It was so easy to go to Australia. It was so easy to go. Everywhere we've been. It's probably still easy, as soon as the decision is made. Then you go. What's ahead becomes all important. What is supposed to be loses all its power to frustrate; loses its ability to rub frictively up against what is. Tack-punctured sandpaper versus flesh.
So why is it so difficult to make the decision? Do we really believe that all the promises they promised are going to come true if we stay and endeavor and buy? If we invest properly? If we post cleverly enough on social networking sites, so that mediated living feels momentarily less mediated. Maybe if I squeeze my eyes shut tightly enough and believe harder than the next guy, maybe I'll come up with a great and stupid Sky Mall idea that I can sell to bored business travelers on planes. Headed to their next safely incubated destination. Something to send back to their friends and family to make up for their frequent lack of presence. Maybe I'll win the lottery. Maybe god will touch my brain with his old bony finger and grant me the capacity to be a business mogul. I'll have golden rays of light radiating from my every move that people won't see. But they'll feel them, and thus feel god, and they will inexplicably want to be involved in all my business transactions. Because god loves capitalism best.
That's not faith. That's competitive bargaining.
Faith looks more like going to Australia and living in a van when you get there. Faith is letting the tears slide frictionlessly down your cheek as you step – standing upright…not on all fours – to the precipice of the grassy Cliffs of Moher. Faith is striking up a conversation with humility and gratitude. Faith is allowing yourself to be moved in the presence of others. Faith's grandiosity is small. It fits into your heart, or into the fourteen lines of a sonnet. But it shouldn't be contained in either place. Because its containment will contain you.
It's so hard. It's so easy.
This is not going to be specific. It’s a persistent feeling and doubtless vague. It also clearly represents an era as I perceived it from the vantage point of a particular age. I don’t care. I’m going to say it anyway and not worry about the need to justify it. Here it is:
We’re all going to be much better off as soon as our psyches can escape the 1980s.
Not to say that the era didn’t provide some great times. Of course it did. Culturally it often projected bliss. Back to the Future and Culture Club and Knight Rider required no critical thinking whatsoever. The Cold War was scary to consider in detailed terms, but we rarely thought about it in detailed terms. And when we did, at least it made everything seem polarized…and bi-polarized…which is a lot more pleasant than things seeming infinitely deconstructible and individualized. Envisioning life with Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is somehow much more comfortable than contemplating a free-floating existence on McCarthy’s Road. Our political representatives postured and proclaimed back then, but if push came to shove we knew that we could all co-exist in that bomb shelter just fine. Even the repellent aspects held some modicum of allure. The self may have been as complex as ever, but we could always find our way like metal shavings clinging to the magnet if we needed to. Nostalgia for that level of moral, cultural, political, and social clarity is how we get so seduced by the 1980s.
We need to let it go. Blind unity at that scale is not coming back unless some global catastrophic event occurs, and let’s not invite that degree of devastation upon ourselves. We can do this. We can live as a world of radically diverse peoples and persons. We don’t need to be defined by a nation or a president or a god or – perhaps least of all – by a celebrity. We can cluster and re-cluster into groups that help us make sense of our identities. And those clusters should least of all be determined by what we reject. Hopefully they can be determined by what we rejoice in, and the energy we can generate through optimistic social mass. We don’t need the simplistic categorization of the 1980s. We don’t need categorization at all! Our political structures are desperate to hold on to the myth that association with a core group automatically aligns all aspects of a self. But you and I and each every other else is more complex than that world view allows for. We need to experience. We need to live. And listen. And converse empathetically. Consolidation of power by a very few depends upon generalized complacency. Hence, the 1980s. But we’re grown up now. And we can do this.
Perhaps my presence gives her mono. She falls asleep whenever I come over. Or narcolepsy? I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure it’s not an excuse, since she keeps calling me over to visit and appears pleased to see me each time I arrive. And she never asks me to leave, as she stretches out on the couch and drifts off, still with that gradual glassy smile on her face. It hasn’t always been like this, though it’s been this way for a while now.
It used to be that I would come over and we’d devise all manner of miniature adventures. We’d paint seascapes with watercolors on the smoke-colored walls. Or move all lamps and lighting instruments into a single room to see how bright we could make it. Once we lit small fires with gum wrappers and whatnot in the fireplace to see if the chimney’s passage really stretched into the sky, or if it had been bricked up. The fireplace itself was just so clean we couldn’t believe it had ever been used. Mostly, though, we would lay on the ground with headphones on, the two cords running through a jury-rigged contraption that let us listen to the same music. Staring up at the ceiling we listened to Thickfreakness, Polly, Tango Habanera, Elenore, Great Indoors, Galileo, the ravings of Antonin Artaud trying desperately and once and for all to have done with the judgment of god. For hours at a time we would slide from track through track to track. Everything temporal and spatial beyond song released us. Storms outside our hearts became irrelevant. We never fell in love. And she never fell asleep.
Now she greets me with a hug, and the remnants of projects unfinished and unstarted both. Cigarette cartons and handicapped dress forms and sheets of butcher paper partially filled with partial figurations. And then she suggests what we might do with green bottles of white glue and circuit boards, as she lifts a stock of discs in my direction so that I can pick out dozens of pieces for tonight’s hodgepodge medley. The music that will arrive much sooner than it does in her mind. I say very little, knowing that soon and quickly she will find repose on the sofa. And as her sentences break up into remote islands of words, my breathing grows deep with resistance to the crack I feel forming beneath my sternum, caving into my stomach at gorgeous exuberance receding.
Silence succeeds sound. I put my headphones on. I put hers on. I rest my head nearby hers and press play. My eyes wide open, hers effortlessly shut, we dream together for the next several hours. Then I begin the long, ragged walk home.
“Go back!” my friend, Nathan, and I used to scream with instantaneous delight, whenever something extra super funny happened while watching a pre-recorded show. “Ahhhhh! Oh my god, go back!” We’d back that bad boy up maybe have a dozen times before our glee was satisfied enough to go forward again.
More and more these days, I find myself engaged in some activity on my iPad while inning after inning of the baseball game unfolds, unwatched, in the background. Only when the commentators’ voices achieve a particular tenor do I look up at the screen. By that point the event is usually in its sunset, and I reach for the remote control to reverse all the little bodies and witness for myself what happened.
We’re so accustomed, in our technology-infused era, to exercising god-like power over time. Sometimes I wonder about the implications of that ability. It may be the difference between someone who drinks Shakespeare’s language as it is spoken, and someone who mentally gropes for the pause button just as Mercutio gets fired up. The difference between the person who looks forward to the next home run, and the one who finds a thrill in reliving the last home run from ten different angles. Puzzling though something by turning page after physical page forward, and puzzling though something by navigating backwards and forward through a strange continuum of web pages.
There is undisputed value in being able to contemplate images, events, and ideas slowly and repetitively. Exceptional knowledge has been borne of intense study into activities that used to arrive and evaporate in a veritable sensory blur. Yet has part of that transaction included a sacrifice of presence? Does each of us tend to be less attentive because we can always seemingly “go back?” And if we are each moving back and forth in our own disconnected presence, what does that mean for communion in time? The moments replayed and replayed and replayed some more by Nathan and I certainly used to bring us together. Yet that collective experience was an experience of only two. And more often than not it was an experience of one. Dominion over time has granted people great power and capacity. Unfortunately, it can be a very lonely reign.
So an egoist who behaves quite selfishly while he is on top of his industry loses his advantage. Just before doing so, he meets a stalker-ish woman, who has aspirations to fame in his field. Their encounter is brief, but it sticks in her head, and he seems inclined towards infidelity should life not change so precipitously. She rises. He falls. They both display ugliness in their respective processes. He becomes increasingly self-absorbed and pitying, until his wife, colleagues, and admirers leave him and he is left alone (except for the dog). She demonstrates a penchant for insensitivity, and for obsession with the man that she had one rare encounter with. He tries to annihilate himself. She grows frantic to save him. Nobody earns any empathy (except for the dog). Then there’s a fancy dance scene to wrap it all up and communicate that these two narcissists are going to prosper despite the age of movie sound. This was Hollywood’s best for 2011?
The one spot that actually contained artistry (other than the dog’s scenes) was the beautiful nightmare sequence, when sound invades Valentin’s silent universe. The selection of sounds to amplify collaborated perfectly with the decision to keep his voice muted. The all too brief moment verged on the surreal and remained haunting. A more interesting movie would have kept along that path. It would have found out what happens as sound comes limping imperfectly, dangerously into the world of a performer who has never had use for it nor knowledge of how to use it to effect. But then we wouldn’t have needed so many tricks from the dog.
Out of the hundreds of books on my shelves, I wonder which ones I’ll ever read again. Over the remainder of my life, will I re-read more pages cumulatively, or travel more miles with these books in boxes? Will I re-read entire books more frequently than I rearrange them in their cases? Damn, they’re so heavy. I have visions of slowly migrating every bound volume in this collection over to a light, mobile e-reader. One by one they will evaporate into weightless bits, and I shall gradually reclaim space in my small home from these leafy bricks. It’s tempting, and yet I’ll never actually do it.
I’m perfectly happy letting my music and movies reside in those remote data centers we affectionately call clouds. As with books, I’m tired of dragging various forms of media and packaging around with me from hovel to hovel. And I don’t want to keep up anymore with the latest devices to play these objects in, or all the components that attach to those objects. I’ve made a deal in which that stuff lives somewhere other than where I live, and I borrow it when I need it. I can’t feel the same about books. And it’s not all that hogwash that people spout when they say they need the tactility of the pages; when they talk about needing to hold this thing open in front of them. Do these people also miss washboards and shoeing their horses? No, the material object is immaterial. My reluctance to disappearing my books – and I grant how suspicious this sounds – is that I don’t want to be left without them if for whatever reason…under whatever circumstance…the invisible cord that connects me to the place where all knowledge resides is ever snipped. I don’t want to accidentally lose the ability to access them, and I certainly don’t want them intentionally taken hostage.
So the next time I move, my biceps will get another rare workout and my back will end up sore from improperly lifting dozens of boxes of thousands of pages. But at least I’ll be comforted knowing I can go back to them whenever I want, even if I never do.
Something is vibrating deep within these walls. I thought it was the window panes for a while. But it’s deeper than that. I hear it downstairs. Maybe it’s in the floor. Or a floor, between the two levels. I can’t quite locate it in a way that I can say what it is that’s vibrating. But it most definitely has to do with the water pipes. Pipes run all over through these old buildings, having been installed and re-installed, and routed and re-routed according to changing needs over decades. Every structural adjustment invites the possibility of degrading stability. Attachments fail, conduits angle, and air is introduced where only water should be. Crooked and imperfect pipes are rumbling deep within these walls. Or perhaps it’s a fan with a shaky blade, spinning around unattended in an adjoining living space. I think the neighbors have a washing machine. It could be the spin cycle that I’m hearing. Especially if they have a great heap of laundry that needs doing. It also sounds like a faint version of the automated garage door we had when I was young, opening each night as my mother returned from work. Garage doors line the lower floors of this building, and people are coming in and out all the time.
Whatever it is…wherever it is…it’s starting to drive me to distraction. I tried to watch a movie tonight, hoping that my hearing and attention would be absorbed by something else. I turned the television volume all the way up, and still I could hear that soft whirring. The neighbors pounded on the door, and when I finally heard them rapping and opened up they kindly asked me to turn down the sound. I said of course. I’m sorry for the trouble. I asked them, since they were already over, if they could come inside and listen with me. They did so, but denied hearing anything. I don’t know if they were being honest or just wanted to escape the awkward situation. They didn’t really stand still enough to hear it, like I asked them to. And one frumpy woman kept breathing, which makes the gentle jack-hammering impossible to hear. But I need someone else to hear it. It’s a light bass-ey sound. Like a muted helicopter rotor. Somewhere in the core of this building it shivers, conducted by these beams and boards, through the air and into my ear. I need to try and sleep for a while now. Tomorrow I’ll call over some friends and see if they can come over and listen.
Today I applied for a job as a cheesemaker’s assistant in the making of artisan goat cheeses. I was very up front in my cover letter that nothing in my previous work experience has prepared me for this type of position. However, along with my generally high competencies, I highlighted aspects of my enthusiasm for cheese. For example, my favorite dessert these days is a selection of three cheeses complemented by fruit and nuts. I own a book about cheese (I do still need to read it, but I have stared it). I directed a play about an old man who loves cheese so much that he neglects his family. I would rather make cheese for a living over the much more popular making of wine. I even talk frequently these days about starting a cheesemaking operation. This work is probably in my blood, since my mother grew up on a Wisconsin dairy farm. Finally, I get along well with farm animals, and especially with goats.
Still and all, I don’t have direct experience making cheese. For a while after learning about the opening, I tried set it aside and out of my head as a completely impractical option. The paper with the job description sat on my desk waiting to be recycled. But the possibility kept tempting me, especially in light of all my recent talk about making cheese and starting a cheese farm. And then, just before I pulled up a blank document and composed my cover letter, a realization struck me: life decisions motivated primarily by pragmatism have rarely made me happy. The most fulfilling consequences have resulted from impulse and instinct. Here are some things in life that I would never have attempted if practicality had dictated the terms:
- starting a theatre company
- going to graduate school
- reading self-composed poetry to a girl outside her window
- getting on stage
- dating my amazing girlfriend
- traveling through Australia in a beat-up van
- meeting one of my best friends
These are just the major ones. There are dozens of beautifully quixotic minor actions for each one listed here. Most of them proved that reward is worth the risk many times over. All furnished invaluable experience at the very least; memories that stick in your bones rather than money that hides in your pocketbook. And yet remembering to let bliss move us is difficult with each new and unfamiliar scenario. I’m pleased that I applied to be a cheesemaker’s helper today. Hopefully I’ll be working with the goats soon.
A train screams out there somewhere, through the single-pane window. A tree seems to threaten the south side of the building. It effortlessly towers above a stucco and tile structure that required extensive effort when it was built in 1928 (some argue 1930). It’s 10:00pm and still not entirely dark yet. It will be, and in the morning, just about seven hours from now, it will be light in this curtain-less room. I taste dust. The ceiling is shedding its gradual revenge, covering its tracks by planting powdery seeds of respiratory destruction that will inflame the heaving hovel much later, when this night has been erased from memory.