what I had done. And her response was reasonable. My request was ridiculous. I’d stopped things in May. Why would she wait for me until January?

 

Since I’ve told her I feel diminished. I feel relief too, though a part of me misses the pressure. The urgency has gone and I wonder what this calmer echo means. If it’s a fever I’ve burned out or the first in a series of involuntary attacks.

 

She said no. And maybe that’s not the end, but it’s close. 

 

She called me once, while she was waiting to go on. She stood in the wings and we talked in hushed tones, the pronounced voices of the performance in the background. I guess I still imagined her there. I had this image that she would wait for her cue and that we would be together when I was ready for it. I imagined that the world existed on my terms and I could have all the things I wanted in the order I preferred.  

 

I can’t. It isn’t. I had a chance when she came in May to choose something. I held it in my hand and decided to put it down. It’s gone now. 

 

I can’t take that back.

 

I keep thinking of the park. Maybe because the day was so crisp and clear. Maybe because there are no pictures to harden the simple details. Maybe because it was before the image of how things ‘ought’ to be got in the way.

 

A meeting of mutual affection in the bright morning sun. A whole day ahead of us. 

Whatever it is about that moment, it’s there and I’m here. And it’s getting harder and harder to see where the two will meet again.  

 

 

 



An Era of Consideration
January 22, 2009, 8:13 pm
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Stanley Fish’s January 18th New York Times blog post suggests that higher education is best described as study for study’s sake. That is to say: the classic tradition of liberal education is one that teaches thought process without regard to an instrumentalized application of such practices. Fish’s concurs with a former student’s new book in saying that the virtues of such education are being inevitably squeezed out of the educational market by the forces of efficiency and profit. If a thing can’t be directly and immediately used to make a buck, then it will disappear. Essentially, he suggests that the era of non-trade focused education is over because we are too short sighted to maintain it.

 

His conclusions are sadly pessimistic and short sighted and neglect the sea change in priorities that crisis both creates and demonstrates. The current crisis in our economy and ideological shift in our politics that Barack Obama is both carried by and leading onward are clear evidence that the pendulum has reached the outer limit of its swing and prepares now to return to an era of deliberate reflection and critical thought.

 

The current crisis and this generation’s religious awakening to politics is the high end of a necessary historical cycle. The regard for critical thinking as a general skill and education as a deep and non-measurable public good has always risen and fallen in regard to the current economic climate. The virtues of straight-forward knowledge-application will forever take a higher place when their rewards are easy and immediate. They drop in status as we find that the promises they made – of happiness, goodness, and optimistic future – fall flat. The greed and short sightedness of the last decade may well make it seem that liberal education and the virtue of a balanced and considering mind has fallen by the way side, but the crisis itself is the herald of a changing tide.

 

The inspiration that this nation has found in the voice and ideas of educated men and women is proof that the triumph of instrumentalized education has been falsely observed. Obama’s election forces us to examine any judgment that we are too short sighted and sadly materialistic to change our point of view. As Obama said in his inauguration speech, cynics are unaware that the ground has already shifted beneath them.

 

This kind of myopic predicting follows the same logic of those who could see no horizon for housing prices, no end to the stock boom. Each movement down a continuum is viewed as evidence of a final trajectory and the predictions made from the measurement of such angles inevitably become fantasy as the moderating present softens and rebuffs the blows of perceived social direction. Like the images of flying cars and personal rocket packs that floated in the public imagination of a 1950’s fixated on a functionally political and decidedly symbolic space race, the idea that a cultured and enlightened mind has outlived it’s usefulness is a reading based on an untenable trajectory, one that has already proven false.

 

Action without consideration – confidence without vulnerability – will always reveal itself as hollow. The comfort and certainty of the present that allows confidence to build to hubristic levels is always built on forgotten achievements of the past. The struggles that those before us have made to find what is right, to choose what is just, to create a system that reflects our own belief in individual consciousness and the respect such parallel awareness demands, have always shaped who and how we are.

 

The progress of human society is one toward increasing equality, choice and mutual respect. History attests to the truth of this fact. We fall short and decry the moral bankruptcy of each ‘modern’ age, but our children and our children’s children continually find themselves just a little further down the road towards an embrace of common humanity.

 

The fundamental daily tasks of human life are moral ones. They imply and inevitably include consideration and reflection. We are able to conceive of ourselves as separate from our perspective because we can imagine the perspectives of others. Our ability to imagine ourselves as an object in a world of other perceiving minds is the most fundamental base of our moral systems. It forces us to question and test our internal emotions and judgments and fundamentally informs our conduct in the world. This process is one of critical thinking in the most general sense because the individual circumstances, examples and settings we must attempt to include in our calculations are endless.

 

The consideration that is involved in each tiny choice, from opening the door for another person, to refusing to interrupt despite our own enthusiasm, from smiling at a child whose open stare greets us in public space to the most basic conventions of polite conversation, each and every tiny part of how we relate to one another has to do with our own ability to consider ourselves as objects in the world and to attempt to extrapolate from that a way to act that quiets the voice of the outside that we have created or imagined or simply connected to within our own mind.

 

This is the most basic and continuous task of human existence.

 

It may well be that it is only in times of crisis that we truly consider and examine critically the voice that justifies and explains our own behavior to us, even as we enact it in the world. And it may well be that the idea of ourselves as a perspective mediating itself with the imagined perspectives of others is so complex that we will never truly and completely understand it. Regardless, times like this force us to try and such efforts demand the kind of consideration and critical thinking that liberal education provides.

 

Booms like the one that has crashed down so completely help us to forget that our perspective more than reports our world, it constructs it.

 

And in some ways we need to forget. The analysis and over-examination of our own presence as perceived by others in the world can paralyze us. It is the fluidity of our perspective and its ability to prioritize and ignore details that allows us rapid and instinctual movement when it is required.

 

The forgetting of how potentially non-real our reality is can allow us to travel so far into ourselves that we are enacting a fantasy of our own mind. It is at this point that crisis inevitably and dramatically contradicts us and we remember once again that we must trust our own perspective of the world, but not too much. We must buy in and commit to our own faiths, but not at the price of our conscience. We must live through the eyes that filter our reality, but we must never cease to imagine that there are eyes different than our own and realities that show different truths.

 

We can never entirely ascend beyond our own construction of ourselves in the world, but we can learn habits of thought and standards of proof that tether that construction to something heavier than ourselves. It is for this reason that I believe the value and the future of liberal education – of the virtue of consideration – has been sadly and drastically underestimated by Mr. Fish and his student.

 

The movement between consideration and action is the most fundamental of humanity. Each provides the other their value and demonstrates the truth of the unspoken compact that binds them.

 

We enter now, I hope, I believe, a great period of consideration. A time of scarcity and fear and crisis that pulls us back again from the natural acceptance of what we perceive. And in this space we will find once again that the knives we had formerly used to dissect our experience of the world have dulled. In their place we have – for an unsustainable period – used divisors that relied on perceived power and shouted sharpness instead of honest and qualitative meaning.

 

The division between government and the unseen hand of markets. The price of public health and the social calculus that decides whose burden must be greater and whose should be lifted. The simple idea of what composes a good and decent life. What we owe each person by virtue of their birth. What we owe each other by virtue of our shared existence. What we – as a people, as a species, as a force – mean to this world. How much we are a part of it, how much of us dies with its’ disregard.

 

These are deep and abiding questions. They are complex and forceful and will demand more of us than we have given in recent years. This crisis is the turning of the tide; the consideration that will yield action; the torturous thinking that will allow us future good fortune and continued moral progress.

 

And even this will only enable another period of hubristic excess. Having considered and struggled and overcome we will fully and faithfully follow the trajectory we have sketched. And we will, inevitably, find ourselves off course once again.

 

But in the meantime, the most demanding and honest of tasks has been appointed to us. To the people of this time, to the minds and hearts and bodies of this moment, ours is a tremendous opportunity, an enormous weight and a joyous exploration.

 

To choose this path – despite the inevitability of its eventual miscalculation – is a tremendous honor and a powerful responsibility. It is one we should be honored and humbled to accept, and one that we must undertake with the most serious intention. 



The Progress of Forgetting
November 22, 2008, 5:50 pm
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Two weeks ago, Judith Warner highlighted a photo in her column in the New York Times:

NYT Harlem Church“A black mother and daughter sit on the floor of a church in Harlem. The mother, Latrice Barnes, having heard of Obama’s victory, is doubled up in tears; her daughter, Jasmine, is reaching a tentative hand up to soothe her. To me, she looks like the future, reaching out to heal the past.

It is, I suppose, in part a matter of temperament, whether one shouts or weeps at happy transformative moments. But I also think it’s a matter of what has come before. The young people joyfully frolicking in front of the Bush White House never knew the universe whose passing was marked by Obama’s victory and Jackson’s tears.

This moment of triumph marks the end of such a long period of pain, of indignity and injustice for African-Americans. And for so many others of us, of the trampling and debasing of our most basic ideals, beliefs that we cherished every bit as deeply and passionately as those of the “values voters” around whose sensibilities we’ve had to tiptoe for the past 28 years.

The election brought the return of a country we’d lost for so long that it was almost forgotten under the accumulated scar tissue of accommodation and acceptance.

For me, this will be the enduring memory of election night 2008: One generation released its grief. The next looked up confusedly, eager to please and yet unable to comprehend just what the tears were about.”

The final sentiment struck me at the time as profound. It is a momentous and historic manifestation of a common dynamic: the younger generation’s discarding of their parent’s fears and concerns.

As I increasingly come to see my own life separated from that of my parents, I am struck by the number of things I can finally begin to understand. There are things that they have always insisted upon – through their actions if not through their words – that I could never quite grasp.

The depth of devotion that a child called forth from my parents only becomes clear as my experience of the world broadens enough to grasp all the gifts I have been given and the detractions I have not. The responsibility that they have encountered as salient and unavoidable is one of which I am only now beginning to perceive the dimmest outline.

Growth for me, at this moment, is seeing that the world is not nearly as complex as I had come to believe. Our personal aspirations and hopes demonstrate goals and beliefs common to all human beings. And though our methods and personally perceived motivations may seem to place us at odds, I think we can agree that each of us yearns for the same things – even if we don’t always agree who besides ourselves should have them.

We learn – with varying degrees of success – how far we are willing to extend our circle of acknowledged similarity. There are experiences and people that make us unwilling or unable to acknowledge that common ground because the manifestations of it in our own past have too deeply cut into our own lives and experience.

This returns me to the picture above. Passing through this world creates scars that cannot be sloughed off like old skin. The grief that a generation of Americans still feel for the oppressions and humiliations foisted up on them cannot be relieved by any single moment.

Barack Obama’s presidency is not the crowning victory of the Civil Right’s Movement, it is the death knell for that moment’s prominence in American identity. This next generation has a new and defining racial moment: one of unequivocal and popular success.

The lessons this moment provides – those already drawn and those that will be drawn in the future – are, of course, too simplistic. But the point is not the objective truth these generational touchstones provide, but the anchor they create in popular culture and social identity.

What I had not considered before is how necessary death is to the progress of our society. Some wounds cannot be healed by those who bear them and the only way to move on is to forget. The world is naturally ceded to those softer, more innocent souls so that they can approach problems without the blinders of past resentment and judgment. As I become an adult, I see the things we have in common and with it the corollary responsibility that that mutualism demands I acknowledge and embrace, but I also see that there will come a time when my definitions will be too narrow, too rigid for progress. And for the future to be embraced, my pain must also be forgotten.

Lessons we possess are not truths, but perspectives that form reality as much as they describe it. Solving deep and reoccurring problems is usually a function of redefining the terms that articulate it as one in the first place. It’s forgetting old distinctions that allows the world to appear anew and for the very possibility that the old problem sought to create to come into being.



A Pencil. Because a vest has no sleeves.
October 30, 2008, 7:08 pm
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The joke that I regard as my favorite is one that routinely predicts – with considerable accuracy – whether or not I will enjoy the receiver’s sense of humor.

The joke is an exercise in incomprehensibility and typically elicits one of two reactions: laughter or embarrassment. Laughter, at first hearing this joke, requires an ability to recast how we listen and interpret jokes as well as a flexible enough sense of self to see humor in our own limitations. The other reaction comes from a sense of having missed something and the absence of intelligence or humor sharp enough to enjoy that.

I was interested to figure out a bit more about why I keep telling this joke and so I deconstructed it in such a way as to ensure that it will never actually be funny again. However, this work does have the advantage of the fact that when you don’t laugh, I can explain why you should have.

This, of course, will not create laughter. Though we can perhaps hope for some guilt.

The Joke:

Q: What is the difference between an orange?

A: A pencil. Because a vest has no sleeves.

A Hypothesis of Humor:

The concept of humor that I would like to suggest and then use to analyze this joke can best be pictured graphically as an “L.” It is an idea continuing in a certain direction and then taking an unexpected turn. This turn must be surprising or unexpected, and yet it also must be, in some way, connected to the interrogative. The joke-teller must be able to link two ideas in such a way that is surprising but comprehensible to the joke-receiver. Surprise cannot appear in the face of incomprehensibility, the link between interrogative and response cannot be non-existent: it should be non-typical.

Knock, Knock jokes take a culturally familiar interrogatory and change the direction of it at the end, even as they rely on the unity of the convention to create the expectation that is denied. The appropriate response to “Who’s there?” is an identification of yourself and so responses that fail to do this deny or surprise expectation. They change the direction of the idea at the end.

So, any type of convention (the longer line of the “L”) that engenders expectation has the possibility of creating humor (the 90 degree turn at the end). However, jokes themselves have become a convention capable of creating expectations.

Some jokes use the idea of joke-telling in a backwards manner to create humor (though the poignancy of some of that humor has eroded from long use).

“Why did the chicken cross the road?” is a demonstrably obvious set up for a joke by asking a mundane and truly inconsequential question. Because the answer to the question seems impossibly unimportant, the answer’s relevance must exist entirely in its humor.

“To get to the other side.”

This answer is nothing more than an explicit description of the action previously questioned. Though posing as an answer, it can be mostly read as a simple restating of the interrogative. The answer provides no new information and therefore, no surprise.

The answer itself is as mundane as the question and so the expectation of humor – the convention of the joke – is denied and therefore, fulfilled.

Of course, this joke has become a convention in itself. It is its own parody and therefore lacks the reality of humor that it exhibits in structure. Still, it is an excellent example of turning the convention of joke structure back on itself, a concept that is vital to continue with analysis of the joke I have offered above.

To summarize: humor is the space between expectation and result and therefore is available wherever expectation exists. When expectation is denied or tweaked in a comprehensible manner – a second point in space that, upon reflection, is connected – then humor occurs.

We are now ready to examine the “Difference between an orange” joke.

Micro-Analysis:

First, let’s examine the joke piece by piece.

Q: What is the difference between an orange?

This is an obviously incomplete statement. ‘Difference’ as in contrasting two things with the preposition of ‘between’ creates an expectation of a secondary object to be compared. Such an object does not appear and therefore creates and denies expectations before the setup has even been completed. (Indeed, no setup is completed)

A: A pencil. Because a vest has no sleeves.

The answer ‘A pencil’ masquerades as a simple statement, intrinsically sensical by virtue of its brevity and confident tone as expressed in the period. The secondary explanation of “Because a vest has no sleeves,” again uses a preposition whose presence would normally indicate a relation between the two statements it links. Instead, the two statements are fundamentally unrelated. So, again, convention and denial.

Macro-Analysis:

Taken as a whole, the joke uses and denies conventions of structure in joke-telling and in the power dynamic between joke-teller and joke-receiver.

Denial of structure:

Separate from actual content, the structure of a joke is one that promises to relate two statements. In essence, a joke teller suggests: “I will denote two points and surprise you in how they are connected.” In this case, the two points are not connected. The assumed convention of two related statements is denied.

This is distinct from a joke without a punchline – which would seemingly also be denying the convention of related statements – because of the overall unity that is present in both the interrogative and the answer. The incomplete setup creates an expectation of an equally non-sensical answer which is also present. The incomprehensibility of the interrogative promises just as much nonsense in the reply and carries through with it in a surprising way.

The convention of a joke suggests related statements, but the setup for this joke suggests a convention of incompleteness that is completed.

Denial of power dynamic:

This convention of linked points also operates in a personal sense in the form of an informal power dynamic between the joke-teller and joke-receiver. The joke also denies this convention.

A joke-teller is someone who has an implicit contract with the receiver to pose something and follow it with a second that is related. Jokes can be poorly told or badly articulated and the reply may not be surprising, but the power dynamic is one that promises to provide two points that are – at the very least – connected in the mind of the joke-teller. Whether the joke is successful or not in creating humor, the promise of two ideas related in the mind of the teller is a basic underlying premise.

In this case, the unrelatedness of the two points is distinctly clear to the joke-teller and is a denial of the conventional power dynamic of joke-teller, joke-receiver relationship. Instead of a receiver being guided by the teller in the linking of two points, the receiver is revealed to have always stood on the same ground as the teller. They are equally in the dark about how these statements relate.

So, flowing from the denial of related statements, there is both a surface level of denial through the unlinked points, as well as a personal level through the denial of the typical power dynamic that would serve to link them.

Grasping the Humor:

So enjoyment of the joke can occur through several routes.

–         A recognition of the pattern of incomprehensibility present in the setup and punchline (it’s funny that each part of the joke is incomplete)

–         A recognition of the rejection of a joke’s implicit structure (it’s funny that a format that promises to link two statements has failed to do so)

–         A recognition of the reversal of the traditional joke teller, joke receiver relationship (it’s funny that –since there is nothing to understand – the teller doesn’t understand the joke either)

At the most basic level, the expected convention that is being taken in a different direction is the format, relationship and structure of telling a joke. Appreciating the joke requires the intelligence to recognize incomprehensibility and an ability to recast the terms in which we typically digest the cultural experience of joke-telling and the object of jokes themselves.

It is for this reason that I find this joke such an accurate barometer of a sense of humor. This joke works with expectations on numerous levels and therefore offers numerous routes to grasping its humor.

The joke denies intelligence or cleverness on first hearing. No amount of intellectual effort will link these points, instead finding the humor demands being able to laugh at your desire to do so in the face of clear evidence that you cannot.

The simplest humor in this joke is laughing at yourself, enjoying your total inability to connect the two points. Doing that requires being able to dissect the way that you listen to and process a joke, a skill that produces humor in many spaces where most people fail to find it.

In more detailed examination – like this one – the joke also reveals itself as possessing a high level of elegant and simple unity, denying conventions in all directions, even as it creates some of its own and meets them in a surprising way.

At some point in the future, I will ruin my other favorite joke about penguins in tuxedos. So there’s that to look forward to.



The Politics of Possibility
October 16, 2008, 4:01 pm
Filed under: Political Opinion | Tags: , , , , ,

In Sunday’s New York Times Week in Review there was a short piece about the Ellis Island Immigration Museum in New York Harbor. The museum has been tasked to expand the focus of its’ history beyond the years of 1892 to 1954 in an effort to tell the full story of how this nation was founded and peopled.

Efforts like this one demonstrate that our understanding of history is not static. Like all meaning, it is created in the moment by our view of the present; from where we stand today, yesterday changes shape and tone. American politics has long advocated a return to the past, a re-grasping of the essentials that made this country great. The GOP, in particular, has drawn fervent and committed support by evoking a set of imaginary values that produced greatness and now stand threatened. Fear of loss has ever been a stronger and more emotional motivator than progress towards uncertain rewards (the current decline of the stock market is evidence of that) and so this imaginary narrative of declining greatness has dominated American politics and led its’ favored beneficiaries to dominate the political spectrum.

The white conservative privilege that has dominated in one form or another since the 1950s values tradition, unity, and duty. These values have often functioned as another way of saying: “what’s ‘necessary’ over what’s right or wrong,” with no discussion of how necessity be determined. But these are not the values that have made America great. They are rather what has led to the very privilege that white conservatives have enjoyed and what constitutes the defense against its’ erosion.

Consolidation cannot grow power, it can only protect it (even as the attitude itself suggests that its’ decline is eminent and in progress). The central advantage of this politics of restoration is that it fosters an image of decline and engenders the fear that comes from a need to defend. Democrats have looked clueless and slow through decades of Republican dominance because of this biological tendency to overvalue fear. Better to fear mistakenly than to risk losing what you possess.

And so it is perhaps not so strange, considering America’s dominance in this century, that politicians should be successful in fostering the belief that closing up, conforming or returning to any past is what ensures the continuation of such preeminence. Fear of loss over future rewards is an instinctive calculus.

Yet, America’s dynamic economic power and its’ decades of dominance in innovating business, technology and entertainment (among other things) have come always from our ceaseless jettisoning of the past. It has come from our welcoming of new ideas and the embracing of possibility. It has come from the people that an attitude of possibility attracts.

Our nation has been redefined and reborn over and over from the minds and hands of people who believe that they can do and be whatever they want. And from the idea that somehow continues to thrive: that America is a place to do just that. And so it is also understandable that this dialogue of restoration has for decades failed to motivate the majority of American voters to the polls. The present requires passionate defense mostly from those enjoying its’ sweetest fruits.

In the meantime people the world over have voted with their feet. They have crashed in waves upon these shores in hopes of freeing themselves from circumstances and structures in whose construction and operation they had no stake and at every turn they have shaped America’s power and image on the world stage. Athletes, artists, and scientists have come here for the singular opportunity our nation provides: to define yourself in your own terms, to create your own existence.

And yet politics has continued to function as though it was composed of an electorate from the very subsection of history that the Ellis Island Immigration Museum has, up to this point, focused on. A post-Civil War, pre-Civil Rights set of values. America as the Marshall Plan: the world’s savior and protector; the sole power able to introduce a moral order. A personality so clearly and concretely defined internally that its’ only logical role in the world was to push its’ imprint on its’ neighbors. And yet the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War demonstrated how clearly in flux the composition and self-image of this country has been.

9/11 sharpened the anxieties of Americans struggling to cast off the idea of scarcity as hand in hand with plurality. America was under attack, just as the politics of fear had always said. The backlash and terror that carried us into Afghanistan and Iraq has been a final flash of that logic. We have once more taken our easy and confident, self-righteous, self-aggrandizing self-interest onto the international stage and really seen – perhaps for the first time – how inadequate it is to the circumstances of today’s world.

A focus on unified message and loyalty to a party line created a government of rubberstamp cronyism that has led us into unnecessary war and a financial crisis of historic proportions. Today, even the most privileged beneficiaries of this system find their livelihood at risk. The policies that flowed from this system have finally done as much harm to us as they have always done to others.

The fear that has dominated politics in America for so long has finally backfired, by creating an even greater one: that such politics will continue.

The distinctions in policy between John McCain and Barack Obama are real, but not drastic. In the full spectrum of political values from Anarchy to Autocratic Socialism, Democrats and Republicans have never been more than consecutive steps without even enough space between them for a comprehensible third party. It is the incredible stability of such non-variation that has allowed our economy and currency to be one of the most stable in the world. Even as world markets tumble and the word ‘depression’ is being bandied about with casual regularity, the world continue to hold its’ money in American currency.

The real difference between the two is the base of their message and direction of their gaze. McCain’s “tinny echo of the 20th century” remains backward looking. Of late, his rallies are devolving into historical caricatures of themselves: all-white mobs boiling over with violent and desperate anger. Obama’s platform is that we have failed only because we haven’t included everyone. Our ideals are sound, but our practices have soured as we have allowed fear to divide us. We can come together and in so doing, be better. Obama’s vision suggests that he stands for the honest source of America’s strength: the idea that we can be whoever we want to be; at this moment, the idea that we can be better than we have been.

It is seldom in life that someone asks us to do and be more without intending to instruct us in how useless and worthless we already are. As Obama’s personal biography testifies, the best parts of America are alive and well. What remains is to show that face to the world; to finally match our actions with our most enduring and inspirational ideal.

We stand for possibility, for doing all the things that must be done to ensure that people have their own right to choose and the opportunity and strength to do so. This is our nation’s essential and most basic hope. This is the backbone that has held us together through the petty and greedy power plays of the last 50 years. For a long time, no matter how disconnected politics got from the people that composed and joined this nation, the circumstances that made possibility a reality were never fundamentally threatened. They are now and we have less of an election to vote in and more of a national character to be tested.

We can choose to hold these faltering and decomposing artifacts of what we’ve had – of who we have been told we were – or we can reach for something bigger. We can try for something that tests us on more than an encyclopedic dogmatism rooted in an imagined past.

Whatever the result, it’s no less than we deserve. In fact, it’s exactly that.

Our status in the world as viewed by others and as manifest by our wealth, by our power – these rise or fall on this moment and this choice. We can choose a future of embraced possibility or a past whose shadow is shrinking as the bright light of the present bears down. We can reinvent ourselves in the face of these new challenges or we can aspire again to a failure of imagination.

This reference to a fictional and perfect past is what fuels the idea of back to basics. “We can return to glory,” they say. But it was not glory for all. It was only glory for some. And the gradual degradation of the privilege that characterized that “Golden Age” has driven white conservatives to the polls with an insistency that has ruled American politics for decades. Against this historically entrenched force, the rest of us have summoned only tepid enthusiasm for contesting them and the mechanism that they have put in place. Using the system against itself seemed an unlikely action when those who might wish to do it were already significantly disenfranchised from that system’s day-to-day construction and operation. In our private lives, the safe space carved out by patriots and martyrs has always seemed tenuous; better to be happy with your lot than contest and lose the little we hold. It’s a scarcity built of fear.

The odds are no better today; the structure built by decades of focused special interest stands untouched. The difference this time is the challenges that we face and their fundamental and frightening newness. But in the life-shaking momentousness of these challenges there stands an opportunity to regain our own integrity. We have a chance to truly stand by our own mistakes and to celebrate our own successes. We have a chance to regain ownership of whom and how we are in the world. We have a chance to choose courageously and honorably, to choose a new future rather than yet another version of some past. In so doing, we may be able to begin to earn the possibility that life as an American provides, possibility that we have for so long neglected to acknowledge, treasure and defend.



Growing Up
October 13, 2008, 9:08 am
Filed under: 1

I don’t know what to say.

I feel overwhelmed with my own absence of certainty. These few small things that make sense like tiny lights floating in the distance and the land between shrouded in darkness. And I’m either really exceptional or really fucked up. The only space between being what I do with who and how I am. And what I’ve done so far doesn’t seem like enough.

I feel like I do all this busy work, this time-on-task to convince myself that progress is being made, but it’s not.

All these hours don’t lead to anything concrete except the sense that maybe what I’m really good at is deluding myself. That I don’t really want anything as badly as I want to stay safe from these things that I fear.

It’s hard for me to countenance how terrified I am of people. It seems to show the false weight of my own sense of self. If I truly like myself and have the confidence that seems at times to flow out of me on its own accord, then what could possibly be worrisome about this world full of people? They are themselves and I am me and we meet in the middle (it’s actually the only place to meet).

I disengaged from an argument with my roommate tonight. I couldn’t see a way through the contrary opinions we had. I didn’t want to get angry or caught up in it, so I simply cut it off. He continued to antagonize. Perhaps not in the nicest or most useful way, but he refused to back down. And in the end we found the space between us and both came to places dwelling closer to a center. In the meantime, we shared a bit and cemented a slightly greater trust.

But I’m afraid this is my whole life. Perceiving difference, I cut myself off. Afraid to risk the loss of control that heaves inside of me, I isolate and quiet down. Better to stay out of the conflict and not offer up anything too real.

I believe in these things I want. It’s a boon to have perceived these things that I love so deeply. I believe without a doubt that writing and improvising are a fundamental part of the rest of my life.

But the steps I take to pursue them seem so pondering, slow and cowardly. And the progress I observe or imply or create in others is so staggeringly momentous.

Each small success for them another light shining on my own failure and dishonest effort.

There are also all these smaller pieces missing a space for themselves. And without a reason or output, their primary function seems to be sharpening the hurt I feel in moving through the world.

My ability to argue and zero in on inconsistency in reasoning is never so deftly and consistently applied than to my own statements of aspiration. My ability to articulate these inner processes that flow through us as we merge experience and emotions and affections into one fluid being in the world only raises more and more unanswerable questions about how and who I am and how and who I should or could or would like to be. My ability to sense authenticity in others leads me to fear their disapproval and live with this burning desire to connect firmly chained to a sanitized self.
I have this deep sense of gratitude for my life that only makes me feel more guilty for being dissatisfied with its progress and station.

I feel all of this so intensely. There’s a voice that says these are all small things. It scolds me for my inability to enjoy the amazing bounty of my daily existence, but the hurt – the sense of not-enough – continues. I hurt for what I don’t feel I have and for what I do.

The task of constructing all these things I need to accomplish seems endless. And my focus wanders, it yearns for easier prey. For being satisfied with time on task, regardless of real results.

I don’t know yet how to be happy with my effort, but genuinely focused on the goal. Or maybe I equate ‘genuine’ effort too much with success in narrow and imaginary terms.

I don’t know who to be friends with or how to be that friend. I yearn to care for people but allow my habitual fear of being opened up to quiet it.

Alone is perfect. Self-righteousness and confidence rolled into one. Why deal with people on any terms but your own? There’s no touching a sense of completed self. No losing, no winning. Just you inside your head.

The problem is that I am me literally every second of the day. And at times like this, I can hardly stand it in here.

I have to sit down and get it out. Put it in concrete words and sentences. It helps me feel – at least briefly – that I can get this self that I have out into the world. That I can get it seen and that out in the light of day the parts of it that are sickly and repetitively imagined will burn away.

My life is great. And I am proud of who I am. I am proud of the things I have done. And this is hard right now. I can’t remember anything harder. But if things got easier, what would be the point of continuing?

If I didn’t hurt sometimes, then I’d always stay the same. And being up here in my skull would be fine. So, there’s something out of sync right now. There is some space between the world as it exists in my mind and how it feels out here on the ground. And the best I can do is to keep pulling things out like this. Try to see them in a clearer light and pick out what’s to keep, figure out how to make this life what I want it to be.

A daily effort and a genuine goal.



Commerce
July 16, 2008, 1:42 pm
Filed under: 1

I have started selling my books. As I get closer to moving in the fall I am reconsidering what exactly I want to be carting around with me.
My bookcases have stood full – at least in my mind – since high school. Since I first saw a unique sort of power in books, since I first began to use them as an extension of myself. The idea of knowledge sitting – frozen – waiting to be enacted in the world has always been miraculous to me. For a long time I’ve bought books I wanted to have read, books that seemed important to the me I hoped to be. As though I too was merely awaiting the right catalyst for fearless and bold action.
Buying books for classes, I would wander the aisles – venturing beyond the limits of my own major or year – and end up at the register with as many books from other classes as from my own. I bought them because I had heard of them or because I knew they related to something else I had interest in. I bought them because owning them made me feel bigger, smarter, more worldly. They formed a small, respected but conquerable kingdom.
That’s what is hard about selling these books. As I sit in front of these shelves and pull them apart I’m confronted with the ideas of the things I thought I’d do, of the person I thought I’d be and the person I have actually become.
This is not to say I’m disappointed about my present, only that I think progress requires focus. I think the future requires discarding the leftover daydreams of an older self.
When I step back and look at it – at six full shelves stretching six feet across the wall and seven feet up – there’s only a few things here that I have returned to often enough to really demonstrate their importance. My possessions here are mostly aspirations. They are thoughts and hopes and wouldn’t-it-be-nice concepts of some future where I have the time and space and interest to read an entire collection of Nietzche. And not even because I want to read Nietzche, but because I wanted to be the kind of person I always thought did.
Harder still are the books here I have earnestly and lovingly read, that I know I won’t touch again. The ones filled with my highlighting and post-it flags, circled chapter assignments in the table of contents. Marred with margin notes and coffee stains – they’re not even in good enough shape to sell. It’s only the integrity of this process that dictates their disposal. I’ve held these because of pride. The books that I know are not important for what I imagine them to be, they are important for what I did with them and what that doing showed me.
But important as they are or proud as I may be, I’m holding them for the past, not the future. And I believe it’s necessary to release that. I need to open the space that I want to fill with this next chapter of my life.
I am releasing weight. Physically, as this bookcase slowly empties, and mentally as I work at deconstructing the frames of these past portraits of myself. The kind of swift and directed action I crave can come only from a self unburdened by all these old definitions and soft intentions.
I used to believe that honesty just meant telling the truth. Dishonesty was most unforgivable in how simply it was perpetrated and, therefore, avoided. But in deconstructing these past ideas of myself, as I linger over what I thought was important, what I thought would be fulfilling, the difficulty isn’t speaking the truth, it’s knowing it.
Knowing the future, it seems, is mostly a matter of knowing the present and that’s harder than it seems. Perhaps impossible when you can’t or won’t stop carrying around the past. So I’m mailing mine away, volume by volume. And if each book mailed away doesn’t show me my present, it at least makes space to imagine myself all over again.