Humanity

Dear Data: the Surprising Artistry of Personal Data

The MoMA recently acquired the exhibition Dear Data, a joint collaboration between Stefanie Posavec and Giorgia Lupi. Stefanie describes herself as “an artist whose medium is data.” For 52 weeks, the two artists collected data on the intimate interactions of daily life. They initiated and sought to learn about each other via the medium of self-collected and self-reported data. Each artist would provide a visualization and a key, before shipping off little parcels of data across the Atlantic. The pair explored topics ranging from the number of times they looked at the clock, to the number of physical interactions, the number of apologies in a week, and the number of thank-yous — an entire friendship communicated through data.

Part of the beauty of the Dear Data project is its intentionality. Data acquisition on “human behaviour” is most often a byproduct — information collected passively to track where we spend our money, what ads we click, what we read online, what phone calls we make, emails we send, messages we read. And yet, there is an entire sphere where data has not yet encroached. There are (as of yet) no apps to track our indecision, the number of animals on a neighborhood stroll, our moments of impatience, or the number of times we laugh. Dear Data strives to capture the beauty of these daily rhythms through the unlikely medium of data.

Stefanie and Giorgia refer to the project as “Little data” in contrast to the omnipresent “big data.” The pervasiveness of datafication is inescapable. What we eat is tracked at the grocery store, school attendance and grades are stored online, even our spontaneous late night purchases of several years ago are likely whirring away on a corporate database.

And yet, the mistake of the big data revolution is the tendency to equate new data with new information, and a still further leap to imply that collecting data translates to meaning. We don’t learn new things about ourselves from the apps. We know what we buy, but human motivation remains obscured. Attendance records may be tallied, but databases miss the underlying reason such as illness or family dynamics. Furthermore, often the meaningful relationships in our lives are predicted by the absence of data. Facebook can tell when people are suddenly in a relationship, because the profile picture views drop to zero, the flirty comments are no more. The data encodes this as an abrupt phase transition: from the pixelated world into the territory of flesh and blood.

By paying attention to the little bits of information we don’t often collect information on, Stefanie and Giorgia challenge the status quo of data. Rather than collecting data purely as a byproduct of oft-commercialized endeavors, they exercise agency to collect the data for the story they want to tell from the get go. Cathy O’Neil, resident authority on data science, says that visualization is telling the story of “how the data came to be.” In contrast, Stefanie and Giorgia decide what story they want to tell—what aspect of their lives they want to pay particular attention to in a week—and then they tell it with data. In that sense, the project is deeply counter-cultural. So often, data collection is entirely passive, and the resulting data package is packaged and repackaged and sold around the internet to the highest bidder. It is sold in order to sell you things. Dear Data stands as an example of taking active control of the stories our data tells about us. It hopes to engage the full human and narrative potential of big data rather than taking an apocalyptic luddite stance.

dear data b dear data a

The project sits in an uncomfortable space between communities of statisticians, graphic designers, and data scientists. Is the project art? Data? Does it matter? Work at the boundaries of disciplines like this often feels a bit homeless. Unlike data journalists and graphic designers, Stephanie doesn’t code much. Her data is collected by hand, typed into phones. Data visualization respects certain protocols for the most efficient types of visualization. Stefanie and Giorgia break those distinctions, bending axes, using color, size, shape in ways that challenge the viewers.

dear data horizontal

Much data visualization has a purely pragmatic angle. People look to charts when they want information about the effect on a bottom line, or when they want to represent numbers that have some sense of authority. Visualization aims to cultivate efficiency, whereas the artistry of Dear Data engenders awareness. Stefanie remarked that the year-long process of visualizing personal data heightened her attention to the topic of the week. On the week of cataloguing complaints, she sought to complain less, on the week of laughter, she would deliberately seek out occasions to laugh.

The project hypothesizes that counting may be a form of awareness. As a statistician, I live by a quote from Einstein, “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.” Dear Data reminds us that but when we stop to count the things that matter, when we truly pay attention, we can create beauty and meaning, whatever our medium.

 

Object Lessons: Landscape after the “Material Turn”

This essay originally appeared in SEEN Journal (XV.1) – Landscape, a publication by Christians in the Visual Arts.

In the film Paterson, Jim Jarmusch’s beautiful new homage to the humble habits required of art, we see the protagonist, a poet and bus driver, at work throughout his days. His work is concerned with looking at things—a glass of beer, a watch, a box of matches—and being influenced by them. The film will be a revelation to some, and a beautiful portrait of a foundational truth to others—the truth that especially in art, objects exist in the world not to be acted upon, but to act on us. Artists of all kinds often count things—whether born of human hands, machine processes, or of the planet’s volcanic, biological heart—as oriented to at least the possibility, if not the preordained destiny, of incarnate life. They live their days bearing in mind a continuum between the painter’s pocket full of objects rescued from trash and trail, her head full of verse about sensate matter, her holy books underlined at mentions of talking animals and singing stones, her studio expectant for the rush of divine wind and silence. Artists also count themselves somewhat out-of-step with modernity in this regard, expecting enchantment where they imagine others to have accepted disenchantment.

If as an artist or art patron, you recognize yourself in this picture, it may then come as a surprise to find that the conference halls, edited volumes, and curatorial mandates of art academe today are awash with concern for the agency—the sentience, the will, the intentions, even the memory—of inanimate things. Under such banners as “thing theory,” “speculative realism,” “object-oriented ontology,” or “the non-human turn,” the arts and humanities are rife with new speculation about the lives of things in the world. If you want to make a case for not only the worth, but the distinctive identity and emotional, political power of individual paintings, kittens, copper veins, microbes, pencils, or postage stamps, you’ll have a robust array of critical platforms at your disposal. This “material turn” eschews universalities, instrumentalism, and reductionism—no object, thing, or creature should be identified solely for a quality it embodies, an end it serves, or a concept it illustrates. Things have their own lives. A spoon “knows” the sugar it scoops. The copper knows its way back to the earth, through mining, extraction, formation into circuits, melting in the hands of children doing cheap (and toxic) e-waste labor, disposal.

One of the richest examples of this approach in my recent memory was the central component of dOCUMENTA (13), the 2012 installment of Kassel, Germany’s massive art festival. In the exhibit referred to by the curators as The Brain, a large but not innumerable amount of objects lay on display across the walls, floor, and display cases of a close, semi-circular room. We see traditional, if relatively recent, fired pottery in distinctive symmetrical shapes and rich glazes. There are also two bricks bearing old adhesive marks where, we are told, antennae were once attached to render the clay forms as (contraband) portable radios under a communist Czech government.

Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s The Brain, Photo: Fabian Fröhlich.

Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s The Brain, Photo: Fabian Fröhlich.

On the floor we see a pair of large rocks, nearly identical in color, shape, and size. The wall placard describes one as from a quarry, the other from a river—an extremely unlikely set of twins? On another wall, a grid of digital reprints of Lee Miller photos, probably from one or two rolls shot on the same day in 1945, when the photographer-journalist accompanied U.S. forces in to liberate Munich. Miller poses taking a bath in the bathtub of Hitler’s Munich apartment; the small carved female nude statuette behind her in the photograph is behind us in a display case, as is the more famous statue which Miller herself mimics in the image. Nearby, we see an image of human remains in an oven from Dachau, likely shot on the same day as Miller’s performance in Hitler’s apartment. Down the way, we see displayed the issue of LIFE magazine where Miller’s bathtub scene was eventually published.

Elsewhere in this same room, we see a case of vases and bottles from the collection of the late Italian painter Giorgio Morandi. Their forms recall the ceramic vessels nearby, and then literally recur in some Morandi paintings elsewhere in the room. We also see a grouping of metronomes from Man Ray’s collection, each bearing a photograph of an eye fastened to the top of the pendulum. This is Lee Miller’s eye, we learn. Their relationship apparently did not end well, and thus her appearance in this sculpture, entitled How to destroy something you love. As the original work, according to the surrealist’s instructions, involved smashing the metronome-assemblage with a hammer, what we actually see in the case is a collection of different un-smashed versions of the piece, each created for different exhibitions, and each with a different version of Miller’s eye.

Indestructible Object Man Ray, 1923

Indestructible Object, Man Ray, 1923

In this exhibit, each object arrives with some import, while new meanings emerge through dialogues between the objects. Like wayfinding signs, each object points to others within the room, and even to spaces outside, yet also sits firmly within some sequence of other objects. The viewer sees connections between objects she might not have imagined before, and every object sits at the intersection of multiple trajectories of meaning, but the possible valences and stories of each object are also not infinite. Their particular shapes, forms, and histories form the conditions of their possible dialogue with other objects.

If a quest for seeing the world from something other than human-centered perspectives lies at the heart of this material turn, landscape as subject becomes a particularly poignant place for such explorations—if in some unexpected ways. Where others would have us see modernity as having successfully achieved a disembodied, atom-less ideal, the task of the landscape artist or designer—in light of the material turn—is to reveal the matter such narratives hide. Many of the most fluid or even abusive habitations of land today hide the human hand in the interest of exploitation that appears as natural as geology. Much as in the whole notion of the anthropocene, a newly popular term for describing our present geologic era as one where humanity is the most significant geologic force, art that sets out to critique anthropocentricism often spends a lot of time putting humans back in the spotlight, revealing their work to be as material as any other.

Twenty-first-century landscape photography is one of the easiest places to see this approach. Edward Burtynsky may be the most well-known of this ilk, but one might also look to Jessica Auer, Jennifer Ray, or Chad Ress to see white settlement anew. Christian Houge’s photographs of the Global Seedvault installation in arctic Norway similarly reveal the alien nature of humans in a landscape, while also inviting speculation about the relative timescales of seeds and concrete architecture.

Another whole conversation in art and design today takes on the old role of the explorer to discover the physical bases of our most immaterial experiences. Nicole Starosielski and Erik Loyer’s online interactive project Surfacing allows one to trace the undersea cables responsible for the globe’s data traffic, with special attention to where they leave water for land. Similarly, Ingrid Burrington’s Networks of New York: An Internet Infrastructure Field Guide offers an alternative tour of Manhattan with attention to the material bases of security and finance hidden in plain sight. In Phantom Terrains, Daniel Jones and Frank Swain offer new hearing aids that let you listen to the wireless data waveforms that envelop any walk through a city. Timo Arnall and John Gerrard track down and photograph the architecture of the internet and its data centers in their respective projects; Trevor Paglen, most famous lately for his film contributions to the Snowden documentary CitizenFour, does the same for security and intelligence operations. The Center for Land Use Interpretation, a decades-old collective working across North America, documents under-recognized infrastructure and catalogs it for review and reflection.

Still others focus on how objects “see” the land. Among these, James Bridle is probably most well-known for his popular website capturing what he called “The New Aesthetic.” There, Bridle collected scores of examples of images captured by Google Street View cameras, satellites, drones, and cell phones, with special attention to glitches and mistakes that revealed the limitations of these algorithmic lenses. Not long after, Geoff Manaugh, founder of BLDGBLOG, a wellspring of infrastructural aesthetics, curated the exhibition Landscape Futures for the Nevada Museum of Art. This exhibition and accompanying catalog is a compendium of new ways of seeing and sensing land, such as those of Shin Egashira and David Greene, who in 1998 enacted a series of handmade land-measurement tools on the island of Portland that left wind speed, land-slope, and other qualities as indelible marks on the island’s own rocks.

Mason White and Lola Sheppard, Lateral Office & Intranet Lab, The Active Layer & Next North, Landscape Futures exhibition, 2011, Reno, NV. Courtesy of the Nevada Museum of Art

Mason White and Lola Sheppard, Lateral Office & Intranet Lab, The Active Layer & Next North, Landscape Futures exhibition, 2011, Reno, NV. Courtesy of the Nevada Museum of Art

Lastly, I would be remiss if I did not mention the growing genre of works that seek to help us see landscapes from the perspectives of the living non-human. For well over a decade, Sam Easterson has been mounting cameras on creatures to generate a library of perspectival video.  The late Beatriz da Costa’s artwork included a network of augmented pigeons providing real-time data on city air quality. And Chris Woebken’s collaboration with Kenichi Okada, Animal Superpowers, provides real-time helmets and goggles to let one see like an ant, a giraffe, or a dog.

This scattering of works in no way represents an aesthetic movement in the old avant-garde sense, but they do reflect a variety of attempts to grasp our experience of land through a new appreciation of objects, things, and creatures that bring their own memories, wills, and paths apart from human intervention—for better and for worse. As such many of these projects do end up wrestling with the moral implications of objects whose influence and desire is as conflicted as our own. Indeed, one of the challenges of the material turn, and in particular the philosophical subset of the conversation around “object oriented ontology,” is how to grant more agency to the non-human while also accounting for strategically hidden struggles over conflicting values we typically associate with the human. Might a new attention to objects stand to mask or obscure the processes by which many creatures, human or not, lose their freedom through deliberate enslavement?

Here, the work of theologian Oliver O’Donovan lends some help.

Much of the material turn involves a critique of classification-based approaches to things, which attempt to reduce objects to their kind, in a way that makes them substitutable, and also exploitable without conscience. As a “kind of bird,” or even a “kind of meat,” the poultry industry chicken is unremarkable, and easily dispatched with, whereas the family chicken, raised in the yard, offers the opportunity of a distinct relationship based on its particularities of life with its human and animal families.

In Resurrection and Moral Order, O’Donovan describes a world in which some things exist as subordinate to other things, but in which no human or non-human takes its definition from such subordinations. Instead, all things take their definition from their relationship to a creator. If the dream of many a scholar of the material turn is a dashing of the old Enlightenment hierarchies of being to create a wholly flat world, O’Donovan still sees hierarchy, but one in service of realizing each object’s full being—and in the midst of conflict. He writes:

In morality it is more the rule than the exception that particulars belong to more than one unconnected kind, and are ordered in several different sets of likenesses at once. This is what gives good moral thinking it’s often acknowledged “open-textured” quality; we never know in advance what combinations of generic features may be displayed by any situation on which we will deliberate or reflect. It provides the stuff of cliff-hanging moral dilemmas: the attitude which looks like compassion from one point of view looks like disloyalty from another; the action which most expresses justice also suggests a contempt for human life.

No landscape is simply a “kind” of landscape, borrowing significance from abstract ideals, but brings its spiritual significance through conversation with those who inhabit it. This may be old hat to those who still look for and live with enchantment, but in light of modernity’s tendency to polemicize technology and morality, slowness and speed, and our clear failures to steward the planet within these frames, certainly some new approaches to knowledge, organization, and being are in order.

Meditation and Contemplation

Luke Hankins is a poet, editor, and founder of Orison Books, a publishing company committed to supporting voices at the growing edges of spirituality and literature. In his first poetry collection Weak Devotions (Wipf and Stock, 2011), Luke explores the religious context of his childhood, one marked by violence, fundamentalism, mental anguish, and a pure desire to encounter God in the midst of it. With years of experience as an editor at Asheville Poetry Review Luke has written extensive poetry criticism, essays on aesthetics, and more—all in the service of his search for spiritual art and literature. As he writes in the mission statement of Orison, “the best spiritual art and literature call us to meditate and contemplate, rather than asking us to adopt any ideology or set of propositions,” and Luke’s edited anthology Poems of Devotion brings together emerging voices calling us toward that meditation he describes. He graciously allowed us to republish a few of his poems—and to present a new one for the first time (“The Right Way”)—and we discussed devotional poetry, faith and violence, and the struggle to find a language to express our spiritual longing.

from “Weak Devotions”

Why do You leave
some recess of my mind,
my heart, unlorded?
Leave nothing behind
that will linger in shit
and wallow and grind
itself in filthy defiance,
in masochistic, blind
groping after further
blasphemies. Furnace, kind
Lord, the furthest reaches
of me—make me refined.
Make me new. Take me to You.
Why have You assigned
this torture to me,
this desperate mind
that thinks inevitably
what it fears to think? Be kind
and do not let me be.
Need I remind
You, Lord, that You lay claim
to even the blindness of the purblind
worm—not only its righteous
wriggling? Be kind and be, kind
Lord, what You rightly are.
Rule what—whatsoever—you find.
Rein me in and reign in me.
There is freedom only when You bind.
Take me wholly, holy God.
Wholly, Holy. Mind my mind.

*Reprinted from Weak Devotions (Wipf & Stock, 2011).

Curator: More than a poet, you also edit work, curate anthologies, and run Orison Books, a press you founded. Online, we’re often trained to build our own platforms and focus on our own writing, so why work so intentionally with others? How did Orison come about?

Luke: I’ve been an editor almost as long as I’ve been a writer. In college, I worked at the campus literary magazine; in graduate school, I worked at Indiana Review; I’ve worked at Asheville Poetry Review, a national literary journal based in my current hometown, for ten years. I’ve always loved championing and publishing work that I’m enthusiastic about, and also working with authors to strengthen their work. Orison Books is a natural extension of those passions.

As valuable as periodical editing is, let’s be honest—the audience is miniscule. Books, however, are a little different. There’s at least a possibility that a book will gain a lot of attention and find a place on many bookshelves, to be treasured and returned to year after year. For whatever reason, we don’t treat literary magazines the same way. They feel more ephemeral and I think we treat them as such. Very seldom do people keep past issues of literary magazines on their shelves—unless their own work appears in them. Our cultural relationship to single-author books is different, more long-term.

Curator: You begin Poems of Devotion, an anthology of modern devotional poetry, making a careful distinction between devotional poetry directed toward God and poems about devotional experiences. Why is this distinction important for the reader to understand?

Luke: My aim in the introduction, and in the contents of the anthology, was to demonstrate not a genre so much as a mode of composition. The devotional mode, in my mind, is experiential on the writer’s part, a dynamic and uncertain process in relation to the divine—or at least the idea of the divine. This kind of poem enacts devotion through its very making, rather than simply recounting a past experience or pre-conceived notion.

And I want to be clear that when I speak of devotion, I decidedly do not mean simplistic expression of faith and certainty—that hogwash that passes for “inspirational” verse. To me, that’s not even devotion, because it doesn’t do justice to the human relationship to the divine. Real devotion is full of doubt, curiosity, wonder, confusion, anger, playfulness, fear, awe—all of those real human responses to the ineffable, transcendent, immanent sublimity of God.

Curator: I imagine the process of anthologizing devotional poetry exposed you to the best and worst of the genre. I wonder if you could reflect on the state of the devotional poem today? What’s happening in this genre that needs to change? What excites you about today’s devotional poetry?

Luke: I’ve just mentioned the hogwash that passes for inspirational verse. I think that’s all I need to say about that. There’s also the kind of poetry that seeks to convince the reader that the poet has all the answers or to proselytize—which I think is the opposite of devotional poetry because it doesn’t exist in relationship to mystery, but rather relies on false certainty.

But I think the state of real devotional poetry today is very exciting indeed. I’ve seen so much compelling recent work that embodies brave spiritual searching from poets and musicians like Christian Wiman, Jane Hirshfield, Leonard Cohen (ave atque vale), Yehoshua November, Kimberly Johnson, Vandana Khanna, Franz Wright (requiescat in pace), Bruce Beasley, Alicia Ostriker, Kaveh Akbar, Leila Chatti, and many, many others. I also want to single out the poems Brett Foster was writing at the end of his all-too-short life.

I hope that Poems of Devotion provides an important historical overview of recent decades, and that the annual Orison Anthology that Orison Books has initiated—we released the first volume last year—will help provide an ongoing record of today’s best spiritual writing.

Curator: Your recently published poem “Equal and Opposite” reflects on the weakness of language to express spiritual experience, and it reminded me of Rowan Williams, who said, “Language behaves as if it were always ‘in the wake’ of meaning rather than owning or controlling it.” In a way, you’re asking to be carried upstream to an experience of being that language cannot contain. How has poetry helped to carry you there?

Luke: I imagine that no one feels viscerally both the possibilities and limitations of a medium until they’ve worked with it for a long time. The longer I write poems, the more I feel the tension between the wild potential of words and their ultimate insufficiency. I think poets are fascinated with language for both reasons—its potential and its limitations—as I’m sure painters are with canvas and paint and musicians are with sounds.

One of the things that writing poetry does, over time, is cause you to attend more closely to the ways language informs, shapes, and even limits your experience. That’s what I’m wrestling with in the poem you mention. For better and for worse, humans are linguistic creatures, and we inhabit language constantly. Physical experience is always accompanied by and mediated through internal language.

I don’t have much more to say about this than what the poem itself says, nor do I think I’m able to say it any better than in that attempt.

Curator: It seems our public life has a fraught relationship with language right now. We’re reeling from political rhetoric and the constant bombardment of information online, and this atmosphere makes it difficult to speak and think clearly. The way we use words seems to be part of the problem, what can we do to restore our language and how can poetry and literature help?

Luke: I probably differ from most writers in this, but I don’t believe that language needs any restoration. Language itself is not ill—how could it be? Language, like any cultural product, is not inherently good or bad, right or wrong, healthy or sick. Language exists as a constantly evolving medium, a tool for us to use. What matters is the way we use it.

What you’ve called our “relationship with language,” however, may well be unhealthy. This is nowhere more evident than in our current politics, as you rightly point out. Donald Trump and his laughable excuse for a White House team continually use language to distort reality and to lie. Kellyanne Conway’s oxymoronic phrase “alternative facts” exemplifies this insane administration’s relationship to reality. The people in the most powerful positions in our country right now are deeply ill, spiritually, psychologically, ideologically. Their relationship to language is constant evidence of this.

While it’s vital that poetry continue to use language to illuminate reality and the human experience rather than distort it, its ability to effect political change in the moment is very limited. The audience for poetry in our country is a very small percentage of the population, and one that tends to already be politically progressive—poetry mostly operates in an echo chamber. We shouldn’t minimize the importance of shoring one another up through dark times, nor the potential for poetry to outlive us and benefit future generations, but we should also be honest with ourselves about the limitations of our literary work. We ought never give up our art, but we need to combine it with tangible political action as well.

Curator: The cycle of poems in the first section of your book Weak Devotions is an unflinching examination of violence. You write about writhing cottonmouths, barbed wire, a boy shooting another boy with a pellet gun, etc. The violence circles closer and implicates your own body where you’re in the earth digging a grave, your hands are soaked in blood. At one point you’re even covered in piss. These moments seem to operate in you as existential shock, a forceful clearing away of the mind’s debris in response to bodily suffering. How do you understand the violence that has happened in your life? How have you used it, and how has it shaped your understanding of religion?

Luke: Andrew Hudgins, in what I think is one of the finest religious poems of recent decades, writes about Christ in response to an artwork by Andres Serrano:

He peed, ejaculated, shat, wept, bled—
bled under Pontius Pilate, and I assume
the mutilated god, the criminal,
humiliated god, voided himself
on the cross, and blood and urine smeared his legs—
the Piss Christ thrown in glowing blood, the whole
and irreducible point of his descent:
God plunged in human waste, and radiant.

We have grown used to beauty without horror.

We have grown used to useless beauty.

(“Piss Christ,” from American Rendering: New & Selected Poems)

The idea that beauty without horror is of no use is a fascinating one. While I don’t believe that suffering in and of itself is a good, I do believe that we find God incarnate there every bit as much as we do in pleasureful experience. Beautiful art that doesn’t do justice to the suffering that is inherent in being human doesn’t serve art’s highest purpose.

I’m reminded also of a beautiful passage from one of Orison Books’ recent titles, Two Worlds Exist by Yehoshua November, in which the poet references mystical Chassidic teaching:

Two worlds exist:
The higher hidden one
and our earthly realm.
Everything that occurs in this life
flows down from the hidden world.
That which appears good
descends through an infinite series of contractions
until it fits within the finite vessels of this world.
That which appears tragic
slides down, unmitigated,
from the hidden realm—
a higher, unlimited good
this world cannot hold.
So the mystics explain suffering
if all comes from above,
from where no evil descends.

The poem concludes:

When I was younger,
I believed the mystical teachings
could erase sorrow. The mystical teachings
do not erase sorrow.
They say, here is your life.
What will you do with it?

So, while violence and suffering are not beautiful in and of themselves, I try in my work to find meaning in them, to see how they might teach me something about what beauty really means, by being informed by its opposite. In that way, maybe we can do something useful with our pain.

Curator: Violence can also be internal, and you’ve also explored the theme of mental anguish in your work. In section X of “Weak Devotions,” you say, “Do not leave me / feral and alone—yank / my heart that it may come heeling / and creaturely before You.” It’s a prayer asking for divine violence, and it echoes other devotional poems like Donne’s infamous “Batter my heart, three-person’d God.” These poems fit squarely in the tradition of “dying to self,” but what’s the difference between the death of self and self-harm?

Luke: I can’t pretend to know where the line between self-abnegation and self-destruction lies. It’s likely different for each person. Some of the spiritual thinkers I most admire—Simone Weil, Franz Wright, David Bazan—often seem to me to cross this so-called line. I love their work despite its extremity—well, also because of its extremity, if I’m honest. It’s something like what I’m talking about in the poem “The Right Way” when I say “I think / you’re wrong, but wrong in the right way.” The farther away I move from my fundamentalist upbringing, the more I find myself interested in ideas I technically disagree with, such as Weil’s insistence on the “destruction of the ‘I’” rather than simply its abnegation, such as when she speaks of “decreation” and “self-effacement”: “The self,” she writes, “is only the shadow which sin and error cast by stopping the light of God,” and “Even if we could be like God, it would be better to be the mud which obeys God.” I pity Weil. She’s all Romans 9 and no Sermon on the Mount. But I also admire the dark beauty of what she’s written, even where I think she’s mistaken.

About the self-destructive strands in my own poetry, I’d like to say that they’re the record of particular times in my life, and are not indicative of my day-to-day outlook. I recall that T. S. Eliot once said something beautiful and insightful about his early work when asked, late in life, whether he would change anything about his early work. He said, essentially, that he didn’t feel that he was enough the same person as to have the right to change anything about his early work. My collection Weak Devotions was published in 2011, so even the most recent of those poems are seven or eight years old—and many are much older. So, while I wouldn’t change much about them and I remain proud of them, they’re not the poems I’m writing today.    

Curator: In an introduction to a poet published by Orison, you say, “this is the highest and most essential function of art and literature: not to provide the so-called answers that ideology attempts to, but to delve fully into the unknown, to accept it, to bravely meet it. And by doing so, to convince those who encounter one’s art that they are not alone, but that there is that type of invincible human solidarity that Joseph Conrad so eloquently describes.” That distinction between ideology and literature is fascinating to me. I’m often more moved by Denise Levertov’s poetry or Frederick Buechner’s Godric than creeds, and it’s been cause for confusion for me. How do religious communities begin to support this kind of brave meeting?

Luke: Art is experiential. Creeds are propositional. Experience carries authority because it isn’t conclusive, but rather full of mystery. And if we believe—or at least suspect—that God is immanent in the actual world we live in, then we encounter Her through experience.

Creeds lose their authority because they seek to claim too much of it, without doing justice to experience. Religious-minded folks often make idols of creeds, all the while looking askance at art out of fear of idolatry. Dear God, the irony.

Curator: The poet Franz Wright said, “You gave me / in secret one thing / to perceive, the / tall blue starry / strangeness of being / here at all.” Your own work as both poet and editor searches for this enlarging of perception. Any last advice for our readers hoping to do the same?

Luke: The strangeness of being—the mystery—is all.

A Shape with Forty Wings

Love is strange and calls me to stranger things.
When I was young I thought that I’d know why.
I’ve drawn my life—a shape with forty wings.

The woods at night are full of awesome beings.
Listen carefully and you can hear them cry:
Love is strange and calls us to stranger things.

I want to follow everything that sings,
but I cannot tell you how afraid I am to fly.
I’ve drawn my life—a shape with forty wings.

The unseen Being deep inside me brings
ideas to mind I hope I’ll never try—
Love is strange and calls me to stranger things.

Possibilities surround me in concentric rings.
A light shines down that I cannot see by,
yet I’ve drawn my life—a shape with forty wings.

I walk about as if I understood my wanderings.
If You are near, show me how to die.
Love is strange and calls me to stranger things.
I’ve drawn my life—a shape with forty wings.

*Reprinted from Weak Devotions (Wipf & Stock, 2011).

The Right Way

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in a letter from prison,
The transcendence of epistemological theory
has nothing to do with the transcendence of God.
Which, given, is an epistemological theory all its own . . .
But the sentiment is right. It feels right to say that sentence.
And so I say it over and over, and I write it again and again.
He also says that God’s “beyond” is not the beyond
of our cognitive faculties. Hmm. I can’t
technically agree with either statement,
as they seem to arise out of the very processes
they’re attempting to discount. It involves a logical fallacy
for which I’m sure logicians have a name.
But I do say yes to these statements.
I do memorize and repeat them.
Dear Bonhoeffer, I don’t agree, but I feel you, man.
It’s strange—I could almost be talking to myself.
Heaven nowhere more possible than in the depths of hell,
I write. God as reason beyond reason.
Dear Me, I feel you, man. I think
you’re wrong, but wrong in the right way.

 

Equal and Opposite

Looking at the sky, the word sky
comes to mind. The word has a referent—
the sky itself—but the sky itself
has no referent. To live in language
is to anticipate metaphor,
but in this moment I sense the void
upon which, all these years, I have built
my house of words.
Only come with me
to the precipice where I peer in terror,
I pray, grasping at words
that offer no resistance
like feathers snatched from the air,
like ropes not tied to anything.
I plunge through the world
that is no language
praying (in my language)
to the absent Referent,
the force equal and opposite
to the void, the grip that can
(I pray) suspend my fall
so that I might hang
in what the sky means.

 

*Originally published in St. Katherine Review and also appeared in The Poet’s Quest for God (Eyewear Publishing, UK, 2016).

American Painting in the 1930s: The Age of Anxiety

On view at: The Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris until January 30th 2017, then Royal Academy of the Arts, London February 25th – June 4th 2017

Well, hasn’t any writing about American politics since the election been like driving a new car off the lot. The moment it hits the pavement it’s out of date. Any attempts to think about American art right now are caught up in the same roiling boil—either it’s directly political and therefore a ticking bomb, or so aggressively apolitical it’s irrelevant at best or insulting at worst. Did the curators know that this exhibit of American art from the 1930s would be so aggravatingly timely? Or were they more focused on taking Grant Wood’s American Gothic out of the USA for the first time in its life?

Oil on Beaver Board, 30.71 in x 25.71 in., 1930 Current location: Art Institute of Chicago

American Gothic, Oil on Beaver Board, 30.71 in x 25.71 in., 1930 Current location: Art Institute of Chicago

It’s the former, not the latter. In thinking about this piece I’ve had to confront a basic assumption I’ve always made about the government: while it might not be actively supporting me, for the most part it hasn’t been actively sabotaging me. I came to adulthood in the 90s, when the Clinton administration was dancing a fine line between trickle-down Reaganomics and a gradual expansion of equal rights to include people outside the heterosexual/cisgender/married-homeowner-2.2 child spectrum. I have enough privilege that I’ve been able to assume that an umbrella of protection has also covered me. In the last month or so I feel like I’m on a beach in a hurricane.

So, since right now we have to adjust our assumptions about how the world is ordered and who is on our side, art is –hopefully– a safe place for that. And as America roils and boils around us we need to think hard about a lot of the assumptions we’ve taken for granted about our world.

The subtitle of the exhibit is “the age of anxiety” but I wonder if a better meaning might be “the age of alienation.” The paintings in the exhibit show people who have been separated from things which many others took for granted: well-paid, reliable work; a rooted place in which to live; a life based on a routine of the seasons (or the body) instead of that of the machine or the clock; the ability to feel safe within your own body. The paintings are specifically gathered from the 1930s to show the spectrum of “protest art” that was made in those years; the final room also shows Hollywood movies that deal with poverty, such as Grapes of Wrath. There is also the blackface dance sequence of Fred Astaire’s that Zadie Smith used as a centerpiece of her new novel, Swing Time. So the exhibit is certainly tapping into a deep vein of the zeitgeist.

The best of these paintings manage to balance social realism with timeless feelings – so looking at New York Movie (1939) by Edward Hopper enables you to admire the usherette’s shoes whilst also understand just how bored and lonely she really was. American Gothic, unarguably a masterpiece, opens the exhibit. The attention it pays its subjects hasn’t weakened and its impact hasn’t diminished. On the reverse of the wall is Alice Neel’s portrait of Communist activist Pat Whalen, which isn’t as technically good a painting, but you can feel the fury with which she put the paint on the canvas. And hanging these works together is a clear statement of equation and provocation.

Double Portrait of the Artist in Time, Helen Lundeberg, oil on fiberboard, 1935, Chicago, Illinois, 1908 47 3/4 x 40 in. Smithsonian American Art Museum

Double Portrait of the Artist in Time
Helen Lundeberg, oil on fiberboard, 1935, Chicago, Illinois, 1908
47 3/4 x 40 in.
Smithsonian American Art Museum

The rest of the exhibit is broken up into five sections, essentially the country, the city, the past, the present and the future (which is two paintings, the only Jackson Pollock and another, minor, Hopper). None of the four main sections are handled stereotypically. Country landscapes are a potent metaphor for the exploitation of the natural resources; city streetscapes are a crowded, hedonistic search for pleasure with mixed success. The past is a mixed bag of American history, some with a heavy influence of Soviet workers-right propaganda and others with more sarcastic Americana nostalgia.

The section about the “present,” entitled Nightmares and Reality, is the strongest. It is here the artists put their darkest thoughts to canvas. Joe Jones’ American Justice foregrounds a recently violated black woman in front of KKK members standing around by a house on fire and nooses swinging from the trees. Since 1933 this painting has lost none of its power to shock, nor, sadly, any of its relevance. My favorites in the section were the self-portraits, such as Helen Lundeberg’s surrealistic and desperately sad Double Portrait of the Artist in Time, and Walt Kuhn’s Portrait of the Artist as a Clown, which is not much more cheery. It is interesting to see, at least in this exhibition, how even in the 1930s white artists tended to focus on the self, while for artists of colour, a focus on race was seen as the same thing.

walt kuhn clown

Portrait of the Artist as Clown, Walt Kuhn, 1932
Oil on canvas, 32in. x 22in.
Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery

But it’s important to remember that we cannot draw direct political parallels from this exhibit to our turbulent times. The painters featured in this exhibit were, to some extent, supported by the state. Either they were hired by the Works Progress Administration under the schemes to provide work to artists – such as the murals painted in Coit Tower in San Francisco, or Hallie Flanagan’s network of theaters across the country – or they were painters like Hopper who found success in the Roaring Twenties and whose reputations helped them to survive the Great Depression.

Right now it feels like we are more poised on that cusp – the end of the Roaring Twenties and about to embark on an uncertain future, where good things are almost certainly not going to happen. The major difference is that the artists in the 1930s were, for the most part, working under the New Deal, a political administration that was trying hard to reverse the economic downturn of the 1929 Wall Street crash and the downturn under the Hoover years. Whatever your political opinion, you can agree we are not in the same place now.

It’s not quite reassuring to learn that the feelings of artists in a time of turmoil are unchanged. We have this belief in progress, in the improvement of the way people are treated and how we face both individual and communal challenges. Whether or not this belief is misguided, we have exhibits like this to mark how it was dealt with in the past, and to offer a suggestion for what we could do going forward.

Racism 101

“Have you heard of Nikki Giovanni?” I ask, and the woman volunteering at the sponsorship table at a local event laughs. She is African-American, and she laughs, “Do I know Nikki Giovanni? Do you know Nikki Giovanni?” I am white, and I begin to put the pieces together. “I think maybe white people don’t know of Giovanni,” I tell her. She shakes her head, but she is smiling, and she comes over and sits with me on a bench where we talk for a few minutes about Star Trek and space travel and race and racism all things Nikki Giovanni talks about in her 1994 essay collection, Racism 101 [1].

“I didn’t know she wrote essays. I’ve only read her poetry,” my new acquaintance says. “I haven’t read any of her poetry yet,” I confess, though I would soon rectify that. I did know Giovanni was a poet of the Sixties, a part of the Black Arts Movement, a voice that black Americans, at least, have been listening to for decades. I stumbled across her by chance at a library book sale. Her name was familiar because she is now an English professor at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia, where I used to live. At the library sale, her book Racism 101 was organized near Lorraine Hansberry’s To Be Young, Gifted and Black. Both seemed like good additions to my reading life, mostly because my understanding of being black in America is almost nonexistent. And that’s not okay.

I have been reading these essays now for the better part of a year, and I haven’t finished them yet. It isn’t because Giovanni is difficult to read. Reading through this book is like sitting next to her on my porch swing and listening, listening. But what I’m hearing is so different from what I saw growing up in the North Atlanta suburbs, and is sometimes so at odds with the histories I learned in my largely-homogenous high school, and is obviously so deeply important to understanding and loving people in my own life, in my own city, that I keep having to tell her,

“Stop.”

“Wait.”

“Can you say that again?”  

Giovanni writes about the legacy of the 1960’s, integration and Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcom X, and her recollections of it all. She writes to black college students who study at mostly-white colleges. She writes warm recollections of growing up, of her family, and of friends. She writes about her interest in space travel and the cultural implications of shows like Star Trek. She writes about being Black. As I read, she gives me a long list of histories to research and events to read about next, so I can rewrite my terribly white-centric understanding of my country’s history. Often I bring my husband, who looks like me, in on what she says. “Listen to this paragraph,” I say to him, “about her sister Gary’s experience in high school in the Fifties.”

“Her teacher in civics, a still-needed course that is no longer taught, discussed the Emmett Till case with his class. “Till got what he deserved,” he declared. Gary and [a friend] walked out, and [our father] made another trip to see [the superintendent]. Apologies all around. Shock and sadness that this could happen. I was sent to Knoxville, Tennessee, to live with my grandmother when [my current] school district was integrating. Our family had already given a soldier to the war to make white Americans better people.

After that sucker punch and I feel it the essay moves on. It’s more of Giovanni’s childhood memories, growing up in both Cincinnati and Knoxville during the Civil Rights movement. “Is she saying her family didn’t support Civil Rights?” my husband asks about that last sentence.

“No, the opposite. Something else is going on here.” I am trying to work it out.

“Her sister was the soldier, integrating her high school first. America was starting to do the right thing with integration legislation.” I’m getting there.

“But black citizens were still bearing the burden of the country starting to get things right.” Something different comes to mind. I recall the videos that made the rounds of Facebook during the week of July 4th, this year, black mothers responding to the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. One mom in particular [2], whose words I can’t forget, is wiping tears off her cheeks and crying out, “We are dying here.” She pleads with any white Americans watching her video: “We need you.” She hates having to say that. You can see it on her face. But she cries out again. “We need you.”

It isn’t that Giovanni’s family didn’t support Civil Rights. It is that they were finished sacrificing their children on the altar of trying to get justice and fair treatment. Another mom in another video last July said, more angrily, “I am tired of having to explain this to you.” I tell my husband what I am seeing, that African-American citizens in the Nineteen-Fifties, that our black neighbors now, that people of color in the Nineteen-Nineties when Giovanni was writing these essays, have been bearing first the burden of mistreatment, and then second the burden of the painfully slow process of things being made right. And now they’ve got the added burden of having to explain their experience to white folks so that we might understand. They’ve been doubly burdened, for a long time, and have had to heft the weight themselves because the rest of us so easily think everything is fine. “Talk about this to your white friends and neighbors,” the second mom says, “so we don’t keep having to. We are sick of explaining this to you.”

At the local event in my current city of Lynchburg, Virginia, sitting on the bench, chatting with the woman I have just met about how, like Nikki Giovanni, we both enjoy Battlestar Galactica, I tell her that Giovanni thinks the voice of Uhura in the original Star Trek was important. “It was so right, it made such sense,” Giovanni says in her 1992 interview of Mae Jemison, the first black woman to orbit space, “that the voice of the Federation would be the voice of a Black woman.” In her essay “Black is the Noun,” she says more: “The black woman’s voice sings the best notes of which earthlings are capable. Hers is the one voice that suggests the possibility of harmony on planet earth.” And why does she love Star Trek so much? “I love Star Treks,” she says. “The television series . . . marked a new era in television by obliging audiences to respect and even to admire differences among people.”

My new acquaintance shares the story of how Nichelle Nichols, who played Uhura, planned to leave the show after its first season for Broadway. But then she ran into Martin Luther King, Jr. at an event, and he strongly urged her to stay on and continue being that black female voice on television in America. I looked up the anecdote later, and found the 2011 NPR interview [3] with Nichols. The interviewer points out that staying on Star Trek in order to be the one African-American female leadership voice on television must have been “a heavy responsibility. . . . I mean, the fact is you did put aside some of your own personal dreams to stay in that role.” Nichols agrees. Later, she talks about how African-Americans in entertainment are still mostly cast as “the friend, the buddy, the secondary role,” even though things are changing. The interviewer asks, “How do you interpret Martin Luther King, Jr.’s challenge today?” Nichols acknowledges that we’ve come a long way, but still: “I think it’s as valid today as it was when he declared it. His work isn’t finished. It’s only just begun.”

On the bench, my companion and I are quiet for a moment. I hesitate. I want to do the thing so many people who look like me are inclined to do once our eyes are opened to these sufferings of fellow citizens in our country. I want to talk about race. I want to confess to her what I don’t know about race and racism. But not every conversation between a white and a black person needs to be about race, or racism, in America. Probably more conversations, for our black brothers’ and sisters’ sake, need not to be. I may be seeing things anew, finally seeing them aright, but this woman doesn’t need to bear the burden of what I’m just now learning. She’s been living it every day. Still, I tell her, “I am learning so much about racism that I didn’t realize. I’m just starting to learn.” She is very gracious. “I’m still learning, too,” she says. “I’m always learning.”

I am thankful for her, and I am thankful for Nikki Giovanni and the words she has put down on paper often for different ears than mine, in magazines like Essence and The Black Collegian. So I tread respectfully as I go through the pages. In one place, Giovanni says, “You do not have to have had an experience to sympathize or empathize with the subject. That is why books are written . . . We learn from experience, true; but we also learn from empathy.” It is an honor to get to listen in and learn. It is also a responsibility. Perhaps another time, I can have the same conversation about Battlestar and racism with a white friend, and then that friend may start reading the likes of Nikki Giovanni (or Lorraine Hansberry or Jacqueline Woodson, if I may make further suggestions), and her ears will be open, and she, too, will begin learning about race and racism in our country and collectively, maybe we can take on some of our black neighbor’s burden.

 

 

[1] Giovanni’s book can be found here on Amazon.

[2] View that mother’s video here on Facebook.

[3] Read that NPR interview with Nichols here.

From the Archives: On the Meaning of Baseball (and a Suggestion)

This piece comes from our archives.

 

When I am trying to recall my childhood, the best I often call forth is a phantasmagorical flash of images and feelings; for instance, a friend whose play habits I have forgotten or a name without a face-not nearly tidy enough for scrapbook presentation. Amongst the confusion, there are a few vivid, traceable “story lines,” if you will, by which I can mark my life’s progression.

One example that comes to mind is my relationship with Rich, my best friend since I was three. Another is my exploration of books and all the richness I have found there. Indeed, there are other threads equally as important to the overall weave and design of my personal history, influences that give it form and worth. But with October winding down, amidst the kaleidoscope of autumnal color, one storyline, which comes accompanied by the “crack!” of a bat and the “pop!” of a mitt, gains a particular poignancy: my love for baseball.

As a lifelong New Yorker born in the 1980s, I grew up amongst baseball chatter and rivalry. From one house to the next, loyalty was divided between the Yankees and Mets. My house belonged to the Yankees. With stars like Darryl Strawberry, Doc Gooden, and Keith Hernandez, and having won the World Series in 1986, the Mets were the better team of the eighties. But I inherited my father’s love, became a Yankees fan, and learned to revere the history of the team. Dave Winfield, Ron Guidry, and Don Mattingly were my players of choice.

As I grew older, what I loved so much on television I took to the schoolyard, and began playing catch with my father, two older brothers, and the other neighborhood boys. And soon, I was playing in the local Pee Wee league, helping my team to the championship round in five consecutive seasons. Unfortunately, we won only the first of five. Eventually, as the skills of the other boys developed, mine stalled, and I became a mere spectator. While my playing days were over, I still found baseball exhilarating as an onlooker. And I watched year in and year out, following my team down the valleys and up the peaks, devastated with every playoff loss and elated with every October victory, devoted to my team and to my sport without demur.

Recently, a friend, peering over my shoulder while I read baseball box scores, asked me with sincerity (a rare and disarming temperament), “Why do you like baseball, anyway?” Truly, baseball, like many things personally enjoyed, is a delight to some and a frivolity to others. As with anything really loved, my love for baseball has been challenged before.

It is a challenge, honestly, with which I rarely engage because cynics-of sports, most especially-very seldom ask genuine questions, usually making proclamations through their “questions.” The conversation inevitably devolves into an each-to-his-own pact of non-aggression. They go their way; I go mine. It is not a conversation worth having often. So when I detected the sincerity in my friend’s voice, I realized that he was not showing disdain for my sport, but that he was actually asking a rather thoughtful question: “What is the meaning of baseball?”

Very quickly, I recognized that I did not really know the answer. I had never considered baseball in that manner. I had always unquestioningly enjoyed it, as I suspect is the case of all baseball enthusiasts. But that is to be expected, maybe even hoped for. As C.S. Lewis, the Oxford don and author, explains, enjoyment, the disposition at the heart of sport, is vastly different to contemplativeness, the disposition at the heart of paradigmatic construction. Contemplating baseball requires objective detachment from it-an outside view, if you will. On the other hand, enjoyment of baseball requires an unquestioning subjective engagement: humility before the sport-being inside of it.

Enjoyment and contemplation are two differing consciousnesses. One sees from without, one from within. And fans learn from the earliest age to see sports from within. Still, I thought to contemplate the question and seek an answer.

Admittedly, when measured with a detached rationality, baseball appears absurd. The principal action of the game revolves around a man who, from a raised bump of dirt, throws a stitched leather ball across a 216 square inch pentagon which lies 60’6” away. An opponent stands aside the pentagon and tries to swat the stitched leather ball with a narrow wooden stick. Many more precisely measured and equally ambiguous actions ensue as a result of this repeated event. While these are famously difficult feats, they appear entirely arbitrary. At first glance, baseball gives the impression of meaninglessness, and, especially in light of their enthusiasm, its fans appear irrational.

Yet, a cardinal virtue of any good sport is its ability to test the physical limits and discipline of an athlete. And, although the rules and actions of baseball may appear arbitrary, they certainly excel in testing an athlete’s physical endurance, agility, speed, and strength. To this end they have been constructed and diligently upheld; so they are not entirely random. As each game generally spans over three hours, and each player has limited opportunities to contribute to the contest’s outcome, an athlete must prove his patience and focus as well. For example, on offense the position players (players who both play the field and hit) are likely to have only four at bats per nine innings. On defense, a position player can go an entire game without fielding a single ball-a rather frequent occurrence. The athlete must remain vigilant, as a result, so as not to be caught unaware. However, the greatest test for a ballplayer is one of will, for even the most excellent hitters succeed, on average, only three times out of every ten at bats. Failure is at the very heart of baseball and success can only be had in spite of it.

Americans love excellence, even of the purely physical sort. It satisfies our meritocratic predisposition. On that level, one can understand an American’s appreciation for a baseball player or team. But can appreciation for excellence explain the intensity of the fan’s communion with his team? Can it explain the fan’s tears over loss, adulation from victory, or even prayers for a player’s well being? Can it explain his devotion during years or even decades of competitive futility? No, it certainly cannot. Again, the fan is either entirely irrational, or there is something more to baseball. I suggest that there is something more, which can only be found in the experience of the fans, a testimony that cannot be discounted. To see it, we must move a little further in.

Simply put, baseball has a visible level-a physical dimension viewable by all, even cynics-and an invisible level-a metaphorical dimension experienced by fans only (often on the subconscious level) which is unknown to cynics; especially empirical statisticians. If baseball is a body, the rules are the bones and flesh, and story is the blood. Only together does it have fullness and its fullness can only be found in fandom.

So what does the fan see, exactly? While it’s different for each fan, it certainly contains nostalgia, as I have recounted from my own life. More importantly, the fan sees a microcosm of the human story. In my experience, I of course appreciated Don Mattingly for his offensive and defensive prowess. Nevertheless, he became my favorite player during years when his back was balky and his numbers declined. During those seasons I appreciated his perseverance, humility, sacrifice, and sympathized with a career that became increasingly demoralizing. Don Mattingly became my favorite player because I empathized with his personhood. This is common: in one breath fans will praise a player statistically, the next in universally human terms.

In addition, the drama of baseball is entirely unscripted, which makes its structure both analogous to life and more theatrical than a stage play, film, or television show. In this way, a baseball game reflects spontaneous human achievement, action, and emotion: a physical dramatization and symbolization of everyday living. Furthermore, the story of a particular game, season, franchise, or player establishes the meaning, and thus the dramatic content, of any given physical action. For example, a home run hit in an April contest, while physically impressive, is quickly forgotten. On the other hand, in 2003, Aaron Boone’s home run to defeat the Red Sox and send the Yankees to the World Series was a narrative masterpiece, complex and deep enough to stir true euphoria and genuine devastation. As a result, the moment is memorialized in both infinite honor and infamy. This demonstrates an indelible fact: no matter how impressive the physical act is, its meaning is understood, and memorability determined, by its place in the story of the game.

On a subtler level, baseball is symbolic for an overarching metaphor that mirrors human existence at its most primal: that life can only be lived in the face of certain death. A baseball contest progresses by outs, failures, if you will, not by time. Generally speaking, a standard ballgame is complete only after both teams in the contest record twenty-seven outs. In the bleak world of baseball, both teams fail. The victor is merely the team who has accumulated the most runs in spite of their own demise. Concomitantly, the hitting side, dubiously named “the offense,” is postured from the start in a defensive position, and their task is to temporarily stave off the efforts of the pitching side to retire them. Ultimately, the world of baseball is a fallen one in which even the victors inevitably perish. Much like life, victory in baseball is achieved in the face of a harsh fatalism. Ballplayers are actors in a passion play and the fans are the beneficiaries of their willingness to demonstrate the human struggle.

If victory means failure, and winning the World Series is so supremely difficult, why play? Here I can only make a suggestion: for good reason baseball first took root amongst rural Americans, a people famous for their protestantismus. Imported from England, baseball became a reflection of the Americans that claimed it. Like all, the people of rural America were aware of death’s certainty, yet they still hoped that on the other side promises would be fulfilled and dreams come true. Baseball, their game of choice, offers players and fans a mirrored anticipation. Fielding a baseball team is like taking Pascal’s wager: when a team wins the World Series, all of their hopes and dreams for the season have been realized. Wouldn’t it be worth it to dedicate oneself to that cause even if humiliation was assured and victory uncertain?

Caring Who Wins

This piece comes from our archives.

The Royals just defeated the Mets in the World Series, and as a native New Englander and lifelong Red Sox fan, I had no dog in the fight. Sure, the Mets beat the Sox in the ’86 Series, but with the three subsequent Red Sox’s Series wins, any sense of rivalry has dissipated.

Yet even without rivalry, I did care who won. It had to be the Royals. And it was.

I was listening to the game on the radio (my preferred method of digesting baseball—who can beat the deliciousness of crowd noise as communicated through the AM bandwidth?), carrying it around the house. As the Royals scored the tying run on a fielder’s choice in the top of the 9th inning, with my wife and children long since gone to bed, I somehow refrained from cheering out loud.

How did this happen? How did I end up caring about a team I have no real connection to? Fundamentally, the story of the World Series captures me, just as the stories of the NBA playoffs, the Olympics, or the Tour de France hook me. Like most sports fans, I am enticed by the drama of a contest, though I never know until the end whether I’m watching a comedy or a tragedy. When I turn on a game, I often discover an exciting story, a true cliffhanger, with a rising action and thrilling climax—14 innings! The last pitcher in the bullpen! And I will stay up until the early morning seeking the denouement.

The sports-media industry most clearly reveals how fundamental sports-as-narrative is to sports’ popularity, as their function is to provide character development and plot analysis (not to mention to debate ethical questions about bat-flipping and calls). The media helps us interpret games and stories often in terms of traditional archetypes, even if they have to simplify a complex contest: LeBron (the last man standing) vs. Golden State (the blitzkrieging army); Luck (the young gun) vs. Manning (the old guard); Red Sox (good) vs. Yankees (evil).

Even in sports, too much narrative simplification is like having a library only made up of Grisham and Sparks and Steele—it lacks nuance or subtlety. Yet not all sports media simplifies contests; some writers see Joycean possibilities in sports. If you read any Brian Phillips of the now deceased Grantland, you begin to recognize the plot of sports contains intricacies and intrigue; you notice the weight of underlying symbolism. In Phillips’s world, Serena Williams is a symbol of freedom, “a special version of freedom, not just through her physical talent but through her marvelous spontaneous performance of her own personality.” In this world you realize Russell Westbrook’s “function is to implode your entire idea of genre.” And Kevin Durant’s scooter, necessary after his foot surgery, is not only “a scooter of mortality, not triumph” but ultimately, and tragically, because “this is Kevin Durant we’re talking about here—it’s a scooter of actual scooting.” Reading Phillips so enamors me with sports’ possibilities that when I watch a game, I don’t want to be left out. I want to be involved in it, to participate in its drama.

In the most basic sense fans lie outside the action, no matter how much athletes praise the crowd as the “sixth man.” Yet our emotional investment reveals how we make ourselves part of the drama. Isn’t this why diehard fans often slip into first person when referencing their favorite teams? They didn’t lose, we lost.

Yet even if I can refrain from the illusion of direct involvement when the Red Sox lose—say, when Aaron Boone hits a home run off Tim Wakefield to lose the ALCS, to name a wound that may never heal—I am devastated by the tragic ending. Though I am not a character, it is still my story, and the hero of my tale has died. The dragon has burned the prince and flown away with the princess. I am crushed. I may wear black the next day.

Doris Kearns Goodwin captures this experience most beautifully in her essay, “Fan,” written as a contribution to Geoffrey Ward and Ken Burns’ Baseball: An Illustrated History. Born a Brooklyn Dodgers fan, Goodwin describes when Bobby Thompson hit a home run to defeat the Dodgers and clinch the 1951 pennant for the New York Giants. Goodwin’s sister, Charlotte, had predicted the shot, and when she saw the ball fly over the left field fence, Goodwin writes that she “thought for a moment my sister had made it happen and I hated her with all my heart.” A non-fan might call Goodwin’s phrasing hyperbole; anyone who has truly rooted for a home team knows better. “With all my heart” is the only way to root for our team.

Experiences like this capture the delicious beauty of tragedy. Though before 2004 Red Sox fans would not have admitted it, it was special growing up under the grip of The Curse. Bill Buckner’s error was a story no other fan could tell. It was like having your king kill his father and marry his mother, the kind of story that goes down in history. And when you’re a tried-and-true fan, it’s your history.

This might be why for fans the ultimate transgression in sport is for an athlete to cheat, to fix the contest, because this means we were not part of something genuine. We’ll look the other way if football players use steroids, because instead of robbing us of the story, they amplify the conflict. We were willing to look the other way for a while with baseball, but then we realized steroids diminished the game’s epic heroes. How could we have allowed a handful of bionic creations to steal Roger Maris’ magic record of 61 home runs?

This is what makes the Black Sox and Lance Armstrong so terrible and still so intriguing. We discovered those stories were manipulations, that the hero was actually the villain, and that we were the victims. So we keep writing about Lance and making movies about him, because now he is the greatest villain imaginable. He tried to deceive us! He wants to draw us in again! We won’t be fooled, however, and will refuse to listen to his wizard-talk and will cast him out of our friendly shire. 

Now I’m talking like a fantasy fan, which raises Phillips’ sense of symbolism and story anew. If we are too involved, doesn’t that make us the child who may be a bit too into the story that is not actually his or her own? Too into Gandalf and Dungeons and Dragons? Sometimes we describe the passionate fan with admiration. We picture young Doris Kearns Goodwin finally celebrating her Dodgers’ World Series victory, creating “one of the happiest moments of my life.” But at other times, with Phillips, we

“…meet someone who actually cares whether the Cowboys win on Sunday, not ‘cares’ in the way you care about something you’ve semi-arbitrarily decided to invest emotional energy in to make your life more exciting, but actually cares in the way you care whether your family is fed and the war is postponed till next week. At those times, I feel despair.

Phillips’ despair is real; it’s the despair that arises when a fellow fan threatens the life of a kicker who fumbled away a victory. Yet this wild involvement is a risk we have always been willing to take when we invest in a narrative. A few delusional readers will think of themselves as wizards or princesses, and a few delusional fans will think their lives really are over when a tragic season or career ends.

To respond to the risk of delusional involvement by withdrawing our passions, by remaining aloof for fear that would transform us into one of those people who care more for Peyton Manning than our Uncle Bill, is to lose the heart of the narrative. It leaves us where Goodwin found herself after the Brooklyn Dodgers abandoned her for Los Angeles: withdrawn from the game, “without a team to root for, my emotions became detached; my heart wasn’t in it anymore.”

I want my heart to be in it, so each year I find a reason to root for a side in the World Series. This year, I sided with the Royals. I’m not sure why exactly. Maybe it is because my college buddy from Kansas City swayed my thinking, or my love of George Brett’s iconic baseball tantrum, or because San Francisco Giant’s pitcher Madison Bumgarner dominated them in the 2014 World Series. It doesn’t matter. What really matters is that I choose a team and commit to rooting for someone, because that is how I become part of the story.

From the Archives: The Art of Baseball

“Baseball unites heaven and earth: it inscribes a pattern of clean lines, orbs, and diamonds upon the dust from which we were formed and in which we toil, and the lush green in which we find rest. Upon that heaven-and-earth field, prodigal sons set out on barren base paths; and we watch and wait to see if they will make it back home.” –David Mitchel1

Something there is in the Creator that doesn’t love a straight line. He framed boughs of trees with crooks and angles. He crafted winding rivers and undulating landscapes. His cathedrals are formed in groves of trees, set out in imprecise circles and ovals, branches bumping into one another overhead. His curves are not regular; His arcs are not clean.

We created beings find loveliness in these things, but when it comes to drawing our own lines or sketching our own arcs, there’s a certain satisfaction we discover in clean lines and perfect angles. The Greeks aligned their pillars in parallel formation. The Byzantines built their rounded domes. The Golden Mean was the Renaissance measure of beauty. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim spirals. Our most daring architecture is still perfectly curved, our tables level, the pickets of our fences parallel. While there is a piquant charm in the bow of a sagging ridgepole or the meandering lumps of a fence built of native stone, there is also great beauty in the straight lines of a highway in the desert or the perfect arc of a flying buttress.

It is baseball season once more, and spread before us are the clean lines and perfect angles of a ballpark. The lights are held high on steel grids. The seats wrap around in even furrows. The grass has stripes and measured designs in it. Perhaps there’s a bit of the faerie in the groundskeepers, for they manage to make magical things out of a broad field using only shades of green. At each corner stands tall a straight, yellow foul pole. And inside the quasi-geometric shape that is the field, there is an arc, a diamond, and – perfectly centered within it – a circular mound. The ballpark’s lines are straight, its curves measured.

Upon the stretch of tawny dust and verdant grass we lay out our white lines and square bags. The umpire brushes stray dirt from the white pentagon before him. In his hand he holds the white sphere wrapped in neat, red stitches. Ninety feet for each baseline, sixty from the pitcher’s mound to home plate. A nine inch circumference and one hundred and eight double stitches. We strive for perfection as we map all this out. We erect our foul poles in parallel formation. We draw the chalk in perpendicular lines and anchor the bags at right angles. We order the stripes on the grass in even checkers. We endeavor for faultlessness. And we call it good.

To make our straight lines, our measured curves, our perfect spheres, we humans are forced to use tools. We cannot do it without them. The architect must have his drafting table and his protractor, his straight edge and his T-square. The builder needs his level and his measuring tape. The groundskeeper needs his mower and his roller. We need our compasses and rulers. In order to make such pristine beauty, we must remove ourselves a step from the act of creation.

In so doing, we succeed in our undertaking. We had to measure, but our curves are regular. We had to use tools, but all of our lines are straight. Yet upon these lines we build for ourselves, we live out lives of a more uncertain aesthetic. When the players stand on the diamond, they mar the white lines. The perfect sphere is thrown in imperfect arcs or lines that dip and break. Runners dodge tags, shifting from the direct path of the baseline. Outfielders scatter irregularly across the green. Batters wobble after missed pitches. There’s a collision at the base.

Using our hands alone, we cannot form perfect spheres. Something there is in these fingers that doesn’t love a straight line. Without the tools, our art – our living – is inexact. It comes out lopsided and knobby. The art we create to tell the story of being human is messy: dark shadows contrasting with shining rays of light. Uneven lines and haphazard moments. It has eccentric turns and curious corners. And perhaps this is precisely what it means to be human, shaped in the image of God: we find beauty in the measured curves and clean lines, but our lives look more like the winding rivers and the angled branches. We are forever caught in this, endowed by our Creator with a tendency toward irregular angles.

We’ve heightened the irregularity, twisted and broken even the undulating landscapes of our lives. Prodigal sons all, we do not by nature paint ourselves lives of clean lines and perfect angles.

But imago Dei can be redeemed. The prodigal can make it back home. The broken branch can be bound up and restored to its angled existence. And in this redemption, we are offered the chance to see the throne room of heaven, with its lovely straight lines and rounded pillars.2 We glimpse the sixty cubit nave and the twenty cubit vestibule.3 We catch sight of the inner sanctuary, where once the ark of the covenant was set, now the dais upon which the King of Heaven’s throne is stationed. And we see perfection. And we see beauty.

We live a contradiction as we walk through our lives. We find ourselves reveling in the radiance of the forest cathedral, noting the way the light plays with the leaves, dappling the ground with shadow and light. And we feel at home, seeing our own irregularities in the uneven spacing of the trees around us. But at the same time we want to clear away that one bough that makes the tree look funny, and we build our ballparks and our skyscrapers – our cathedrals and our fence posts – with clean angles and straight lines, vaunted arches and measured curves, because we’ve glimpsed perfection. And for the redeemed imago Dei in this world, there may be no way out of this trouble. It is our state, and we must live in it.

Paint the straight lines upon the golden dust. Mow the stripes into the green. Stretch the arcs and measure the angles. Hold the red-stitched sphere and clear the plate. There is a beauty in these things. But upon the field, play the game as it is meant to be played, with its highs and lows, its shadows and glories. Set out as a prodigal but return home as a son. Throw the breaking ball or the knuckler. Be living art. For on the field, heaven and earth unite, and in this the Creator is glorified.

 

1 Mitchel, David. “On Baseball.” http://morningatthebrownbrink.wordpress.com/2013/04/01/on-baseball/. 01 April 2013.

2 Hebrews 8:1-2 indicate the Tabernacle and Temple, with their strict measurements and straight lines, were patterned after the throne room of heaven.

3 1 Kings 6:2-3

 

This piece was originally published in 2013.

photo by: Matt McGee

The Cost of Customization

A couple years ago we painted a map of the country on the wall by the guidance office. There’s really nothing strange about this (what’s weird about a map on the wall of a high school?), and as I walk by it, heading from the English department toward the activities office, I frequently pause to examine the small papers posted where students plan to attend school next. Mostly, the papers cluster around South Dakota’s state schools, and a few dapple Minnesota, where we enjoy reciprocity.

It reminds me of the wall in my own high school in New Hampshire, where the guidance office hung laminated pennants decorated with our photos and post-high destinations. My friends were headed to places like New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Washington DC, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Oklahoma, while I was headed to Illinois.

Illinois is a long way from New Hampshire and before I visited my college, the furthest west I’d traveled was Florida. Upon attending, I was completely on my own, and I loved it. What was most important was that it was my college. I had discovered in this place, even in its brochures, an expression of myself, a setting befitting the person I wanted to be, even if I was aware that every college in existence was promising I could be a good-looking and intelligent pedestrian among orange deciduous trees.

It happened just like I’d hoped it would, too. My new environment encouraged me to thrive in particular ways, and I sensed the change when I returned home on breaks. I didn’t hang out with my high school friends much, though I harbored no animosity towards them. Yes, I was back, but I had replaced the ties of my old life with ties that matched my desires, a set of customized bonds. I’d inserted myself into a different community, one that kindled what I saw as my truer self.

These are the contours of my story, but the story’s arc is common enough to be a cliché. The teenager goes off in search of self-actualization and chooses a school that fits his vision of what he’d like to be. Colleges play their role by offering a particular “cultural identity” (Prescott College) and promising a corresponding experience of “personal transformation” (New England College) that will leave the student “caring about the community” and a “citizen of the world” (Whitman College). And as a cog in the machine meant to churn out cosmopolitan college graduates, I help cast my students as characters in this story: find out who you are, pick the perfect college for you, pursue your dream.

Yet as my high school economics teacher taught me, there is such a thing as an opportunity cost. To pursue one experience is to forgo another. As teenagers pursue their customized experiences of self-fulfillment, what are they missing? What are they giving up?

One thing they’re giving up is their high school classmates. When I watch my seniors hug goodbye to one another, trying not to poke each other in the eye with their silly square hats, it occurs to me how permanent some of those goodbyes will prove to be. I uttered the same goodbyes twenty years ago to people I have not seen since, and while I don’t regret leaving, I must admit that this separation from my community is one of the heavy costs of pursuing my own path. To customize my life meant to unknit myself from previous communal experience.

I recognize these contours in stories far different than my own, even in Sherman Alexie’s novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, where Arnold Spirit, an intellectually curious young man, decides to attend school off his reservation. Arnold needs to leave to keep from despairing, and as his teacher asserts, “You’re going to find more and more hope the farther and farther you walk from this sad, sad, sad reservation.”

part-time-indian

So Arnold goes, and the greatest cost is his bond with his best friend, Rowdy, a cost Arnold realizes most powerfully when the two play against each other in a basketball game. Rowdy, a natural athlete, has always destroyed Arnold in their pickup games, but in this instance Arnold plays better than he ever thought possible, and his team beats Rowdy’s. Though he’s the hero, Arnold realizes after the final buzzer that while he had seen himself as the underdog, it’s his old school who is David, and he’s joined Goliath. With this thought, he recognizes his adoption of this new community as a kind of betrayal. He throws up and weeps, “because I had broken my best friend’s heart.”

Being a novel, Alexie moves Arnold to a place of insight. He weeps at the end because he wants his old community to have hope like his, but “I was the only one who was brave and crazy enough to leave the rez. I was the only one with enough arrogance.” And while Arnold won’t be going back, he wants to find Rowdy “and hug him and beg him to forgive me for leaving.”  He thus lands where he can see the good of his leaving, even as he recognizes the importance of loving those he’d left.

Like I mentioned, Arnold’s ordeal is mostly foreign to me. I didn’t need to leave my hometown and my leaving was not viewed as cultural betrayal; but I still understand his impulse to ask forgiveness. 

Mine was the ultimate knitted community, a town of fewer than 5,000 residents where the entire eighth grade class traveled to Washington DC on one bus. We attended a regional high school, which swelled our class’s ranks to 100, but that did not destroy our links, it simply extended the chain. We all knew what it was to jump off the covered bridge, to ski the Twister trail at Pat’s Peak, to get speeding tickets on Route 114. We knew who owned the town’s old names, which classmates were cousins, and whose dog would never bite if you entered the house when no one was home. These were experiences that were shared, not customized.

And while these were all good things—privileged things, really—to customize our experiences, we left. We withdrew ourselves from the limitations of what our small town could offer. We left behind the accents of the lifetime New Hampsha’ men for the spoils of a particular college. You can’t have it all, so we gave up our small-town community.

I see via Facebook that a few of us have returned, but I don’t know how many because I’m not there. A single plane ticket to New England costs around $600. A drive takes thirty hours. I won’t attend my high school reunion and, a bit like Arnold Spirit, feel a compulsion to apologize to my childhood friends.

In light of this, I recognize that when my students cry at graduation, they’re emotional for legitimate reasons, especially the students pursuing their dreams in California or Arizona. They’re right to see their leaving for college, in part, as a loss. I doubt they’ll change their minds or regret their decision, but to recognize the loss is at least to concede a certain reality.

It’s a reality we educators frequently deny. Each year when my students register for classes, my colleagues and I emphasize what their priorities should be: sign up for what you need, for classes you’re interested in and classes that will help you pursue your goals. Don’t just sign up for the classes your friends are taking. Then we extend the same advice to college: Don’t just pick the school your boyfriend is going to. Don’t be roommates with your friends.

In many specific cases that’s good advice, but I admittedly dole out the idea as a self-evident maxim. I wonder if I’ve been as right as I’ve thought. When students choose to value community over customization, who am I to say they’re wrong? I’ll always praise the man who elects to spend time with his children rather than pursue a promotion; why am I so loathe to praise the student who adheres to the same priorities in choosing classes or a college?

Even though I’ll never regret my choice regarding college, I could benefit from a mindset that values community more and a customized experience less. The conflict between the two recalls a passage from The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis’s fictional collection of letters from the demon Screwtape to his nephew, Wormwood. At one point, Screwtape warns Wormwood about the power of the parish church, which,

“being a unity of place and not of likings, brings people of different classes and psychology together in the kind of unity the Enemy desires. The congregational principle, on the other hand, makes each church into a kind of club, and finally, if all goes well, into a coterie or faction.

Lewis’ point concerns the church and shows how there, too, the cost of customization is community. America provides an interesting case study of his idea. Having embraced the congregational principle, American churches long ago fell into coteries, where attendees continue to break fellowship with one church and attend another for reasons as miniscule as singing styles or nursery workers. Some Christians have even followed the congregational principle to its extreme, creating, instead of a church, a one-man outpost. This form can use the Internet to customize a morning worship experience, maybe opening with Hillsong’s music and following it up with a sermon from John MacArthur.

Yet, certainly, Lewis’s idea applies to schooling since a college is a community of likings. A quick perusal of how students describe their classmates affirms how colleges naturally form sets of coteries. On Unigo (a website that helps prospective students “find the right school for you”) students at Brown suggest they are often “hyper-liberal”; at Reed, students report they are “predominantly liberal and non-religious”; and at Westmont students describe themselves as “very religious.”

But in the public high school classroom, I see a parish arrangement. When I finish class a bit early and my students mingle, they create a mixture they may never experience after graduation: the rancher is joking with the artist, the kid on Free and Reduced lunch is talking to the kid who drives a Jeep Grand Cherokee, the Fox News Republican is teasing the Bernie Democrat. I have my students’ best interests in mind when I encourage them to pursue their dreams the same way I did, but I have done so without appreciating the cost of that choice.

As I walk by that map in our hallway and see the glut of students attending our state universities, I admit I typically feel something akin to pity. Since my own classmates and I grew up surrounded by picturesque New England campuses, “college” meant a private liberal arts school. With so many choices available, we had thoroughly imbibed that there is a perfect school for you. My students, I therefore assumed, had not realized the possibilities for their own education. They had restricted themselves to what our area could offer, and what our area offered were state schools. 

Yet as I begin to recognize the cost of customization, I suspect I’ll view that map on the wall a bit differently. My students may have “settled” for a state school, but look at their Instagram accounts: they’re littered with recent photographs of the same best friends they had in high school. They’re still hanging out, they’re still laughing, they’re still together. Their opportunity, while lacking the ultimate customization, has not cost them all their community. I, meanwhile, have not seen my best friend Matt in a decade. I may have to quit viewing that cluster of papers around South Dakota with pity and replace it with admiration.

I still do not regret my choices, but over the last 15 years I have embedded myself into a new community, one I cherish. So the next time I face an opportunity to customize my experience—or the next time I discuss college options with a teenager—it appears I should consider these students’ example. They have something important to teach me about the cost of customization.

The Democratic Pleasures of the NYC Health Department Rating System

This piece was first published in 2013. 

 

There is this whiskey bar around the corner from where we live. They sell oysters, too.  It’s the kind of place that mines a very specific vibe and mines it very well. Picture floor-to-ceiling windowed façades separated by tastefully stained strips of dark wood. Imagine low wisps of orange light ensconced in vaguely European fixtures—gracefully set above white candles in cute little vintage crystal holders—to create the kind of mystic glow that makes anybody’s face look both mysterious and more appealing. Beneath the 150-year-old Massachusetts barnwood beams, picture refugees priced out from more expensive zipcodes by their socioeconomic betters. Picture upwardly mobile hipsters. Picture white people.

My wife and I pass it every day on the way home from the C train after work. We imagine the place filling as the evening comes down and the conversations, the cigarettes, the talk of young creative people who have been liberated from fashioning things with their hands to better produce ideas with their minds. What wit! What interesting anecdotes!  Pour another drink! Try the Blue Label! We can hear their voices through the glass, blitzed with all the color and carefree whimsy of liberal arts graduates whose friendships are mostly based on the lubricating effects of alcohol. We marvel at the insouciance of those who do not have to worry about the children because they have been on birth control for the past twenty years, or else the Caribbean nanny is in tonight. I’ve just got a promotion! Another round on me!

If you detect a trace of jealousy, reader, I do not deny it. Another’s success, as terrible as it is to say, always invites dark thoughts in the secret places of the heart. Witnessing the enjoyment of something that one cannot have is a cruel burden to endure. It’s the reason I still feel the urge to knock lollipops and ice cream cones out of the hands of passing children on the street. On occasion, let it be said, I have indulged those urges. Better that none should have if I should do without. So goes the resentful logic of the heart.

It is true: I cannot afford whiskey.

But do not think me grotesque in my jealousy, reader. My wife tells me that envying the rich is one of the few remaining pleasures left to the poor. Do not take it from us.

And indeed, one of our paramount consolations came as of July 28, 2010, a date to kindle the democratic impulses lodged in the cockles of every equitable New Yorker, no matter how cynical or browbeaten. For debuting this day was the Health Department’s infamous A-B-C restaurant grading system, which cast a scarlet letter upon those unfortunate eateries whose stainless-steel sheen in front belied the dissipation behind the counter. Each letter grade, no matter how offending, must be placed prominently on the entrance to the establishment. Better still, the public penny paid for a searchable online database of all restaurants in the city, with detailed explanations for each grade given. It was like a beautiful dream: an open society, with transparent public information made readily available, empowering its citizens to be the rational economic actors the Republican party believes we all can be, and, as God intended, allowing the free market to determine the public’s standards of acceptable queasiness.

Cut to my wife and I, late September of the same year, making the usual tired trek home from work. More tired than usual, actually, as it had been pouring steadily all day—one of those days when the tops of the buildings are obscured in grey infinity. We had stopped under an awning to shake the flecks of water from our umbrellas when my wife gasped at something behind me and clawed at my shoulder. It was no Damascus moment, to be sure, but there were suddenly parting clouds, and rainclouds breaking into a hundred shafts of light, and crepuscular rays like the fingers of God through the dome of St. Peter’s. Turning around, with the skies upending and the light falling out and over everything, I saw the utilitarian font of the Health Department glowing like an icon.

The whiskey bar got a B.

The system was still so new that we didn’t know what it meant. But there was a sense of something momentous happening, an understanding before understanding, as though perhaps for once cosmic justice was to replace cosmic disappointment. We removed our shoes. We rushed home.

With surgical glee we dissected the account given on the website. The descriptions were frustratingly uniform, the result of an inspector punching in the code for a standardized comment, but gradually we came to see them as all the more tantalizing for what the bureaucracy of it did not say. There were limitless possibilities, entire worlds, in what was left unspoken.

Take, for example, the first violation: “Evidence of mice or live mice present in facility’s food and/or non-food areas.” You could drive a truck through the gaping holes of ambiguity in that sentence. The inclusion of ‘live mice’ alone opens up the horrific possibility of the physical presence of rodents at the time of inspection, perhaps tumbling playfully in the flour or skittering among the pots, so unconstrained that even a jittery staff couldn’t keep them out of sight for the duration of an inspection. And think about ‘evidence of mice’—a coy phrase including, presumably, everything from the droppings of the animals to teeth marks to chewed holes in dry goods, to—God help us—the severed limbs of the creatures, dismembered accidentally in the closing of a door or a particularly vicious fight. Which raises the question—why are dead mice not even mentioned as a possibility? Is there another code altogether for dead mice? Or is a subtle philosophical point here emphasized by the Health Department, that a mouse may be simultaneously dead or alive, until the moment it is observed, like Schrödinger’s cat?

And consider that ‘and/or.’ A phrase as demanding of greater explanation as there ever was. Are they saying that mice—evidence or otherwise—were simply in the food areas, milling about underfoot? Or merely confined to the bathroom, an area more rigidly non-food than any other unless, perhaps, you are a dung beetle? Food or non-food areas—which is it? I think I am not alone in the presumption that a healthy amount of foot traffic depends on the careful resolution of this question. But there is a third possibility, too, like a spectre arising in the mind. There is the genuine and sobering possibility that perhaps ‘food’ is meant to remain on its own, decoupled from its adjectival pairing with ‘areas.’  Yes, live mice are in the food. Or else ‘evidence of mice’—attach whatever meaning you will—has made its way onto the serving plate itself, to be dished up to an unwitting public blissful in its ignorance.

Retaining all the ambiguity of the first while introducing fresh horrors, the second violation reads thusly: “Evidence of flying insects or live flying insects present in facility’s food and/or non-food areas.” Again with the ‘evidences’ and the unfortunate conjunctives! But now imagine—flying insects! My God! Gnats I can forgive, some mosquitoes, even a moth or two fluttering against a light bulb at night—but what are we talking here? An infestation of grasshoppers? Flies? Flying—gasp!—cockroaches?  And surely ‘evidence’ in this case is more mentally redolent than mere mice droppings. What does it mean? Smashed bugs, limbs akimbo, mashed onto counters? The proverbial smoking gun of a hastily stashed and gummy flyswatter? Eggs, like grains of rice, deposited into foodstuffs or onto the inner lip of crockery?

But the coup de grâce of the inspection is the third violation: “Facility not vermin proof.  Harborage or conditions conducive to vermin exist.” Vermin? Can it be…? Google tells me that vermin can include all types of small objectionable animals that are destructive or injurious to health—but, in its most common usage, the term refers specifically to rats. Rats! So it’s far worse than anyone feared. Once the purvey of subway tracks and sewers, the noxious conditions of eating and drinking establishments are luring the large rodents of New York City into their already-tiny acreages. There are rats in the whiskey bar.  This is several orders of magnitude beyond mere mice and arthropods. We’re not in Kansas anymore.

Furthermore, what does ‘harborage’ mean? And where have you heard—or will ever hear again—that phrase in the 21st century? But more to the point, what does ‘harborage’ really tell us, besides the evident use of an outdated thesaurus within the Health Department?

The implication is that someone at the whiskey bar is actively promoting the interests of the rat population. Yes, the Health Department is trying to tell me that my local whiskey bar harbors rats, like they were the members of some kind of traitorous faction.  Someone in that establishment is waging an active campaign against his or her own species in preference for an alternative vision of reality, one which elevates the nonhuman to a place of special, even prime, importance. The conditions for some kind of rat army, an explosion of rodent society, are being nourished just around the corner.  Far worse than a union rat, or even a Communist, we have a Rattus norvegicus sympathizer in our midst.

I know. I was shocked too. What possible motivation could the proprietor have? But, then, ideology has never needed reasons, has it? The illusions of a fevered mind are enough. The vain reaching for transcendence furnished, if only temporarily, by the seductions of a totalizing narrative. The feeling of being part of something greater.

And all this attached to that single letter B at the whiskey bar we pass every day.

Imagine our glee. My wife and I held each other and made love vigorously. There is justice in the universe, after all! With shivers, we whispered to each other in the filtered light beneath the sheets of the bed. All those Junior Manhattanites—those monstrously poor sufferers of the peculiar cognitive dissonance that ensnares persons desperately proud to have moved to Brooklyn three years ago but who would move to SoHo if they could afford it—frequenting a place of infestation! Rat tails disappearing like slurped spaghetti into the bloated, corpuscular lips of the rich! Insane laughter over dram after dram of exorbitant spirits—joy so refined it is oblivious to mundane matters like floating rat turds! We made love again.

I say: do not think me jealous, reader. For the democratizing effects of the Health Department make us all equal before those vaunted letter grades. It is the great leveler, whereby even the very poor may lord it over the very moneyed. Taking in food— the voluntary insertion of foreign objects inside your body to be made part of your very flesh—is intimate in a way that few things are. Dysfunction there breeds dysfunction everywhere. Every valley high and every mountain low, indeed.

And so, when I close my eyes to sleep, and fancy myself able to hear the clinking of the glasses and the hearty cheers of the clean and well-dressed upper classes around the corner, I see an apocalyptic vision firing the inside of my eyelids. For I know a day is coming, and that right soon. My wife and I will rise late one night, past midnight. We will don our Sunday best. I will put one leg on at a time with great care into the void of my trousers. She will help me part my hair crisply so no strand is out of place. I will tie a bow into her fresh curls and zip her flowered dress. Our shoes, polished black as mica, will be new. We will have a moment together in silence before the mirror. And then we will leave.

The whiskey bar will be bright with its bacchanal festivities. No one will see us coming. Streaming in together at full speed, quick as thieves in the night, we will spread our hands to heaven with a shout. They will see our faces, radiant, beatific, like that of St. Stephen’s, and they will be afraid. We will relish their fear. Their surprise will invigorate us. Our fingers will splay and arch. And with one voice we will thunder to shake the foundations of the earth:

“Rats! Rats! All this time and you’ve been eating rats!”

Working Classes

This piece was originally published in 2013. With workers nestled back into their cubicles for the fall, we wanted to take up the conversation once more. 

 

Sometimes answers to big questions come along so suddenly and simply that, for all their gravity, they hardly interrupt the predictable, even obstinate, patterns of daily life. As Emily Dickinson once observed, “The Truth’s superb surprise” has a tendency to be “Too bright for our infirm Delight.”

This is all due preface for Philip Levine’s poems about work. What Work Is (Knopf, 1991) describes men and women at work in booming, early 20th-century Detroit, a city as polluted as it was promising. Levine was born there in 1928, and his poems, frequently referring to its characters and places, channel his direct acquaintance and lingering fascination with the place. In spite of the highly personal nature of these poems, the title poem cracks the metaphorical fourth-wall of literature to confer with its reader:

You know what work is—if you’re

old enough to read this you know what

work is, although you may not do it.

Forget you.

Reading the last line, I want to know who is being excused. Before I can finish the poem, I’m asking questions out of a need to clarify the poet’s address, and a more basic wish to remain involved with the poem: If I know what work is, what is it?  

Levine’s in-poem reassurance, “You know what work is,” implies that he’s not interested in delving into abstract definitions of work. He’s inviting readers to consult their own memory. Almost every presumed reader of this book has held a job, and for those who can identify that experience, this poem, and indeed this collection of poems, makes sense. In other words, “Forget you” is a diss to a type of person who is not, metaphorically, in the room. It’s muttered to clear the air of a contrarian spirit and to draw the curtains against the uninitiated minority of the world population, as poetry about work commences before those who intend to solemnly listen:

We stand in the rain in a long line

waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.

You know what work is—if you’re

old enough to read this you know what

work is, although you may not do it.

Forget you. This is about waiting,

shifting from one foot to another.

There’s more to be said about the type of folks eligible to join the poet in contemplating this scene at Ford Highland Park, and, to that end, it’s worth discussing another book about work by another Midwesterner—the late Chicago-based radio host and writer, Studs Terkel, who interviewed workers during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s (alas, the individual interviews are not precisely date-stamped). The result is called, Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel about What They Do (New Press, 1972).

Terkel’s book helps illuminate the diversity and range of Levine’s audience. Terkel dismisses any prejudice towards treating blue-collar labor as the only “real” work as he solicits appearances from all types of laborers, including newspaper boys, musicians, farmers, men and women of advertising, salesmen, a librarian and a call girl, to name a few of the over 100 people presented here.

In response to Terkel’s simple, earnest questions, each person speaks about his or her work. The rich particulars of these individual stories caution against generalization, but it is still safe to say that many of Terkel’s characters, with the exception of very few, are discontent and so chronically aware of what they’d rather be doing that, on the published page, appearing beside each other, their work experiences often bear an uncanny resemblance.

Some feel regret, for instance, at having taken a job at too young of an age and getting stuck in a grueling blue-collar routine. These pine for the freedom of a university education. Others relate having gotten a degree and still find themselves stuck in a piddling desk job, imagining manual labor for themselves, such as furniture repair or agriculture. Others wish for a different life in which they’d simply achieved more personal recognition or had been able to save up for a retirement. Not all of these reflections are born from late-life retrospection. Says a spot welder, “I’m a machine”; a high fashion model, “I’m an object”; a migrant worker, “I’m less than a farm implement.” A receptionist Terkel interviewed relates, “A monkey can do what I do.” A bank teller and a hotel clerk, independent of each other’s report, feel “caged.”

“Work,” Terkel writes in the introduction to the book, “is by its very nature about violence—to the spirit as well as to the body. It is…about daily humiliations. To survive the day is triumph enough for the walking wounded among the great many of us.” The anecdotes in Working aren’t all so grim: The adventures described by an NYPD cop and fireman, or the contentedness of the Indiana stonemason, are vivid and inspiring. But the grim material stands out.

It would be easy to get political at this point and pin the visible hurts in Terkel’s subjects on global industrial-Capitalist enterprise. Terkel would have been assembling interviews for his book when manufacturing employment in the American heartland began to show statistical decline as early as 1969. But there is nothing to be done about it now. The characters in Working tell their stories of happiness or regret with the finality of cold fact. Since the reader is powerless to initiate past-due reforms for any of these folk, the value of Working lies in Terkel’s example of taking time to listen to what working men and women have to say. “On one occasion, during a play-back,” Terkel reported in a famous recollection of his project, “my companion murmured in wonder, ‘I never realized I felt that way.’ And I was filled with wonder too.”

The opening of Philip Levine’s title poem from What Work Is invites the reader to, likewise, notice and articulate their own work experience. It’s a teaser, “You know what work is,” to step in front of Mr. Terkel’s tape recorder.

Levine’s poems which feature scenes from childhood, classrooms, or early private encounters with literature —“Among Children,” “Gin,” “Burning,” “Coming of Age in Michigan,” “M. Degas Teaches Art & Science at Durfee Intermediate School”—are windows into the places where people learn to be conscious of their experience in general. After a lifetime of work, sometimes failing to achieve retirement or riches, words remain the only gifts adult men and women can bequeath to the next generation. These words can take the form of literature—poetry—or they can take the form of simple warning. One of Terkel’s characters shares with his sons, “If you ever wind up in the steel mill like me, I’m gonna hit you right over your head. Don’t be foolish…you’ll end up the same way I did. Forty years and nothing to show for it.” Encountering such work experience in printed form is an important cross-generational exercise, involving those living and dead, in the enduring expectations and choices which every person has to face as they come of age.

The first superb surprise of Levine’s poem, “What Work Is,” is the all too sudden description that the work is about waiting; a more profound and universal experience among workers than the clichés of worn hands or sullen complexions. Hear this, workers of the world! Work is about waiting. Some days, it’s about waiting for the bus. Other days, about waiting for your boss to drop dead. It’s about waiting for the day to be over. Waiting for a promotion or a raise. Waiting for crops to grow. Waiting for employee performance to pick up. Waiting for a paycheck, waiting to be told “there’s no work today.”

The second, compelling truth of “What Work Is,” and which Terkel’s survey corroborates, is that private choice matters, desperately, in imagining a more humane work environment. The two books keep each other honest about the most offending culprits behind the working person’s discontent. There are those who loathe the factory and those who don’t mind it. One of Terkel’s subjects readily admits he can’t stand his job but is too lazy to fill out an application for another one. There are those who are “mixed up.” Those who don’t want to follow the pattern of their parent’s careers but end up in the family business anyway.

It’s not always obvious, in the case of each individual, which phenomena appear first in the sequence—giving up or getting caught. Many of the jobs Terkel canvases don’t require introspection or macro-awareness to perform day after day. Yet the notes and bits of conversation he relays from his subjects demonstrate that people are benefited by their own awareness of what they do. Incredibly, humans can be lulled by their routines into forgetting that they are free. And that is perhaps the greatest reminder in these works: Humans are free—free to pay attention and free to be astonished.

 

Illustration courtesy of Nathaniel Smith.

Why We Need the Olympics in Brazil

“It does not make sense to be extravagant in this moment.” The opening ceremony for the Olympics is on, and the creative team explains that it will be a low-tech show. “We have a message, and it’s not about Brazil,” Fernando Meirelles, the show’s Creative Director, explains in an interview. “It’s really about the world, about mankind.” Brazil is in economic crisis right now, which shows up in athlete housing conditions that are unsatisfactory to some out-of-towners, and locals protesting outside the stadium that their country shouldn’t be spending its limited funds on other people. The country is also deep in the embarrassing waters of political controversy, with multiple presidents facing indictment and impeachment, and it suffers the outside health threat of the Zika virus. It does not make sense to be extravagant, Meirelles says. This ceremony’s message will not be all about Brazil, which sounds strange to my American ears.

The world has come to Brazil, and it brings its own tensions and apprehensions and entitled expectations with it, depending on which nation to which we’re referring. People who haven’t come have turned their eye toward the televised show, and maybe now that the games are on, the media has moved past its coverage of Can you believe how badly prepared this place is? Now we can cheer on the athletes, one of whom swam three-and-a-half hours in the Aegean Sea to get nineteen people in a sinking boat to safety, and all that long night, it sounds like Yusra Mardini thought she might die, and–seriously? The apartments aren’t nice enough isn’t going to cross her mind, if I might hazard a guess. But even if it does, still. The world has come to Brazil, to participate together in these games, in this year 2016.

In the US, unlikely candidates are running for president, and many people dislike them for one reason or another. One of them stands up front, all bombast and disdain for the people in his own country who are neediest, and especially for the people outside his country who would come looking for relief—for the people of anywhere who aren’t the best, who don’t win, who find the cards stacked against them in circumstances outside their control. “I like people who weren’t captured!” he brazens about American POW’s. Songs from my daughter’s Disney Pandora station start reeling through my head, especially Gaston’s mad crush on Belle with more than a touch of NPD. Belle is the most beautiful girl in town. That makes her the best! And don’t I deserve the best?! “We’ll have so much winning,” the man running for president is famous for saying, and I think by “we,” he means himself, and to hell with other people who can’t get ahead.

At the beginning of the coverage for these Olympic games, the current two-term president is drawing his time to a close, and many people feel strongly about him one way or another. Tonight, in a pre-ceremony interview, he answers the question, Is there a larger value to the Olympics than bringing home the gold? His response is straight out of any book or essay by Marilynne Robinson, and I about jump out of my seat when I hear him say the Olympics “builds a sense of common humanity, a sense of empathy,” and how hearing the back stories of the athletes shows us another place, another person we might not usually consider important. And then we can hold that person in imagination, I think, remembering Marilynne Robinson.

“I suspect,” he says, “particularly for Americans, who sometimes, because we’re such a big country, don’t always feel as if, unless there’s bad news out there, that we need to know much about any place else, it’s a nice introduction to the world, and I think that kind of empathy and that sense of healthy competition can carry over beyond the Olympics.”

He says this while America’s angry Gaston shouts about how we were once a great nation, and we will be again, and I know he actually means the Greatest, and I suspect he means we’ll be the only country that matters, or, barring that, the country that matters most. But, “The Olympics build a sense of empathy,” our current president says. They show us other stories than our own.

I’m for hearing these stories. For understanding people and cities and countries and ways of life I’ve never seen, for being moved to empathy by other lives. Did you notice how, in the opening performances, Brazil did not turn away from the fact of its racial (and its religious and its political) tensions, but in a wonderfully tense moment, showed the people divided, each group on its own separate square of light, the people almost sparring, showing that these problems are ongoing and present and real? Did you see, in possibly the most powerful moment of the Cirque du Soleil-inspired performance, the black men and women wheeling and marching their way, belabored, across the sea, across fields, even while heavy blocks weighed them down, only to emphasize the strength and beauty of the dancers all the more? My God, did you see them?

Two weeks ago, in 2016, a number of people reacted against our current First Lady’s mention of slaves building the White House. Who wants to be reminded of slavery? Isn’t that over and done with? Why are we still talking about it? It is uncomfortable to hold these people in imagination, the ones who were forced to cross the sea—the ones who survived and, worse, the ones who didn’t—who had children in this land, and their children had children, and they were never free here, not even after freedom. And these enslaved descendants of slaves participated—by no choice of their own, remember—in building this house that stands for democracy, for the best and freest possible form of government. To imagine what that must have been like, building the White House: the living conditions, the sleeping quarters, the food and the treatment, and even– hear me–even if all those elements of job were good, still.

To imagine our way into what being enslaved does to a human being’s psyche, to his perception of himself, to developing even a shred of a possibility of self-respect. This is unpleasant. This is what Marilynne Robinson means by holding others in imagination, knowing their experience and their needs, understanding them and really knowing what they’ve been through. The acrobatic artists roll swinging through the gigantic wheels across the stage. Brazil, for its part, on this evening, in this ceremony, at least, has not looked away.

So I am watching, and at moments, the show is a lower-budget-than-usual mix of blurred lights and dancing souls—but the acrobatics! This show is performance-based: people, not electronics. It might be difficult to tell what is going on (though perhaps NBC’s coverage is to blame for that), and maybe Russia’s 2014 opening-ceremony love affair with itself was more visually stunning, but the marvelous dancing, and the crowd in the background, singing, whooping, cheering!

Did you hear what it sounded like? Joy.

All those people, real people, down there on the arena floor. There is friction outside the stadium: protestors, poverty, and crime remind us that it is as deep and raw as America’s, it seems, but tonight, I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that the world came to Brazil, and instead of putting on a performance to try and prove the country’s own greatness, the Brazilian creative team gave us a long and intense dance sequence. In doing so it acknowledged the disadvantaged of its own country, the people living in the favelas, the slums, up on the mountain, in the center, yet on the periphery. “We decided to create a ceremony for the world,” says Meirelles. The world came to its doorstep, and Brazil did not look away from the least of these. It celebrated its own history and culture, unflinching even at the bad parts, and it invited everyone to watch, and to join in.

I am sitting in the living room watching the opening ceremony, the interviewing and the performing, the wild breakdancing, the environmentalism, even, and the joy. I am thinking about America. America is frightened of so many things about itself: its own history, its minority groups and disenfranchised citizens, certain outside threats, even the living and health conditions in Rio. We fear because We are the greatest! We are entitled to have the best! We are so afraid that we can’t see straight into other people’s realities. America needs nothing so much as a mirror. America needs the Olympics this year to be in Brazil.

In and Out of the Marvellous

In the early days of cinema, moving images were often perceived as something akin to a magic trick. Most likely this had something to do with the veracity of the images; audiences famously bolted out of a room when a train drove straight toward the lens. Arthur C. Clarke once famously remarked that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” yet that is not quite what is going on here. After all, most people understand how film works, that it is little more than a rapid succession of images. With moving images, the emphasis is not so much on the “magic” as on the “trick”: the movement we see before our eyes is only an implied movement. Our brains fill in the blanks.

Nevertheless, the invention of film, together with Freud’s revolutionary theories of the mind, led philosopher Henri Bergson to evolve a new theory of what he called “psychological time.” Bergson sought to make a distinction between time as discussed in science and time as perceived by human beings. He argued vehemently that a purely scientific notion of time would not suffice. In particular, he was trying to account for the commonplace observation that time can move faster or slower, depending on its observer. Roughly speaking, Bergson stated that—as with the cinema—our life was also merely a succession of moments. The movement we see before our eyes is only implied movement, and our brains fill in the blanks.

It is unlikely that any film could still send whole audiences flying for the exit, or even collectively shock them—like Psycho once did, for example. Nevertheless, we have our own issues: our connections fail, phones die, hard disks crash. Our own existential crises, too: in Tom McCarthy’s 2015 novel Satin Island, the protagonist sits, waiting for a video to load, intently watching the “little spinning circle”: “What if it were just a circle, spinning on my screen, and nothing else? What if the supply-chain, its great bounty, had dried up, or been cut off, or never been connected in the first place?”

Another such a breakdown happened recently as I was watching a documentary called Out of the Marvellous, on the poet Seamus Heaney. The film was nearing the end, and it seemed to be conceding that the end of any film is a death, and that this issue needs to be confronted. So while the camera traversed a snow-covered road, the disembodied voice of Seamus Heaney began to muse on what it means to die. But just then, it all fell apart. The camera skirted forward in fits and starts. Frames were skipped, wedged out of the projection room and banished into hell. Meanwhile, Heaney detailed eternal judgment. My laptop seemed to be crushed by the impetus of the poet’s words, by the speed with which we traveled unto the end of the road, by the weight of the snow. The image stuttered as if we were losing power, freezing at times while the voice of the poet unerringly moved forward.

This breakdown fit so perfectly with the film’s subject matter that I no longer knew what was going on. Was this a technical failure or rather an integral part of the film? It might well have been an artistic choice, a metaphor for death—which is, after all, less the deliberate flick of a switch and more a kind of hardware failure. For a while I dithered over whether I even wanted to know which of the two it was, but in the end I had to find out. I revisited the scene: this time, the camera glided smoothly down the road. A perfectly planned death. What shocked me most was that there had been nothing to revisit; the breakdown, the glitch, was irretrievable.

I’ve written before about the appeal of the livestream, an inherent appeal separable from its particular contents. I quoted Don DeLillo, who wrote of a livestream of a highway somewhere in Finland that it was “real enough to withstand the circumstance of nothing going on.” The eerie experience I had with Out of the Marvellous was a bit like that, even though it was not a livestream but recorded video, meticulously calibrated in zeros and ones on hard disks and DVDs all over the world. Nevertheless, while viewing the documentary was not a unique moment per se, through a weakness in whatever link of the chain, it became unique all the same. It became performative, fleeting.

The documentary starts and ends with a road. What happens in-between—the chronological build-up of a life—is contained within these metaphorical bookends. So what happens if you take out a few of the paving stones in between? Is the road still one road, or has it split in two separate entities? Isn’t the point of a road—certainly of a road as metaphor—that it forms an undisturbed line from one place to another? Surely this is the idea of life as a road, that it literally represents a lifeline from being born to dying. Undoubtedly this metaphor can bear the inevitable bumps in the pavement everyone encounters; what it cannot bear is for the road to temporarily disappear. That would be a kind of magic trick, or a resurrection even: the feat of being, then not being, then being again.

The documentary is named after and opens with an excerpt from Heaney’s poem “Lightenings viii”:

The annals say: when the monks of Clonmacnoise
Were all at prayers inside the oratory
A ship appeared above them in the air.

The anchor dragged along behind so deep
It hooked itself into the altar rails
And then, as the big hull rocked to a standstill,

A crewman shinned and grappled down the rope
And struggled to release it. But in vain.
‘This man can’t bear our life here and will drown,’

The abbot said, ‘unless we help him.’ So
They did, the freed ship sailed, and the man climbed back
Out of the marvellous as he had known it.

What is so moving in this poem is that the banal has become the marvellous, and vice-versa. The “marvellous” referred to is the quotidian monastic life the man “climbed back out of,” not the unlikely spectacle of a ship sailing through the air. The man, according to Heaney, is like “a successful Orpheus”: he goes into the otherworld and retrieves what he set out for. He has the power to step in and out of his life, to go temporarily off-road; yet, it is not a voluntary power—it is the doings of an anchor, a force out of his control. It is a glitch that carries him down from his world and into ours. Moreover, it is the kindness of strangers that brings him back home. As we might expect, then, there is little volition in not-being.

Russell Hoban once wrote a novel set in a near future, revolving around a technology called “flicker drive”: a way of teleporting near-instantaneously around the galaxy, based on the discovery that people “flicker” or oscillate; we are constantly here, then not here:

He wired both rat and cage to a camera with a nanosecond quartz flash, the circuit that activated the camera being completed only in the intervals in zoetic and inanimate currents; Lossiter’s film showed frame after frame of empty laboratory table, thereby demonstrating that life and matter are not continuous but intermittent, a nonlinear alternation of being and nonbeing at varying frequencies in the ultraband.

There is more than a nod to Bergson’s philosophy in Hoban’s words—yet he is attempting to reify the idea, to turn it from a psychological reality into a physical one. Loosely inspired by the zanier theories of quantum physics, “flicker drive” as a concept borders on the grotesque, yet it fascinates. I think of Hoban’s frames of nonbeing as the moments in which Zeno’s paradoxical arrow moves forward; unaccountable, off-road moments. They are the “marvellous” into which we are sometimes borne. For Hoban, “it is in those spaces of black between the pictures that we find the heart of the mystery in which we are never allowed to rest.”

Yet what I experienced when the film faltered was not spaces of black; rather, it was what might be termed intercessional time. The road was still there on my screen—the camera had merely ceased to move, or so it seemed. Through the stillness, Heaney’s voice carefully strode ahead, exploring the marvellous. He would do so—and we would as well—in the full knowledge that the respite was temporary, and all the better for it; that we are “never allowed to rest” in it is after all precisely what creates the mystery. For an incalculable instance, Heaney and I flickered about, freed from the constraints of time and space, before returning back “into the heartland of the ordinary,” as Heaney would write in a later poem. We were “nine-to-five [men] who had seen poetry.”

Perhaps this is just one more thing technology hath wrought: making the irretrievable poetic—for crucially, in Bergson’s theory, “moments” only become moments after the fact. No one experiences the present as a succession of moments. But in an on-demand media landscape with endless storage capacities and a camera always at hand, more of these moments might come into being after the fact, because they are codified and classified somewhere. Technology does virtually the same thing Hoban tried to do to “psychological time”: give it a physical reality.

If poetry indeed happens in the otherworld—in the spaces of the black between the succession of moments—then the increased audiovisual registration of our lives should give us pause. Perhaps we need to burrow, like moles, back into the black and let the sands of time slip through our hands again—if only every once in a while.

The Wounds of Belief

hoe met up before a show. He was wearing a bandana around his face while working on the ancient wheels of his ancient tour bus, adorned with hand-painted flowers and cracked windows. We shook hands, and his were covered in grease. My husband was star-struck, quivering in happiness and the particular fear of wanting to appear somewhat cool in front of your idol—the lead singer and lyricist of mewithoutYou, Aaron Weiss. He washed his hands and changed into a sunflower-covered sweater. In the Portland rain we plunged into a conversation about Palestine, struggling with religious fanaticism, and what to do with our stone-cold hearts.

He talked, I listened, my husband sat with us humming with joy. I wrote down quotes in my little notebook. I tried to act like an impartial journalist, just another person with questions for a rockstar. But really, all I wanted to do was put down my notebook. All I wanted to do was pour out my story to him, to tell him what his music had meant to me, to ask if it ever meant anything at all to him. But I was scared because I did not entirely trust Aaron Weiss due to the depths of our one-sided connection and because of what his answers might be.

Because people change…all the time. The lives we construct for ourselves get torn down and rebuilt, over and over and over again.

Aaron had recently taken a trip to Palestine and written about it on the band’s Facebook page in a series of travel journal essays. It had interested me, this spark of political conviction and belief in the midst of a long period of him delving into mysticism, poetry, and inscrutable lyrics. The evangelical in me was excited. Right beliefs, right actions! Let’s do something about the human rights abuses taking place in Palestine!

What did you think of all of the comments you got from your posts? I asked. There were more than a few disappointed fans, people who said farewell to the band, people talking about their own Zionist leanings. But it was the other comments that got to me, the nice yet insistent overtones I hear all the time when it comes to Palestine: It’s really complicated/don’t pick a side/be on the side of peace/we can’t have an opinion because we just don’t know everything.

Aaron read the comments, but did not feel the need to respond to many of them. “A lot of it was positive and encouraging. To me the critical posts were valuable.” For the few who commented and thanked him for his unbiased approach towards the conflict, he just laughed.

“Of course I am biased. I don’t believe in bias-free journalism, or value neutral terms. Why did I zero in on these particular religious fanatics—people who were extreme and determined in their God-given vision to take the land back? Why did I focus on them? Because their perspective and position is dangerous. And it’s one I resonate with as someone who has struggled with religious fanaticism.

Not picking a side is picking a side. Taking a neutral side is supporting the dominant oppression. That’s part of the reason why I allowed my pro-Palestinian bias to shine through in my posts. If I had tried to be more neutral I could have. But given the imbalance of power in that particular context, I felt it was fair to have a somewhat inverse balance of reporting. I was assuming the majority of my audience would be Zionist leaning, or that they didn’t care.

He was assuming that the majority of his audience is still composed of people who found the band while they were on the Christian label Tooth & Nail Records, when they played at religious festivals and circuits. The fans who screamed along to songs about Samson and longing to be filled up by God, people like myself who made it their life’s motto to pray the words from their song, C-Minor, “open up my doors, my Lord, to whatever makes me love You more.”

I have struggled with being deeply religious my entire life. In the beginning, I copied the desperate hearts for God I saw around me. As I grew older, the drive morphed into a passion to evangelize the world, to convert everyone to be just like me and mine. And in the ensuing years my certainty and faith have been deconstructed. The world itself knocked the wind out of me.

Weiss is familiar with this journey, the difference being that he undertook his movement from certainty to doubt publicly. Now, he says “I’m not catering to a singular ideology. I’m trying to incorporate the full spectrum of my religious familial history and personal journeys. and they are contradictory. There is not a single position that we are putting forth, so people who are looking for that have become disillusioned and disappointed.”

In “King Beetle on the Coconut Estate”,  Aaron sings of a beetle king and his court on their quest to figure out what is inside a great fire. Both a professor and a lieutenant try to explain or overpower the fire, and both come back with singed wings. In frustration, the beetle king cries “We sent for the Great Light and you bring us this? We didn’t ask what it seems like, we asked what it IS!” The king decides to fly straight into the flames while his court sings “Why not be utterly changed into fire?” inviting the listener to understand that some mysteries need to be experienced, and at great personal cost. The song is weird as hell and appeals to that part of me that always wanted to go up in flames for what was good and true and right, to see things clearly and not be caged by the dim mirror of our world. In my own life, this meant living with those who experience injustice and inequality in America, working within refugee and low-income communities, burning bright at the edges of the empire. But of course, after a few years of this, my flame dimmed, and I still had no clear picture of who or what I was actually serving. All I had were questions, piling up on one another.

So I asked Aaron the biggest one that has been burning in my heart for quite some time. What do we do after we have spent so much of our time deconstructing the certainty of our youth? How do we start to engage with the world again, to reconcile our doubts about ourselves enough to speak up for justice when it is plain there is none?

He answered slowly, thoughtfully, full of pauses. He is thinking about Palestine, of course, but I meant the question to apply to all of life, I am eager for his wisdom to inform me, like his songs have done.

“Do you need some degree of certainty to act against injustice? I certainly have felt some of that tension. There is some frustration with that feeling of uncertainty eating into a sense of action towards social justice. Especially when it’s not so clear what justice looks like or what ways we can go about bringing it. It can be paralyzing—doubting everything or thinking critically about your beliefs or your actions could result in utter withdrawal. In the case of writing about Palestine, I did wonder if I was doing more harm than good, especially in the case of social media, where anyone could stumble upon this information. Could this cause people to endorse violence against Israel? I posted because there was such an irresistibility about it; it was so palpable the feeling of the stories I was hearing and the heartache and the oppression and the suffering. Although the situation itself was complicated, the suffering was not complicated.

I have never been to Palestine, and I did not meet the people Aaron and his family encountered. But I have met my fair share of refugees, people fleeing from war and violence and corruption and human rights abuses. 

Even though he was only there for a few short weeks, I sensed that same wounding in Weiss, the same sensitivity that makes him such a glorious song-writer and inscrutable semi-public figure. He saw suffering on a scale that shocked him, and he decided to try and shock others around him. I asked him if there had been any lingering effects of the trip.

“It didn’t follow me as much as I thought it would. The day I left I flew to Europe and saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens. And very few people since have asked me about my trip to the Middle East. People have not been that interested. For the people of Palestine this was their life, and for me it was a kind of vacation. If I had more conviction maybe I would sell everything I have and leave my life of comfort and live life with the most oppressed. Why am I not doing more? It hasn’t changed my life very much. It’s another reminder of how little I allow my life to be changed. How little I allow my heart to break over the palpable injustice. Children being killed or people who don’t have clean water to drink. Or people who don’t have basic needs met. Why I choose to still buy expensive coffee when that’s happening—I can’t justify that. But that’s where I am at.

Monks, priests, poets, artists, desert fathers and mothers, saints, troubled people, fanatics are stubborn, idealistic, despondent, unstable, euphoric, crushed by never measuring up, swallowed into the sublime belonging for a moment. Us religious fanatics stretch and grow and hope that someday we will become contemplative, but instead settle for an uneasy dance between activism and acceptance. Always on the look-out for another wild-eyed seeker, I had found one in Aaron so many years ago. But even fanatics get tired after sometime.

In Palestine, Aaron went to the Aida refugee camp where the walls were painted with large murals of keys—signifying how quickly the Palestinians had to flee their homes, how they left the keys in their doors, trusting that one day they would be back, how they still cling to that dream. They are keys to their future, keys to having a place back in the world, keys to believing. Aaron wrote about this camp, and he told me the numbers that would not leave his mind:

“There were either 200 or 500 children killed in Gaza last year, for example. I don’t know how to carry that suffering with me. I don’t think I do carry that, maybe a tiny tiny fraction. The times I have felt the most alive and with the most integrity have been the times I have immersed myself in situations of those who are less fortunate and suffering, and not running away from it. Because it’s a trade-off. If you try and run from suffering your life will have a sort of hollowness to it, but if you embrace suffering or face it or try to stand in solidarity with those who are marginalized in any way—there is a difficulty in that but there is also a richness and meaning and a sense of goodness. So where am I? I can’t say. I’m not very far along the good path. But those kinds of trips are like taking a chisel to a stone heart, chipping away at it. I can’t forget those things. And Lord willing my wife and I will continue to surrender and grow in our willingness to surrender to face more of the difficult realities of the world.

I used to know all the right answers. I used to know how to follow God. I used to sing loudly and lustily along with my favorite bands. Now I feel quiet, cowed by a very complicated world. I used to be a religious fanatic, but in the way of those drawn to extremes. I now wish sometimes I could forget about the ways of the world.

I like Aaron, not only because he has a truly beautiful beard, but also because he still carries within him all the parts of himself. He is still, truth be told, struggling with religiosity. I see myself mirrored in him, how trying to follow God has wounded and healed us, how we know too much to be very happy with our life choices, that we are wondering how much of others suffering we are supposed to bear, and how much needs to be released back into the hands of someone bigger than ourselves.

I no longer read the Bible and scour it for prophecies about Israel, nor do I listen to the lyrics of a favorite band in order to validate my experience. I am slowly coming to the place where I see a thousand different sides to so many issues, where I no longer see the need to explain away violence as just a part of God’s plan for the world. I am picking up the pieces after the fires of life. I am searching for the keys to the new and beautiful kingdom where everyone has a home. But most of all I am learning to rebuild a faith, originally forged in being right, which now hinges on how willing I am to be wounded.

 

 

Photo by: Kyle Kenehan

Transformation, Kintsugi, and the Atomic Bomb

Seventy-one years ago, the atomic bomb “Little Boy” was dropped from Colonel Paul Tibbets’ payload onto the citizens of Hiroshima.  A blinding light shredded across the landscape on August 6, 1945, instantly incinerating nearly a third of the city’s population. Within a few months, over 120,000 people were dead from radiation poisoning. Those left alive were marked—physically, emotionally, spiritually, and culturally.

Hibakusha. Survivors.

August 6 also happens to be the day the Christian church celebrates the Transfiguration of Christ. Having ascended the holy mountain with three disciples, the figure of Jesus is physically transformed and he is joined by Moses and Elijah. Jesus’ face changes; his clothes become a blinding light. While Peter, James, and John don’t know what to make of this, they hear a voice from heaven affirming Jesus as the beloved Son of God. The liturgy for the day asks believers to pray, “Lord, transfigure and heal.

As Jesus was on the holy mountain his body was physically altered. He became a vision of humanity remade in its perfect form. Hiroshima’s destruction was the ultimate unmaking—people were literally evaporated, leaving only irradiated shadows where they last stood.

In 1946 an American journalist named John Hersey traveled to Hiroshima and interviewed some of the hibakusha. In an account that was hailed by the New York Times and Time as one of the greatest works of journalism of the twentieth century, Hersey tells of a different sort of hell than ever before imagined. Through his interactions with hibakusha—from a local doctor to a widowed mother of three to a German Jesuit—Hersey wove together facts and imagery to “stir the conscience of humanity.” His mission was to tell a story of Hiroshima’s devastation so that the world might know the true cost of war in the atomic age. 

The story he tells is brutal. “Thousands of people had nobody to help them,” Hersey wrote. The riverbank was piled with bodies of those who died in the blast or were too weak to escape from drowning. As a fire broke out after the blast, the wounded limped as quickly as they could to safety past the screams of those trapped in rubble. “To distinguish the living from the dead was not easy, for most of the people lay still, with their eyes open.”

The sense of helplessness is palpable as he describes a conversation between two doctors about the level of injury necessary for treatment. “In a city of two hundred and forty-five thousand,” Hersey wrote, “nearly a hundred thousand people had been killed or doomed at one blow; a hundred thousand more were hurt.” The more seriously a patient was wounded, the more they were ignored.

The story and legacy of  Hiroshima is carried on, physically and emotionally, by the hibakusha. The horror of Hiroshima was not just the bomb, but also long and painful deaths from radiation that took months or even years. Those who did survives became physical reminders of the transformative power of war and hate wrought  by a people they would never meet. They were broken and discarded.

Less than a decade after the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, my grandparents left rural Michigan to start what would become a three-decades placement in Japan as Christian missionaries. From Osaka to the suburbs of Tokyo, their lives were to be a particular Christian response to the particular devastation that war, and America, had wrought. This was somewhat unintentional. They had applied to be sent to India, but an administrator at the mission agency had rendered the decision to instead send them to Japan. My grandparents arrived in the early 1950s, the wounds of war still open, their mission to help spread the gospel.

My grandma died last year, and my grandpa preceded her by several years. I never asked either of them what they thought about Hiroshima. I don’t know if they would have seen their work as a correction or penance for the horrible devastation wrought by their countrymen. They were just trying to be faithful.

I don’t know a lot about the exact nature of their work. I know they worked with other missionaries, both Japanese and American, in a compound. I know they raised three children in a post-war Japan, teaching all three to speak fluent Japanese. They took the call of the gospel seriously, and even as their mental capacities diminished, they still prayed lucidly. They saw a healing power in the gospel and they dedicated their lives to it.

“Behold, I am making all things new.” – Revelation 21

This text from Revelation has deep meaning for those broken by war. It imagines a world in which broken things are remade into precious works. In Japan, there is a word for it: kintsugi. Simply put, kintsugi is the Japanese art of repairing pottery with precious metals. Literally meaning “to patch with gold,” kintsugi is a tradition dating to ancient Japan which held that a piece of salvaged, broken ceramic or pottery could become even more valuable than it had originally been. The melted gold infuses a paradoxical combination of strength and fragility, and gives previously useless items new life. Broadly speaking, kintsugi is the art world’s equivalent of reconciliation—making broken things new through the injection of unexpected beauty. Art critic Blake Gopnik has called kintsugia tiny moment of free jazz played during a fugue by Bach.”

Yet, seven decades after Hiroshima there is still innocent bloodshed. In Paris, Syria, and Orlando lives are snatched away while the church still prays for transfiguration and healing. Those left alive after terror attacks and warfare are similarly marked. They are, in their own way, hibakusha. The church is called to inhabit these spaces in order to affect a different sort of transformation, and to counter the world’s modus operandi through acts of service and love.

Two months ago, President Obama made the first visit by a sitting American president to the site of the bombing. He told an audience that included hibakusha, “death fell from the sky and the world was changed.”

Obama did not shy away from the horror of the attack, and rightly described it as a transformative moment in world history:

“A flash of light and a wall of fire destroyed a city and demonstrated that mankind possessed the means to destroy itself.  Why do we come to this place, to Hiroshima?  We come to ponder a terrible force unleashed in a not so distant past.  We come to mourn the dead, including over 100,000 in Japanese men, women and children; thousands of Koreans; a dozen Americans held prisoner. Their souls speak to us. They ask us to look inward, to take stock of who we are and what we might become.

While President Obama’s remarks were noteworthy in calling for a moral revolution, he did not apologize for the bombing. The visit should not be misconstrued as an act of reconciliation. Strength has and will continue to be measured by force and the capability to wield destruction, and the United States continues to possess thousands of nuclear weapons. This wasn’t true healing; kintsugi cannot be produced through state visits.

Jesus’ transfiguration is an eschatological vision—that is, a glimpse of the world as it should be, a proclamation of a reality counter to the one of this broken world. The vision of the transfiguration comes with an invitation, an offer to participate in a different sort of power, the power of kintsugi.

That power is displayed in Father Kleinsorge, the German Jesuit chronicled by Hersey who sought to serve the hibakusha and the help rebuild Japan. Fr. Kleinsorge was the true embodiment of kintsugi because through his service he was unmade. At once hibakusha and kintsugi, Kleinsorge dedicated his life so fully to the care of survivors that he became a Japanese citizen and changed his name to Father Takakura. His service sapped his strength, and he died in 1977 from lingering health issues caused by radiation. He was called by his German brothers rücksichtsvoll—overly regardful—and enryo by those he helped—self-sacrificing.

I’d like to think that kintsugi is part of my grandparent’s legacy. Their task was to mend the spiritual wounds of Americans and Japanese through the work of the gospel, making something even more precious than before. While they were white Americans raised in the Midwest and formed by a conversion-centric evangelical theology, I still remember my grandma making Japanese meals for us, teaching us snippets of Japanese phrases, and recounting my grandpa’s sermons in front of a Japanese congregation. They allowed themselves to be shaped and molded by a country and people considered their enemy. They wanted to be a light.

The work of kintsugi bestows new life and meaning to things that were broken, scattered and deemed worthless. That the Day of Transfiguration is celebrated on August 6 challenges the notion that broken things must remain broken, and suggests that no one—not victims of conflict nor those guilty of the horrors of war – are beyond healing.

 

Podcast Bricolage?

Editor’s Note: We’ve asked a few friends to share the podcasts they love, the interviewers and reporting that catches their imaginations again and again. Last week we shared Meaghan Ritchey’s suggestions, and today we’re bringing you a mix with a slightly different bent from Dr. Taylor Worley. We hope you continue to enjoy these!

 

On more than one occasion, friends have joked that my wife and I have “a podcast for everything.” That is only partially true. Between us, however, we can usually turn almost any dinner conversation toward a recent episode from a beloved podcast. Until this disorder is properly studied and suitably treated, we can only announce a public warning for all would-be dinner guests: We love podcasts and love to tell people about our podcasts.

Old Favorites

Like many others, we got sucked into the podcast universe through the classic and canonical examples of This American Life and Radiolab. While my wife moved on to enjoy a more eclectic mix of offerings (e.g. Invisibilia, Death, Sex, and Money, and the now revived Brain Science Podcast—tag-lined “For everyone who has a brain.”), I stuck to the staples of the form and collected more interview-based shows along the way—Marc Maron’s WTF podcast or Alec Baldwin’s Here’s the Thing. Of course, whenever I listened to The Moth I felt large-hearted and worldly-wise, but an interviewer who can subtly extract buried emotions from guests you thought you knew keeps me coming back.

Favorite Finds

In the last couple of years, I’ve gravitated to the following dependable shows. These are the ones that I treasure the most.

State of the Re:Union While this amazing, Peabody-awarded show has now ended, it boasts a truly unique archive of journalistic finds. With friends and acquaintances, I use the following description of the show: it explores profound problems facing local communities across the country and how those communities are finding their own creative solutions. When it shows up, the church usually looks good—concerned and caring, fiercely loyal and fearless. Start with “Jacksonville”—my first episode, but don’t miss “Pike County Ohio” or “Austin.” Keep on the look out for the show’s pioneering poet/cultural commentator/activist Al Letson; his next project will be big.

In Our TimeIf you ever wanted to attend a dinner party with three or four top-tier British historians, listen to Melvyn Bragg’s BBC Radio 4 show. Almost any topic from history—“Sunni vs. Shia Islam,” “Salem Witch Trials,” or “Frida Kahlo”—becomes intriguing when his academic sortie delves into the details with their unguarded and argumentative (but in the irrepressibly polite and British way) conversations. They often make familiar history strange again.

On BeingI would only recommend this podcast after you make a fairly regular practice of listening to Pray-as-you-go and incorporating their simple rhythm of Jesuit meditation on the Bible. If that’s in place, let Krista Tippett’s super-soothing voice (Warning: Krista can induce napping) lead you to encounter some of the most important religious voices of our time. Her introductions can certainly inspire a greater generosity of spirit, or expose you to emerging voices like “Nadia Bolz-Weber,” but Krista’s greatest service to humanity is capturing the insights of “Jean Vanier,” “Father Greg Boyle,” and “Mary Oliver.” She welcomes me to meet new voices all the time, but I still listen to Jean Vanier’s interview over and over.

More Hopeful

After reading Meaghan Ritchey’s podcast list, I wondered why I couldn’t produce an equally long and varied list. The most likely answer is that she’s a more interesting person than I am, but on further reflection, I’m not surprised that I’m so fiercely loyal to a consistent line-up of about twelve shows. When I’ve found a podcast that delivers time and again, I will keep showing up for it. This relationship says more about how I use podcasts than anything. I need these imaginative auditory excursions. Podcasts regularly redeem my daily commute. They make waiting in an airport or train station a coveted occasion. They let me wind down at the end of the day.

Recently, many shows are adopting a serialized approach. Consider seasons 1 and 2 of Serial from This American Life, Malcom Gladwell’s Revisionist History, or Radiolab’s More Perfect. Not only does this format present a more sustainable model for the interesting people involved (that’s Gladwell, right?), but it makes for more riveting journalism and even more focused explorations of specific issues (Serial’s Adnan Syed or a history of the Supreme Court in More Perfect). Could podcasts actually be undoing our society’s chronic attention span problem?

The sociologist and historian of spirituality Michel de Certeau famously wrote about bricolage in his two volume The Practice of Everyday Life. Without a direct equivalent in English, the term roughly means “do-it-yourself” meaning-making. While Certeau connected bricolage to the practice of daily reading as a form of resisting meaninglessness in our post-industrial society, the regular practice of listening to podcasts can serve as rich and timely curation for authentic being in our world.

 

Featured Image: ‘In the World But Don’t Know the World?’ (2009), by El Anatsui (Ghana)

Rocket Girls

The race to space is often depicted as the last frontier—a rugged landscape that demands smarts as a compass and sheer gumption as the driving force. Usually men are the main characters in the historical narratives about the advance of rocket technology. Nathalia Holt’s book, The Rise of the Rocket Girls, upends such a  perception. As the tagline says, the book chronicles “the women who propelled us, from missiles to the moon to Mars.” Instead of describing women on the periphery of science, in supporting roles as astronaut wives or inspiring teachers, the women or “rocket girls” prove central to the fundamental equations that launched rockets into space and beyond.

The rocket girls worked as “computers,” literally—someone who computes—plugging numbers into complicated equations with a team of engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) during WWII. The laboratory began as a rogue group at CalTech named “the suicide squad,” with a band of daredevils launching homemade rockets into a California canyon. Their work proved tremendously formative for war efforts and the space race, but their impact in forming a more progressive work culture has been overlooked until now. Many of the women who found a vocation there were thrilled to find an outlet for their quantitative skills. One of JPL’s stars, Helen Chow, minored in mathematics at Notre Dame for fun, despite the fact that she couldn’t imagine a place that would employ her. As the launch of each missile and rocket depended on thousands of calculations, the all-women team of computers was absolutely critical to the success of JPL, and later NASA.

Precision in these calculations were vital, as a missing square root could cause an explosion during a test of a missile, endangering the lives of coworkers. They endured long work hours and high pressure situations:

“project could have beaten Sputnik possibly, certainly the women feel like that could have happened, but much of it was held back for political reasons. The women had these positions where they were incredibly skilled mathematicians, and yet they weren’t being given full credit and the full ability to show what they could do.

Still, the women in the book are deeply grateful for the chance to work in such a stimulating environment. As the 40s give way to later decades, they continued the fight against gender norms. Holt captures the magnitude of further shifts in the 60s, “Known as computers since the lab’s inception, they were now officially engineers. It was a breakthrough as big as landing on the moon.”

Holt’s narrative challenged my presuppositions about the role of women in science as a fairly recent development. In the prevailing historical narrative, women who contributed to scientific advancements, the Marie Curies and Ada Lovelaces, can seem like a one-off phenomenon. Instead, Holt presents an entire department of women integral to the success of physics problems of tremendous import. Without Holt’s dedication to uncovering these womens’ stories, their contributions might have dissolved into anonymity.

Rocket Girls paints a robust portrait of the women who worked at JPL, describing their relationships and their families alongside their work. As readers follow the failures and successes of the space race, they also enter into the lives and deliberations of the women as they fall in and out of love, have children and lose family members, leave and return to work. “For most American women, marriage meant being a housewife, but many of the computers had found a way to reconcile the two, managing their home and work lives with the poise of surfer riding a cresting wave.” The portraits of the women are authentic and relatable for any woman balancing relationships and a career. We see their deliberation over marrying when that may mean leaving a job they love. Barbara Paulson, a dedicated employee who manages the lab, is abruptly fired due to the insurance liability of having a pregnant woman on staff. While JPL was progressive in their hiring practices, the women certainly experienced the inequality acutely.

rocket girls 2

The women of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory helped launch the first American satellites, lunar missions and planetary explorations. Those “human computers,” as they were called, are seen here in 1953. Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech

Once, when a group of men took to calling the women “computreses,” they countered the condescending label by referring to themselves as “the sisterhood.” In this progressive and sexist context, Holt paints a vibrant portrait of the camaraderie of the women who worked at JPL. The demands of their job were often isolating, so the women supported each other. They celebrated life milestones together and made phone calls to those who left after having children. For many years, the group was headed by Macie Roberts, a matriarchal figure who had the highest standards for accurate work and also fostered a convivial atmosphere. It’s telling that minority women felt at home with the group; Janez Lawson, the first African American female hire for NASA, compared her coworkers to her sorority at UCLA.  

Rise of the Rocket Girls should top the list of summer reads for anyone looking to reflect on  balancing life and career as a woman. I loved the wild celebration after a successful launch at Cape Canaveral and the ballroom dancing scenes at the Del Coronado in San Diego. I wanted to high five Barby, one of the earliest computers, when she attended a heart-stopping missile launch in a canyon while wearing a scarf to keep the dust out of her curls. Turn the clock back a few decades and read Rocket Girls to appreciate the women who were pioneers in every sense of the word—from the moon launch to our own work culture.

The Life Lost in Information

Just over a hundred years ago, human knowledge was doubling every century. By the end of World War II it was doubling every 25 years. Today on average, information doubles every 13 months, but in the world of the Internet it can double within 12 hours.

We live in an age of exponential information, where the answer, or at least an answer to almost any question is just a few keystrokes away, where the perceived solution to many social problems is more education, and where the accusation of being ignorant is one of the greatest slights.

But an increase in data has also brought with it the problem of information overload. As Paul Hemp writes for the Harvard Business Review,

“Content rushes at us in countless formats: text messages and Twitter tweets on our cell phones. Facebook friend alerts, and voice mail on our BlackBerrys. Instant messages and direct-marketing sales pitches (no longer limited by the cost of postage) on our desktop computers. Not to mention the ultimate killer app: e-mail. Meanwhile, we’re drawn toward information that in the past didn’t exist or that we didn’t have access to but, now that it’s available, we dare not ignore. Online research reports and industry data. Blogs written by colleagues or by executives at rival companies. Wikis and discussion forums on topics we’re following. The corporate intranet. The latest banal musings of friends in our social networks.

But while an increase in information could be considered a morally neutral phenomenon by some, it has brought with it the rise of a troubling trend: the need to be “in the know”:

“Of course, not everyone feels overwhelmed by the torrent of information. Some are stimulated by it. But that raises the specter of…[cue scary music]…information addiction. According to a 2008 AOL survey of 4,000 e-mail users in the United States, 46% were “hooked” on e-mail. Nearly 60% of everyone surveyed checked e-mail in the bathroom, 15% checked it in church, and 11% had hidden the fact that they were checking it from a spouse or other family member. The tendency of always-available information to blur the boundaries between work and home can affect our personal lives in unexpected ways.

What’s worse is that this constant barrage, coupled with an addictive need to process it, is often leading to detrimental effects. Hemp elaborates:

“Researchers say that the stress of not being able to process information as fast as it arrives—combined with the personal and social expectation that, say, you will answer every e-mail message—can deplete and demoralize you. Edward Hallowell, a psychiatrist and expert on attention-deficit disorders, argues that the modern workplace induces what he calls ‘attention deficit trait,’ with characteristics similar to those of the genetically based disorder. Author Linda Stone, who coined the term ‘continuous partial attention’ to describe the mental state of today’s knowledge workers, says she’s now noticing—get this—’e-mail apnea’: the unconscious suspension of regular and steady breathing when people tackle their e-mail.

I mention all this because I’ve found them to be true in my own life. Like many of us, I’ve found myself scrolling through Facebook or Twitter when I should be focusing on a project. I’ve faced the temptation to quickly look at my phone while at dinner or out socializing with friends. And who hasn’t gone to the bathroom so we could have a few moments of peace with Instagram? Increasingly, I’ve felt the guilt of an addict who knows they probably need to stop but doesn’t know how or doesn’t quite want to.

What emerges from this picture is a Stockholm Syndrome-like relationship with information. And beyond the noted psychological and physical effects pointed out by Hemp, this has led me to ponder the question: is there is deeper spiritual malady occurring here? Is our cyclical relationship of needing to know but being negatively impacted by the process of knowing leading us further away from God, and further away from our own humanity?

It occurs to me that the problem here is a very old one, in fact, it goes back to the very beginning.

In the opening chapters of the Bible, in the Jewish-Christian origin story of mankind, Adam and Eve are created perfect and good and given free rein of the garden of Eden, all except one tree, called the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Some translators have pointed out that the phrase “Good and Evil” is a figure of speech known as a merism, a pairing of opposites that is designed to represent everything in between. In other words, the tree represents omniscience, the knowledge of everything, a characteristic traditionally ascribed to God alone.

In this understanding, the prohibition of eating from the tree is a reminder from God regarding the hierarchy of the created order. God is pointing out to Adam and Eve that they are finite creatures and he is the infinite Creator.

Then enters the tempting serpent into the story and he seduces Eve. He paints God as a stingy overlord, holding out on his creatures, saving the best for himself. The serpents says that in eating the fruit, she will “be like God, knowing good and evil,” knowing everything.

Now, whether you believe the story to be literally true or a myth with an important lesson, there is something here that resonates with human history and our experience: the idea of forbidden, trans-temporal knowledge and power and the fate of those who recklessly pursue it. At every stage of human progress there have been those who questioned: how much is too much? Some of them have been simple curmudgeons, but some have had the wisdom to see the self-destructive tendencies of the human heart. They’ve recognized that just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should, or as St. Paul wrote, “everything is permissible, but not everything is beneficial”.

Comparing the Fall of humanity to addictively scrolling through your Facebook feed may seem a bit much, but I believe they exist on the same spectrum. They both ignore the fact that there is happiness in being limited to time and place (a foreign sounding sentiment in today’s age of “be whatever you want to be”). If nothing else, the impacts of information addiction speak for themselves, pointing to trends that lead away from human flourishing and growth. I know for myself, I often reach the point where I feel like Derek Webb’s protagonist in his song “I Feel Everything”:

I cannot hear because I hear anything

I cannot see because I see everything

I cannot feel because I feel everything

A perfect example is the media cycle that kicks in every time a major tragedy happens in this country. In such moments I’m torn between the desire to know every developing detail and opinion, and my awareness of the types of politicization and dehumanizing arguments that take place round the clock for several days after. We often flock to social media during tragedy to gain information, but do we leave with true understanding, deeper empathy, or further wisdom?

I’ve sometimes fantasized that it would be good in such situations, after some basic information about the tragedy is shared, to have a temporary moratorium on any further communication. We’d have to think and pray about it, perhaps have conversations with our families. We wouldn’t need to know every newly developing minor detail or every one of our friend’s political opinions related the issue in order to understand that something tragic had happened. We could truly feel because we wouldn’t be faced with feeling everything. As comedian Louis C.K. observes in a now famous YouTube clip, our information consumption and proliferation is often used as a way to escape feeling.

Where does our current trajectory lead us? The poet T.S. Eliot, sitting on the cusp of the Information Age, already had an idea, which he expressed in “Choruses from ‘The Rock'”:

The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,
All our ignorance brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to God.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries
Bring us farther from God and nearer to the Dust.

Perhaps in remembering that we are dust we can begin to regain the life we have lost in information.

A Hint Towards Podcasts

An old boyfriend and I used to tease that people who listen to podcasts incessantly can’t bear to “be alone with their thoughts.” Obviously we were reluctant to fall into that category, but as freelancers we were earbudders. Hearing stories from another voice, even if  tinged with unmistakable NPR idiosyncrasy, was a welcome afternoon respite, a dual sense of intimacy and escape once the heavy-lifting of the morning’s creative work was done. That, coupled with my somewhat naive and unexercised hope of becoming a TG-KT-CR-IT (Terry Gross-Krista Tippett-Charlie Rose-In Training), and I used listening as tutelage.

Curator was previously in the habit of editing eponymously, assembling and directing readers toward art that’s reflective of a certain conceptual framework. We’ve let some of that go—though it brings much joy! Here’s a basic stab at getting back to that, a simple gesture that some of you might appreciate, a list.

In no particular order, these are podcasts (or radio shows) which might be pleasing in certain moods.

What’s Going On, Literary
New Yorker Radio Hour | The New Yorker’s editor, David Remnick, presents a weekly mix of in-depth interviews, profiles, and short bursts of humor.
The Author’s Voice: New Fiction from the New Yorker New Yorker fiction writers read their stories.

Devo
Pray-as-You Go | Produced by the British Jesuits, Pray-as-You-Go combines music, scripture and some questions for reflection as a framework for your own prayer.
PZ’s Podcast | Grace-based impressions and outré correlations from the author of Grace in Practice, Paul F.M. Zahl.
The Mockingcast | A weekly digest of goings-on in the Mockingsphere. The first half of each episode is devoted to an interview with a prominent thinker/writer/artist/preacher, and the second half features a round-table discussion of that week’s news with hosts Scott Jones, Sarah Condon and David Zahl.

Werk
Workwise | Ken Kinard and Mike Boyes share a passion for helping people thrive at work. They discuss creativity, leadership, personality styles, productivity, and how to create a healthier workplace. And they featured yours truly here! 
History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps | Peter Adamson, Professor of Philosophy at the LMU in Munich and at King’s College London, takes listeners through the history of philosophy, “without any gaps.” The series looks at the ideas, lives and historical context of the major philosophers as well as the lesser-known figures of the tradition.
Creative Mornings | CreativeMornings is a breakfast lecture series for the creative community and their podcast reflects material derived from those gatherings.

Funny Haha
Mom on Pop | The A.V. Club editor-in-chief John Teti invites his mom, Bonney Teti, to share her unfiltered opinions on pop culture.
The Best Show with Tom Scharpling | Three hours of Mirth, Music and Mayhem hosted by Tom Scharpling, the grandfather of podcasting, and Jon Wurster. The show is a combination music, call-in, and comedy Internet radio, which previously aired on New Jersey-based radio stationWFMU from 2000–2013. ( A longtime fav.)
Judge John Hodgman | Have your pressing issues decided by Famous Minor Television Personality John Hodgman, Certified Judge.
Comedy Bang! Bang! | Join host Scott Aukerman for a weekly podcast that blends conversation and character work from today’s funniest comedians. While Scott begins by traditionally interviewing the celebrities, the open-door policy means an assortment of eccentric oddballs can pop by at any moment to chat, compete in games, and engage in comic revelry.

Music
Walking the Floor with Chris Shiflett | Chris Shiflett, guitarist for Foo Fighters, Dead Peasants, and Me First and the Gimme Gimmes, hosts “Walking The Floor” where he engages a wide range of musical guests, writers, athletes, and artists in one-on-one interviews exploring their creative inspirations, failures, successes and everything in between.
WFUV’s Alternate Side | In-studio performances from Fordham University’s indie station
All Songs Considered | Hosts Bob Boilen and Robin Hilton spin new music from emerging bands and musical icons.

Oldies But Goodies
On Being | On Being opens up the animating questions at the center of human life: What does it mean to be human, and how do we want to live? KT explores these questions in their richness and complexity in 21st-century lives and endeavors. She and her guests pursue wisdom and moral imagination as much as knowledge; they esteem nuance and poetry as much as fact.
RadiolabRadiolab, with Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, is a radio show that has been weaving stories and science into sound and music-rich documentaries for fourteen seasons.
Fresh Air with Terry Gross | Its 1994 Peabody Award citation credits Fresh Air with “probing questions, revelatory interviews and unusual insights.” The show gives interviews as much time as needed, and complements them with comments from well-known critics and commentators.

Date Prep, Or No Date Prep
Modern Love | Modern Love: The Podcast adds new dimension to the popular New York Times column, with readings by notable personalities and updates from the essayists themselves.
Dear Sugar | Hosted by the original Sugars, Cheryl Strayed and Steve Almond, the podcast fields relationship questions—no matter how deep or dark.
2 Dope Queens | Phoebe Robinson and Jessica Williams, along with their favorite comedians, for stories about romance, race, hair journeys, living in New York, and Billy Joel.

Nerding Out or Happy-Resting-Face-Place (When I’m not Reading)
The Bowery Boys: New York City History | The Bowery Boys, Greg Young and Tom Meyers, have lived in New York for the past 20 years and have been curious about the city since the day they arrived. Join them for a fun take on history, a “romp down the back alleys of New York City.”
Revisionist History | Each week for 10 weeks, Malcolm Gladwell will go back and reinterpret something from the past: an event, a person, an idea. Something overlooked. Something misunderstood.
Stuff You Should Know
InvisibiliaInvisibilia (Latin for invisible things) is about the invisible forces that control human behavior – ideas, beliefs, assumptions and emotions. Co-hosted by Lulu Miller, Hanna Rosin and Alix Spiegel, Invisibilia interweaves narrative storytelling with scientific research that will ultimately make you see your own life differently.
Surprisingly Awesome | Revealing the hidden awesomeness in everyday things

Longform Journalism
Embedded | Hosted by Kelly McEvers, Embedded takes a story from the news and goes deep. What does it feel like for a father in El Salvador to lie to his daughter about the bodies he saw in the street that day? What does it feel like for a nurse from rural Indiana to shoot up a powerful prescription opioid? Embedded (EMBD) takes you to where they’re happening.

Nom Nom
Bon Appetit Foodcast | Featuring interviews with chefs, writers, and anyone who has anything to say about food.

Art/Design
99% Invisible | 99% Invisible is about all the thought that goes into the things we don’t think about—the unnoticed architecture and design that shape our world.

 

Don’t let the length of this list overwhelm you! Don’t let this become another pressure. Know that no one is listening to all of this material. This list is just a little menagerie for folks looking to enliven their highway commutes, a trick for people who are scrubbing their baseboards, material for a stag sunbather. It’s good stuff, and it deserves an audience—that can be you or not.

I’m Bored

When summer officially arrived, my three step-sons had been out of school for about five weeks already for their summer break—just long enough for all three of them to have grown bored.

Despite multiple gaming systems, laptops, a Netflix subscription, and a membership to the pool; regardless of the numerous trips to local movie theaters, a week spent volunteering at our church’s Vacation Bible School, and a week of camp for the older two; not to mention two vacations, weekend road trips, and a planned visit to an amusement park, our kids feel dissatisfied, distracted, and disenchanted by their options.

And they aren’t alone.

Most days, despite a never-ending to-do list and nonstop schedule that leaves me nodding off if I even try to sit down to watch an episode of Cedar Cove on Netflix, ennui smolders within me, too. On one particularly boring day, I was reminded of a recent Guardian article I’d read: “Why are we so bored?” “We live in a world of constant entertainment—but is too much stimulation boring?” the author asks.

“Up to half of us are ‘often bored’ at home or at school, while more than two-thirds of us are chronically bored at work. We are bored by paperwork, by the commute and by dull meetings. TV is boring, as is Facebook and other social media. We spend our weekends at dull parties, watching tedious films or listening to our spouses drone on about their day. Our kids are bored—bored of school, of homework and even of school holidays.

All of this adds up to a big problem, writes Sandi Mann, author of The Upside of Downtime: Why Boredom is Good: “We are overstimulated.” The more we are entertained, the more we want to be entertained. And the more we want to be entertained, the more it takes to entertain us. Our attention spans have shrunk to less than goldfish proportion (8 seconds). And our screen time has burgeoned: we spend an average of six to seven hours in front of our phone, tablet, computer, and TV screens every day. As a writer, my average is more like 8-10 hours.

“Instead of performing varied activities that engage different neural systems (sport, knitting, painting, cooking, etc.) to relieve our tedium, we fall back on the same screen-tapping schema for much of our day,” Mann writes. “The irony is that while our mobile devices should allow us to fill every moment, our means of obtaining that entertainment has become so repetitive and routine that it’s a source of boredom in itself.”

This is where things really get interesting.

According to Andreas Elpidorou, an assistant professor in philosophy at the University of Louisville in Kentucky, boredom “arises as the result of the perception of a mismatch: a gap between the need for stimulation and its availability. We want something that simply is not there.” Not only is boredom the result of “our awareness of that absence,” it’s also our cue “to pursue a different situation, one that seems more meaningful or interesting, just as a sharp pain motivates us not to put pins into our bodies.”

But when we attempt to satisfy that cue with the same kinds of activities that created the boredom, we lose our appetite for “activities that seem congruent with our wishes” or for what truly will stimulate us, entertain us, or fulfill our desire for meaning.

Elpidorou suggests that the best way to quell the ennui is by responding in a way that initially might feel counterintuitive: by choosing a less stimulating activity. “So, the next time boredom overcomes you, it might be best not to ignore it. It might be best not to cover it up with your smartphone. Boredom might be trying to tell you something.”

In my life, I can think of at least two activities that would likely be a better response to boredom than more screen time. First, sleep. Though I rarely get a good night’s sleep and often complain that the sleep I get is fitful and restless, I continue to ignore the growing body of research suggesting screens are the enemy of melatonin and go ahead and shine the bright blue light of my iPhone directly into my eyes while I’m lying in bed. I check email, I scan Facebook, I watch Netflix. While reading would be the better solution to my nocturnal boredom, and I could do it with a very low lamp beside the bed, “I’m too tired to read,” I tell myself. Too bored might be more like it.

“Bed is boring compared to the internet,” writes Lauren Bravo in a LifeHacker article about a sleep experiment she did. “At first, getting into bed at 10pm doesn’t feel like a treat; it feels like a punishment. I miss my usual evening wind-down activities–a bath, a book, a little light Netflix, and especially my favourite pre-bedtime hobby: dicking around on the internet.” Over the two weeks she forced herself to get to bed earlier, however, Bravo trained herself to relish the quiet time, and better sleep eventually became her habit again.

According to Ariana Huffington, sleep itself can be an antidote for boredom in our lives. In a recent HuffPost article, she talks about the way sleep “allows us, once we return from our night’s journey, to see the world anew, with fresh eyes and a reinvigorated spirit, to step out of time and come back to our lives restored.”

This leads to another of life’s appetites that slips away when we are overstimulated: art, which Susan Sontag famously wrote is essentially boring itself. “We should not expect art to entertain or divert any more. At least, not high art,” she writes in As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980.

Though I may feign contempt when my teenage stepsons get bored at an art museum, I, too, have a limited attention span for walking through galleries or listening to a symphony. I subscribe to literary journals, but rarely read them cover to cover, in favor of reading a popular novel or even watching more Netflix shows. Art can be, and often is, boring.

But maybe that’s the point, contends Alva Noë, a philosopher at the University of California, Berkeley. Noë writes:

“Works of art, in all their variety, it seems to me, afford us the opportunity for boredom—and they do so when everything in our lives mitigates against boredom. Maybe this is one of art’s gifts? Could it be that the power to bore us to tears is a clue to what art is and why it is so important?

How does art bore us? Noë offers several suggestions: through its lack of a bottom line or “nugget of truth”; through its power to interrupt our normal standards of utility or practicality; through its ability to force us out of our comfort zone. But art also alleviates our boredom if we allow it to do its work in us.

“When it comes to art, and philosophy, there isn’t even anything that rises to the level of an encounter until you experience the fact that it is not the work—not the picture, or play, or dance, or song, or installation—that is opening itself up. But you, yourself, and all of us together.

I want to open myself up to art in that way, which is why I allow for boredom when I engage art in its various forms. For instance, my husband and I are members of the Indianapolis Art Museum in part to support the arts, but mostly for the free admission so that we don’t feel bad about paying full admission price just for an hour or two visit. I also try to spend more time with individual works of art rather than speeding through and “entertaining” myself with the volume and diversity of the many galleries. Also, rather than entertain questions such as “Is that really art?” as I walk through the museum, I try to answer the question “Why is this considered art?”

Other strategies also keep me engaged with art, despite my boredom. I assume a book of essays will take me much longer to read than the latest chick lit book I picked up off the sale table at Barnes & Noble. So I make myself read at least one essay at each sitting before I switch over to the easier material. I listen to classical music, but I do so as a background track to my workday. I could give it more attention by listening to it in the car, but I prefer to sing along to the latest pop songs when I drive. And I try to read a poem a day, sometimes a couple a day, even if I might not understand them all. Keeping art in my life in small doses helps develop my appetite for it. So when I do have the opportunity to attend a gallery tour or an orchestral recital or a lecture on architecture, I am willing to work through the boredom to find meaning and fulfillment.

Interestingly, the more I fight my way through the boredom of art, and sleep, the more energy and creativity and interest I have in the rest of my life. Somehow, the boredom of art makes life less boring.

According to the boys’ school calendar, we’ve got several more weeks of summer boredom to endure. But that also means we’ve got plenty of time to slow down, unplug, and de-stimulate ourselves. In fact, our middle son asked about visiting the art museum again this summer—what a perfectly boring idea.

 

 

 

Featured Image: Ennui, 1914, Walter Sickert (1860–1942)

Noteworthy: More than a Spectator

In the documentary, Bill Cunningham New York, New York City’s beloved fashion photographer received an award from the National Order of the Legion of Honour of France and said, “It’s not the celebrity and not the spectacle. It’s as true today as it ever was: he who seeks beauty will find it.” It’s one of the few moments in the film when Bill’s ebullient personality cracks to reveal a wide-open heart filled with both deep love and wonder for the world. At that point, you’re listening to less a lecture on fashion and more his life’s thesis—the open-hearted pursuit of beauty.

My only experience of Bill is watching the recent documentary and a few interviews, but even with that limited connection, I’ve found myself thinking about him—even grieving his recent death. It’s not intimacy per se, but I have a real sense of gratitude for the choices he made to pursue his work. As Søren Kierkegaard said, “purity of heart is to will one thing.” Bill’s life as a photographer is a model of that kind of purity, and reflecting on his simple yet consistent commitments can help with our own pursuit of beauty.

He committed himself to his creative work. As soon as Bill discovered photography, he documented New York City for the rest of his life. Sometimes working two jobs at a time, he always found a way to be on streets taking pictures, “letting the streets speak to him.” It was a commitment that shaped his personal life (he never married) and even his apartment. A quick glance at the rows of file cabinets crowding every corner of his apartment—a priceless photographic archive of New York—and you can see how his life and work were fully integrated.

He lived simply. Bill rode bicycles all over the city, and the fact that they were often stolen didn’t matter to him; the tool was a means to an end, and if it needed replacing he would replace it. It’s an open-handed approach to possessions that carried over into his whole life. He seemed genuinely uninterested in accumulating wealth—it was a distraction to him, and choosing simplicity emerged less from a place of moralistic self-denial and more the need to remove whatever obstacles kept him from his work.

He separated himself from those with power and influence. Bill distinguished himself from the socialites he photographed by wearing a bright blue worker’s coat and eating before events instead of accepting the wine and lavish gifts offered him. And it wasn’t only his dress that separated him from others—at times he refused payment for his work, preferring creative freedom instead: “Money’s the cheapest thing; liberty and freedom is the most expensive!” These clear visible markers signified the purpose of his work. By resisting the social (or financial) hierarchy, he was free to work without deference to the expectations of others.

He treated everyone—regardless of status—with compassion. Giving up a sense of entitlement overflowed into a compassionate interest in every person around him. In scene after scene in the film, he spends just as much time laughing with people on the street as a wealthy museum donor; he’s fascinated by people and they way they clothe themselves whether that’s a homeless person or a runway model.

When I look at these choices, Bill seems almost like a priest, and in the film one friend even called him a “fashion deity.” Certainly, he wouldn’t want that kind of attention, and it would be irresponsible to canonize him. But think about Pope Francis or His Holiness the Dalai Lama or any celebrity with the reputation of being “down to earth”—they all share the same open-handed relationship to their own power and a genuine interest in others, and Bill’s work as a photographer is much closer to saints than the paparazzi. G. K. Chesterton describes a similar egalitarian quality in St. Francis of Assisi:

“There was never a man who looked into those brown burning eyes without being certain that Francis Bernardino was really interested in him; in his own inner individual life from the cradle to the grave; that he himself was being valued and taken seriously, and not merely added to the spoils of some social policy or the names in some clerical document.

Free from selfishness, St. Francis could engage others not as means of accumulating wealth and status, but loved persons qua persons. This kind of openness to others is transformative, and as a photographer, Bill looked through his lens with this same love—and that’s inspiring no matter what our creative work might be.

 

 

 

FROM THE ARCHIVE: Renewing the Dialect of the Tribe

This piece was originally published last June.

 

A writer and professor of medical humanities at UC Berkeley, Marilyn Chandler McEntyre has authored numerous works—including Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies and What’s in a Phrase? —on what it means to steward language well, for our words to act as instruments of truth and life. More recently she has written a pair of books on the words and practices involved in the act of dying faithfully, the first being A Faithful Farwell. The Curator talked with Marilyn Chandler McEntyre about her writing, both old and new, the responsibilities of writers, fidelity to communal conversations, and how we talk about death. This interview has been edited for publication.

 

 

Adam Joyce: Why did you write Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies?

Marilyn Chandler McEntyre: Part of it came out of my own response to the intensified rhetoric after 9/11, the invasion of Iraq, and the Patriot Act. Corporations and government were justifying all kinds of new unfoldings in the process, which made it difficult to feel that one could trust the integrity of public argument, debate, and persuasion.

The work also came out of a really positive vocational sense of being called, both inside and outside the classroom, to deal with words. I had the positive desire to reflect on my own vocation and the negative motivation was sorrow and anxiety about the discursive environment that students and children are growing up in.

AJ: Amidst these problematic cultural habits and practices of language, what is the writer’s responsibility when it comes to words? Also, what about the essayist—what is his or her responsibility?

MCM: There is a lot of slippage and erosion in how our culture uses language, yet the processes of degradation aren’t always entirely conscious on the part of people who contribute to them. In the book I make a comparison between our treatment of language and the environment. Look at what is happening to the environment by virtue of industrial food processes, farming methods, factory farms, and so on, yet not everybody who eats meat thinks about factory farms. In the same way, not everybody who uses language considers how we have been acculturated to accept abstractions, imprecisions, forms of vagueness or half truths, and empty rhetoric, in political, media, and commercial processes.

The vocation of any writer is to be on the front line of people who are willing to spend mental energy, spiritual energy, cultural capital, and time crafting words, reflecting on them, and renewing them in the sense T.S. Elliot talked about. Borrowing from Mallarmé, he said that the task of the poet is to “renew the dialect of the tribe.”

Part of renewal in a poem or an essay involves recontextualizing words in such a way that people see them again, and say, “Oh yeah, I hadn’t thought of that word in that way.” The task of the essayist is first of all clarity. Clarity is a gift and entails things like precision, careful development, and examples.

AJ: In Caring for Words it seems like the concepts of stewardship and fidelity are interwoven, almost inseparable from one another. And that any sort of healthy “caring for words,” which goes beyond your own inner life and is rightly connected with a community and their words, requires fidelity. Does fidelity allow for us to talk about what good and careful conversation looks like differently than stewardship does?

MCM: I’m a great fan of Wendell Berry. I’ve recently been teaching his book, Fidelity: Five Stories, which complicates and opens up the definition of fidelity. After you have read those stories and his poem, “The Dance,” which says, “Love changes, and in change is true,” you can’t think about what it means to be faithful in quite the same way.

What it means to be faithful has to move from a simplistic idea of steadfastness, to a more fluid and nuanced notion of staying in relationship—helping people to step back from words by foregrounding them, and saying, “What do you think about this word again?” That is one of the ways a writer can pull words up out of the dust, polish them off, and give them new life.

In a class one time I put a list of values on the board that are attached to good writing, including: clarity, liveliness, persuasiveness, interest value, and others. It was a long list. I asked the students to pick five, rank them, and tell me what they really wanted to work toward in their own writing. A lovely student from the Czech Republic, who had just recently come to the United States, was staring at the list with some interest. When he saw me write down lively, he said, “That is it! I want all my writing to be lively.”

This moment goes to my heart because I think of the phrase the “Living Word” that is applied to Scripture. This is a deep idea that can be imported into writing that has integrity, authenticity, and comes from reflective living. We can ask of any writing: “What is it that makes this a living word or a life-giving sentence?”

“What is this writer being faithful to?” is a question I’ve often asked in literature classes. Any writer has to be faithful to certain things, and telling the truth is something that needs a lot of parsing. You tell the truth in different ways if you are writing fiction or non-fiction.

I’m teaching Moby Dick right now and Melville’s all over the place. Often you don’t even know who is narrating particular chapters. So Melville is not being faithful to a particular set of expected conventions—something that might irritate a lot of readers. It might appear to be infidelity. Yet Melville is being faithful to his purposes, which one can infer.

Then there is also a fidelity to the history of words, which Wendell Berry models so beautifully. He uses words that echo the English of the King James Bible. I never see him use clinical words like depression, but he does use words like sorrow. I feel as though he is being faithful to this language not for the sake of “going back to the good old days” but to retrieve something that has been splintered into multiple disciplinary discourses.

We have a calling to do a certain amount of the archaeological digging beneath the language we use, reach back into the etymologies of words, and to pay attention to the nuances of one word choice over another. We need to trust that those subtle differences make a difference.

AJ: And to trust the time it takes to make those choices well also matters?

MCM: It is really easy as you are sitting at your desk and have a deadline in front of you to think: “Life is short; why am I spending most of my afternoon tinkering with sentences?” But if this is what is given to me to do, why is it any less important than what the plumber does or what anyone does on the floor of Congress? The truth is that none of us gets to assess the ultimate difference our work makes. We don’t get to judge. To be faithful to what is given to you, to write, isn’t to judge whether what you are writing is drivel compared to what Wendell Berry is writing about.

Writing doesn’t start with ideas. It starts with your experience, even if you think it’s not of great public interest. Often it happens that if you are faithful to something that is burdening you, it turns out it does matter.

I wrote a little piece one time called “In Praise of Incompletion” It is about how too high a premium is placed upon coverage and completion in things from curricula to cleaning your plate—finishing a task becomes a virtue. I tell my students about the need to read a long novel slowly enough to understand how the writer is working, to be an apprentice, stand at the writer’s elbow, and see what is going on a in a paragraph. And if that means you don’t turn every page, then don’t turn every page. But come to class ready to reflect on what you have read, having noticed matters of technique that will help you listen more attentively to language and to read better.

After this piece was published I got letters from people who said this permission was such a relief.

AJ: There is a lot more to be faithful to in a conversation than just the people who you are talking with.

MCM: You are participating in a much larger process. It is very easy to imagine you are working on this alone, but every time something comes to the point of publication I realize it is simply something that I get to midwife out of an ongoing conversation, to bring it to fruition in a particular way.

I was in my 20s when a mentor said to me: “Pay a little more attention to the call of the moment and then the longer story will unfold as you continue.” That phrase, “the call of the moment,” has really been a watchword for me. To be faithful to your vocation is to recognize that at different seasons of life you are called to very different things. If you stay in a prayerful relationship with the Spirit, even if that looks like it is leading you on a zigzagging course, that may be what fidelity looks like in to the call of the moment.

AJ: So fidelity requires recognizing where you are, and what that place requires of you? And these levels of faithfulness are what help you know how to engage and use your writerly tools at different moments in those different places?

MCM: My husband is a pastor. One of the phrases that one hears in Presbyterian circles is “equipping the saints.” It is a quaint term, but that is what we do in community; we equip one another. Think of how often we borrow words from somebody, or somebody puts something a certain way, and you say: “Yes, I hadn’t thought of it that way, but it is a beautiful phrase.” You then proceed to steal it, in the way that Eliot means when he says: “Good poets borrow, great poets steal.”

So many lines and phrases I’ve received with gratitude from poets and writers. They have provided me with what Kenneth Burke, the literary critic, calls “equipment for living.”

AJ: So Kenneth Burke says literature, and maybe art in general, provides “equipment for living,” but in light of your recent writing, could you also talk about how it provides equipment for dying?

MCM: Over the last couple of years I have been working as a hospice volunteer—work that I really love—and have seen several family members through the last weeks of life. It is very demanding, heart-opening, and grace-filled work. It has always felt like a real privilege to be at the bedside of someone who is coming face-to-face with the thing we will all experience and find ways to be companionable as you walk with them.

One of the particular tasks I was given in hospice was to work with people who wanted help telling their stories for their families, to leave a story legacy. Autobiography is an interesting genre because you can tell your story with many purposes. There isn’t any required starting point, but you do have to decide if you are going to speak about intimate things and how to organize in such a way as to tell the parts of it that matter.

I worked with a 102-year-old woman who was remarkable. She had many funny sweet engaging stories to tell, but after I had been there two or three times she began to tell me about some very difficult things that had happened to her as a young girl. Her family said, “Let’s not talk about this.” Yet she needed to tell that story. My job there wasn’t to cheer that woman up, but to allow the stories that needed to be told to be told.

Part of caring for words is listening to other people’s words and listening for the story that is finding its way to the surface. It is a challenging task to find ways to talk about dying that navigate around the clichés on the one side and social stumblings on the other side—to offer people a language for death that is both frank and gentle.

A Faithful Farewell is one of a pair of books. Eerdmans, the publisher, asked me to write one book for people who were dying and then another one for their caregivers. But finding a point of view for people who were dying was really hard. Eerdmans ended up encouraging me to write it in the first person, which was a challenging assignment. Based upon a lot of visiting with those who are dying, I tried to articulate the paradoxes, the surprising moments, the boredom, the tedium, the irritation with caregivers who mean well, the moments of laughter when things are hard and nobody else feels like laughing, and the moments of gratitude and prayer. There are just lots of things that can happen if you have a gradual going.

AJ: This act of writing A Faithful Farewell in the first person, it reminds me of Christian Wiman’s phrase, “pain islands you.” When we are talking about our bodies, especially bodies in pain, the role of words is complex. We often ask what language “does” in that space, how it functions. The idea of writing a book about dying in the first person seems, in some way, an attempt to “de-island” that space.

MCM: It is certainly trying to, with a very overt and declared fictive device. I am not writing as a person who is in fact dying, but I’m creating and imagining a point of view to try to give a voice to those whom are dying.

I did this with some trepidation. I don’t want it to seem presumptuous, but part of what writers do in fiction is to create narrative persona to serve a particular purpose. To write from the vantage point of someone who is dying is like if I were to assume a persona from a different cultural background. I want to respect that I’m not that person. Tolstoy created women characters that were magnificent and Faulkner created Dilsey, who is one of the memorable African-American women in American fiction. But crossing those lines is always tricky. So entering into the perspective of someone who knows they are dying and saying what it could look like was a challenge.

It was also illuminating. It helped me find a deepened sense of peace with the reality of my own mortality. I’ve never been a person who is terribly afraid of dying, but I am afraid of pain. The fact we will die is a truth that we have to live into as our life continues.

AJ: What sort of space did writing about hospice and the final chapter of life provide for your other thoughts on language and word care? Did it send you back into your larger reflections on language?

MCM: I think working on that book, being in conversation with people who are dying, and every birthday I have makes me aware how precious the time we have here. The journey metaphor is a common metaphor for life. Yet it is important to think of life not only as a journey but also as a conversation. I try to open myself up in morning prayer and to whoever I encounter each day. It has put a heightened premium on encounter, conversation, and especially silence.

AJ: I read numerous times that a lot of hospice is learning what not to say.

MCM: That is for sure. When my mother was dying I was very impatient with people who came in, who needed to be chatty and cheerful. One of her friends, speaking of someone else said, “Well I like her but she is just terminally cheerful.” We need to learn to sit with someone and be comfortable enough in silence, to allow the conversation to find its slow rhythm. It does slow down simply because people have less energy.

This gets to a musical dimension of what happens in conversation. It is a jazz composition where you don’t exactly know what is coming next, you are listening to the cues, and you want there to be some pauses and rests in this collaboration. Rhythm is important.

AJ: Maybe, in its own way, cheerfulness islands you as well.

MCM: People are afraid of death and some compensate when they have to be in the presence of dying. They fill the space to protect themselves. We all struggle with fears, but if you say too much you cover up the things that really would be the gems you have to offer people, by burying them in sand.

AJ: Words can bury other words.

MCM: My book What’s in a Phrase is about unearthing those little phrases that might get buried in long sentences if you didn’t just stop and notice them—like finding opals in that brown earthly rock that they develop in.

AJ: Thank you so much for your time.

MCM: It was a pleasure.

photo by:

Do You Know the San Man?

In Paul Valéry’s Eupalinos; or The Architect, Socrates is walking alone on the beach. He stumbles upon an obscure object, polished and white. He can’t figure out what it is or where it came from. As he later tells Phaedrus, the seashore is a special kind of wasteland, a place of derelict things, a gathering-zone for all the detritus of a great and eternal struggle:

“This frontier between Neptune and Earth, ever disputed by those rival divinities, is the scene of the most dismal and most incessant commerce. That which the sea rejects, that which the land cannot retain, the enigmatic bits of drift; the hideous limbs of dislocated ships, black as charcoal, and looking as though charred by the salt tempests from the transparent pasture-grounds of Proteus’ flocks; collapsed monsters, of cold deathly hues; all the things, in short, that fortune delivers over to the fury of the shore, and to the fruitless litigation between the wave and beach, are there carried to and fro; raised, lowered seized, lost, seized again according to the hour and the day; sad witnesses to the indifference of the fates, ignoble treasures, playthings of an interchange as perpetual as it is stationary…

The enigmatic object Socrates finds on the shore is inscrutable but—for that very reason—captivating; he can’t even be sure whether it is the product of nature or of human craft. Bewildered by its mysterious origins, status, and purpose, bested by it, he hurls the unknowable thing back into the sea.

Socrates’ problem is the problem of waste. The world around us is filled with charred remnants and scattered filth in too many forms; too diffuse, of every size and shape and smell, ugly and unwieldy, born of every age and temperament. It seeps into every crevice, floats down every grime-choked street, pools and piles and decays in every corner of every home city and patch of wilderness. And there is always so much more of it than we can ever hope to study. When entire shipping containers filled with Nikes spilled into the sea, a beachcomber of the 1990s might have stumbled upon a shore covered in these high-priced shoes. Recent climbers of Mount Everest find piles of earlier explorers’ accumulated trash that they are obligated to carry down with them upon their return, along with their own equipment and noble fatigue.

There is no human-made object so well travelled, so ambient, as waste. It stretches from the oceans to the highest peaks. It doesn’t matter how far we “throw it away,” our waste lays thick blankets of our chemical age across the entire planet. It’s in the air, in the water, in yard sales brimming with kitsch, in houses stuffed to the rafters with rubbish, in outer space, spreading out in invisible clouds of toxic chemicals and piling up in immense mountains of garbage stacked in trash-bricks below ground at Fresh Kills or Puente Hills or a thousand other dump sites. The soil itself is part of a new genealogy, as the beaches have been remade into pastiglomerate, their sands mingled with the pulverized microplastics of our petroleum age. Even much of lower Manhattan itself is built on top of sedimented waste. The genes of sea creatures that ingest incredibly small fragments of our trash are mutating.

With our waste we have reordered space and place, yet we tend not to feel this remade world most of the time. The air mostly seems breathable, trees are still vibrant and green, squirrels appear happy and filled with energy.

Even so, if one of humankind’s dreams has put its stamp on the world, waste is the most compelling and universal way in which it has accomplished its mission. Waste comprises the wordless history of all that humankind has done or made. For us, as surely as any expert archaeologist would admit, the detritus of a civilization constitutes its most permanent and revealing record. You are what you discard.

Marking the Unmarked

Last Fall, I had the privilege of teaching an undergraduate class on waste. If you wanted to consider an object more resistant to capture, you would be hard-pressed to find one. This shouldn’t be too much of a surprise for a thing we do our best to be rid of—out of sight and out of mind, they say. In this way, waste challenges our ability to adjust our contemplation of it to the proper scale. Every thought about it seems either too big or too small. So the temptation is to encompass everything, which is precisely what the class did.

We let the term spread out and away from us like an oil slick to encompass the wastage of the entire planet, the extermination of entire cultures and peoples, the wastes that make and unmake empires; massive waste and miniscule, visible and invisible. We discovered that the experience an object’s value magically transmogrifies according to arbitrary cultural whims across time (think antiques). We learned that the mechanisms of disgust and structures of morality might be closely connected. We came to understand physical humor in terms of its “wasteful” bodily motions (this is why clowns are funny and baseball players are not), and athletes in terms of their precise and “waste-less” bodily motions (this is why baseball players can hit a fastball and clowns cannot). We encountered literatures of waste in Samuel Beckett, Shakespeare, and Beowulf; poetries of waste in Wallace Stevens, James Schuyler, and A. R. Ammons; philosophies of waste in Descartes, Kant, Locke, Heidegger, and Levinas; arts of waste in Francisco de Pajaro and Mierle Laderman Ukeles. Nothing was wasted on us.

But the most memorable part of the semester was our visit to the smallest museum in New York City, a 36-square-foot abandoned freight elevator shaft in the lower regions of Manhattan, affectionately known as Mmusuemm. Founded in 2012, this self-described “modern natural history museum” presents objects and designs that “explore themes of daily human existence, social issues, and current events.”

mmusuem

While Socrates was unable to deal with the uncanny thinghood of the object he discovered on the beach in Valéry’s story, Mmuseumm reacts to the same situation with surprise and wonder. It takes objects normally caught in the web of insignificant cultural everydayness, like a cornflake, elevates it to curatorial status, and asks questions: What, sociologically, are the biographical possibilities inherent in its “status” and in the period and culture, and how are these possibilities realized? Where does the thing come from and who made it? What has been its career so far, and what do people consider to be an ideal career for such things? How does the thing’s use change with its age, and what happens to it when it reaches the end of its usefulness?

What Mmuseumm is doing could be considered anti-archaeology, a reversal of the discipline of digging through old stuff considered to be valuable to old people. Instead, Mmuseumm digs through new stuff considered to be meaningless to existing populations. (By the way, we’re the first culture to be able to do this; the first feckless consumers to have an eternal standing reserve of junk piles from which to pluck an object for anti-archaeological scrutiny. Thanks, capitalism.) If Igor Kopytoff were still alive, he would surely be delighted to see his 1986 call for a “cultural biography of things” coming to life in the heart of a city too busy to give anything besides ambition a worry, never mind cornflakes.

Throughout the semester, the questions that caught our imagination were especially vivid at Mmuseumm. What we encountered there gave us new eyes. It gave us an analytically nomadic perspective that observes social phenomena from the vantage point of the stuff we take for granted. In this way, the two hours we spent in that 36 square feet ruminating over, for instance, the incommensurability of cornflake shapes, or, how discarding a piece of chewing gum relates to biological surveillance, etc., perfectly captured what I had intended for the class: to reverse conventional patterns of markedness to foreground what typically remains unnamed and implicit.

There’s a piece on display at the new Whitney Museum of American Art that expresses how unmarkedness extends not just to objects, but to people. In the words of the museum, Fred Wilson’s Guarded View

“aggressively confronts viewers with four black headless mannequins dressed as museum guards. Each figure wears a uniform, dating to the early 1990s, from one of four New York City cultural institutions: the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Jewish Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art. Despite this specificity, the faceless mannequins underscore the anonymity expected of security personnel, who are tasked with protecting art and the public while remaining inconspicuous and out of view. Wilson himself worked as a museum guard in college, and explained: “[There’s] something funny about being a guard in a museum. You’re on display but you’re also invisible.” He challenges this dynamic by placing these ordinarily unnoticed figures at the center of our attention, pointing to the hidden power relations and social codes that structure our experience of museums.

Just as objects are given value, so are labors. And just as objects disappear into their everydayness, so do laborers. Whither the garbage man? Generally, we expect all of the individualized and uncollected waste to be mobile, wayward, like a tumbleweed or like the infamous plastic bag in American Beauty. At the same time, we hope or expect that our waste will be properly collected and housed, “secured,” as at Freshkills where everything should look green and tamped down for a good long while, or so we hope, all with nary a second thought about how this transition transpires. Or, more specifically, who is involved. What is the status of the sanitation worker? Who takes the job? What is the work like, on the street or in the dump?

Picking Up

In “La Poubelle Agréée,” a long essay about taking out the garbage, Italian journalist and essayist Italo Calvino describes the process of taking his trash. As his household garbage to is taken by garbage workers, this transforms his waste from the private to the public sphere. For Calvino, this is a kind of ritual gesture that reminds him of the importance of a social compact—what most of us call civilization. As Calvino tells us, he takes out his trash every day as a natural concern for hygiene, and so that on waking up the following morning, he may begin his day fresh and new. In the process, he valorizes the garbage man. Sanitation workers, he says, are “emissaries of the chthonic world, gravediggers of the inanimate…heralds of a possible salvation beyond the destruction inherent in all production and consumption, liberators from the weight of time’s detritus, ponderous dark angels of lightness and clarity.”

picking up

Anthropologist Robin Nagle takes up Calvino’s mantle in her 2013 book Picking Up: On The Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City. Acting as the resident anthropologist for the New York Sanitation Department, Nagle chronicles the city’s relationship to garbage in meticulous detail. But the burden of Nagle’s book isn’t just to make us curious about garbage or lead us to ask in that hollow way, “Wow, where does it all go?” Nor does is it ever deliver itself over as a sort of subtle judgment on the fact that we do not, in fact, care about the answer. Rather, just as Mmuseumm elevates mundane objects with an almost sacred appeal, and as Calvino valorizes the sanitation worker, Nagle is also interested in marking the unmarked:

“This is a story that unfolds along the curbs, edges, and purposely forgotten quarters of a great metropolis. Some of the narrative is common to cities around the world, but this tale is particular to New York. It centers on the people who confront the problem that contemporary bureaucratic language calls municipal solid waste. It’s a story I’ve been discovering over the past several years, and from many perspectives.

Like any good anthropologist, Nagle takes “perspective” very seriously. So seriously that she takes it upon herself not just to study garbage collection, but to be a garbage collector. “The best way to learn about their work was to do it with them,” she says, “a notion that eventually inspired me to get hired as a san worker.” After a number of years trying to infiltrate the notoriously (and necessarily) opaque institution of the New York Sanitation Department, and after many more months of harsh and complicated testing and training, she was able to put on the uniform and hit the streets. Immediately, she noticed that san workers are merely obstacles to be skirted.

“When I worked parade cleanups in warm weather, I quickly learned that it was useless to ask bystanders who lingered against the barricades to move back just a little. The coarse bristles of my hand broom were going to scrape their sandaled feet, but even when I stood directly in front of them saying “Excuse me” over and over, they didn’t see or hear me. It’s not that they were ignoring me: I was never a part of their awareness in the first place.

Uniforms in general change the way any worker is perceived. The man or woman wearing a uniform becomes the Police Officer or the Firefighter, the Soldier, the Doctor, the Chef, or, as in the case of Fred Wilson, the Museum Guard. Individuality is subsumed by the role that the clothing implies. But the sanitation worker is more than just subsumed by a role. Because of the mundane, constant, and largely successful nature of the work, the uniform (the official color, according to Nagle, is spruce) acts as a cloaking device. It erases them. Says Nagle,

“He doesn’t carry guns or axes, no one begs for him in a 911 call, he is not expected to step into crisis, to soothe an emergency, to rescue innocents. Instead, his truck and his muscle punctuate the rhythms of a neighborhood at such regular intervals that he becomes a kind of informal timepiece.

Invisibility is a strange quality to possess for an occupation that is so important. Average New Yorkers probably know about the smell and the noise involved in the job, and maybe the maggots and the rats (there are plenty of both). They might even be able to guess at the scale of the task: fewer than 10,000 sanitation employees contending with 11,000 tons of household trash and 2,000 tons of recycling on average every day. But the true nature of the job, its danger and its importance, is less well known. If sanitation workers aren’t out there, the city

“becomes unlivable, fast. Before problems of rubbish and street cleaning were solved, much of New York was infamously filthy. Thousands upon thousands of people who had no choice but to endure streets shin-deep in all manner of debris, whose homes were airless rooms with lightless cellars, died in extravagant numbers of diseases that even back then were largely preventable.

Effective garbage collection and street cleaning are primary necessities if urban dwellers are to be safe from the pernicious effects of their own detritus. When garbage lingers too long on the streets, vermin thrive, disease spreads, and city life becomes dangerous in ways not common in the developed world for more than a century. It is thus an especially puzzling irony that the first line of defense in any city’s ability to ensure basic health and well-being of its citizenry is so persistently unseen. By extension, Nagle’s first-hand account on the matter is both illuminating and alarming. Do you know the garbage man?

The claim to the centrality of sanitation work extends beyond just public health. San workers are also, according to Nagle, key players in maintaining the most basic rhythms of capitalism. If consumed goods can’t be discarded, the space they occupy remains full, and new good can’t become part of the market or household. This may be a simplistic description of a dense and complex set of processes, but the fundamental reality is straightforward: used-up stuff must be thrown out for new stuff to have a place.

Contemporary habits of consumption and disposal represent a use of time that has no historical precedent. Nagle is careful to make the connection: “We depend on our ability to move fast, and so assume the briefest relationships with coffee cups, shopping bags, packaging of all kinds—encumbrances we must shed quickly so that we can maintain what I call our average necessary quotidian velocity.” By this logic, sanitation workers are absolutely central to our physical well-being as residents of a metropolis and to our sense of proper citizenship within a hyper-paced world, even while the work of sanitation remains bluntly unknown.

You and I take out the trash. Sanitation workers take care of what happens next, and that’s when the danger gets real. Nagle recounts how Michael Bloomberg, in discussing labor negotiations during his first mayoral campaign in 2001, suggested that “being a sanitation worker in this day and age is more dangerous than being a policeman or a fireman.” The comment was considered a gaffe, and the response was furious. But it turns out he was right.

“Collecting refuse has long been known to be dirty, strenuous work,” notes economist Dino Drudi in a study for the Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Less well known is that it is among the most deadly occupations.” He calculates that compared to all job categories measured, refuse work has “10 times the overall on-the-job fatality rate.” At this point, Nagle recounts several horrific collection-related stories. One involves a bowling ball. Another involves hydrofluoric acid. I’ll spare you the details, but suffice it to say, there is no 21-gun salute for a san worker.

Not unlike the willingly ignorant modern lives we’re living outside the purview of the problem of waste, New Yorkers know none of this. We put our garbage out and think the Garbage Fairies make it all go away. Little do we know, the Garbage Fairies wear dark green uniforms, drive loud white trucks, and lift, in some districts, their share of twenty tons of trash every day; whose families must adjust to a schedule that allows two days off just once every two weeks; who, when they are junior hires, find out only at the end of one shift when and where their next shift starts, which can bounce them all over the clock and sometimes all over the city for weeks, months, even years; who, unlike Socrates, find something useful to do with the detritus that constantly “washes up”; who spend their working hours handling heavy machinery and stepping in and out of traffic; and who suffer an array of debilitating and sometimes deadly injuries. Regardless of their time on the job, the families who depend on them, the specific assignments they take, the physical pains they endure, or their crucial role in the city’s well-being, as soon as the Garbage Fairies put on that uniform, it’s as if they cease to exist.

This has bothered Nagle for a long time. Thanks to Picking Up, it has the chance to bother us too. 

Doses of Sodium Pentothal and Homemade Bombs

My first direct, emotional encounter with death was my childhood dog being put to sleep. She was a cocker spaniel, with a beautiful golden brown coat, big floppy ears that smacked whenever she tried to shake water off, and a stub of a tail that wagged with the ferocity of a much larger one. We called her Missy, except when Mom was angry at her for peeing in the house or similar offenses. Then she was called by her registered name: Lady Melissa Anne. The name was a little pretentious, but she was the only girl my mom had.

As a houseful of four boys, we owned a skateboard (a requirement of 90s kids, really), but we never learned properly to ride it, despite our extreme aptitude at Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2. One of the uses of the skateboard, and eventually the only use, was Missy-boarding. The act was simple: get the dog, get the leash, get the skateboard, sit on the board, and pull an Iditarod. Unfortunately for Missy, we did not live in Alaska; we lived in Florida. Missy would come back inside drenched in sweat, overheated, and panting for water. With all the attention, she was happy. But Missy got old. She went blind, mostly deaf, and became incontinent. She was thirteen when Mom and Dad decided that it was time.

I didn’t know until years later that my stoic brother Jon used to let Missy sleep on his bed. She was a tile dog, not even allowed on the carpets, let alone into bedrooms. Jon had a soft spot for Missy, and Missy, quite rightly, had a soft spot for Jon. He was with Mom and Dad when Missy was put down. He cried.

Missy’s death also revealed one of my own unreflective habits. On the day she was put down, I came home from high school and whistled a four-note tune. I realized for the first time that I had whistled every day, and that no matter how deaf or old or tired she was, Missy would always come to greet me at the door. There are still times when I am back in Florida and walking through my parents’ front door that I catch myself beginning to whistle.

The death of a beloved pet is a good introduction to death, insofar as any introduction is good. It teaches that death is nothing. That death for the living is a present absence. Dogs, especially, are full of life; they reflect their owner’s emotions. They can be slobbery or refined, dumb as doornails or more intelligent than their masters, but they are alive and present. When alive, a dog cannot sink into absence unlike other pets or people. So when death claims a dog, we become acquainted with the absence that death is. There are no more little paws, no more stretches and dog-yawns, no more seeking out sunbeams around the house. Those spots become empty. And no one comes when you walk through the door and whistle.

Unfortunately, the death of a dog is just an introduction to death. Life, though, has made me a student of it. I was young and impressionable when 9/11 happened; death made itself felt. Then, the wars were on TV, joined by the earthquakes, tsunamis and epidemics, and as my generation grew up the ripples of those events began to touch us, to draw us into them. Death stalked us. Death continues to stalk us; the consequences of that September day and those wars are still being wrought out, and coming closer.

I live in Brussels, and have since September 2012. When three individuals blew themselves up on March 22, 2016, I was there. That Tuesday, over 30 people died and hundreds were injured. One man I knew was injured getting off the metro. A friend of a Syrian refugee woman I had met, another refugee, was killed in the blasts at the airport. The war and the terror had followed him to Belgium and killed him. This experience of death and these acts of terror were terrible; the city had been building toward this since the Paris attacks in November 2015. We had been collectively holding our breath, expecting something, waiting for the unimaginable. Finally, it happened. Grief mingled with fear and with a strange relief. The feelings were surreal, but the loss wasn’t. People on their way to work never got there. Friends and family members, in the midst of their normal lives, were ripped into an unambiguous absence.

The city has not yet returned to normal. Is there a new normal after an encounter with death? When the metro opened after the attacks, I took it; there were fewer people on it than normal, and everyone was quiet. I will fly out of Brussels Airport this week. What will the memorials look like? Will they make those absent present in some small way? Death lingers in the air, an unwanted guest but present nonetheless. Thoughts arise: my wife used to take that metro to work; friends were on it before and after. So many brushes with death reminds us of how close it is. Always and already. We are beings-unto-death; beings who flirt with death.

I wonder what the room in which the bombs were made was like. There are police photos of it, but in the eyes of the bombers, in the process of making them, what sort of space did it become? Was it a place of tension and stress or exhilaration? What were their conversations about? Was there any worry about being discovered and arrested or killed? Did they keep track of whose turn it was to get the take-out food, or do the laundry? Maybe in it there were arguments about what to do and not do around the TAPT, the volatile chemical compound that comprised the bombs. Don’t fart around the TAPT! Especially you; yours are like bombs on their own. Was death their focus? Did they think of themselves as dead men walking? Did the tension of living, did its presence, give them any pause? What was their faith like? Did they know it was Holy Week? Did they know God was on the way to death as well?

I did not grow up in a historically-minded faith community. Our great heroes of the faith were Jesus, the disciples, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, a few guys who had started or furthered the domination, and C.S. Lewis for whatever reason. Needless to say, Holy Saturday was not a thing. Between Good Friday and Easter, there was a non-day. That is, that Saturday was just another day, a holiday from the services. We were already looking forward to Easter, not really remembering that Jesus was in a tomb, that God was dead. Now I belong to an Anglican church, and Holy Saturday is a non-day, a day of questions and of death.

As I have matured in my faith and lived more life and seen more death, Holy Saturday has become important to me. I am haunted by its questions: How was there space? How was there time? How was there life? Were not these also folded up in the grave clothes of the one in whom they consist? The mystery of the death of God is a mystery we do not like to dwell on.

I cannot explain the death of God, nor can I imagine it. The self-affirming, eternal and dynamic life of God present in Jesus of Nazareth was ended by some Roman soldiers on some hill on some Friday. Everyone takes a final breath; there was a final breath for God. Death is a liminal moment. Everyone faces it, and we cannot face it for another. There have always been questions about what happens in the final moment. Flashes of your life? A surge of chemicals in the brain? A light? A doorway? What would it have been for God? And what would it be for Jesus to be a corpse? Easter has upended any chance one has at directly experiencing it, because one is taken up with Christ into the death of death, into the reaffirmation of life, into the resurrection. Yet that Saturday, that one day in all of time and space; what was it like?

For a time, the Life-Giver was a corpse. The active God, the I AM, was passive, in a passivity beyond passivity, an object devoid of animation. Lifeless. Absent. God, an eternal presence present to the Trinitarian community of God, stepped somehow into our absence, the absence of death. Some theologians create logics and diagrams and flowcharts to explain this mystery. Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again. But perhaps what is required is a Kierkegaardian leap into the mysterious. It is the absurd beyond the universal. In the mystery of God become man we see reconciliation happening between two irreconcilables: death and life.

Death is the absence of what we think should be present, or of what was present before. The presence of this absence tears at the fabric of our reality. It is as metaphysical as heaven, and as real as dirt covering a coffin. There is a silence to death that can be heard. The dead do not speak to us; the world moves on and does not speak to them; and the habits of our lives, the presence we have to the world, also changes. We stop taking the metro for a while and bury our dead. We grieve and mourn; we move on. The world seeks to correct itself. And yet.

We still mourn and grieve and can bury ourselves with the dead. We can try to resolve the questions of the death of God, but God will still have died. We will still make bombs to kill our neighbors and ourselves. And we will still reach out to help the hurting and to be with the dying. We will get back to living and riding the metro and laughing in public. Death is an absence felt in the presence of life.

And I will still walk through my parents’ door and catch myself starting to whistle.

To Read and Write in L.A.

Two women approached my buddy Todd and me at the 2016 Los Angeles Times Festival of Books.

One of them asked, “Are you writers?”

In nanoseconds worthy of a Cray Supercomputer, I was trying to calculate how to answer with integrity, trying to imagine if I was or not. I proffered, “Yeah, um, sort of.” I mean, I write. Within the last few years I have had two essays published where I was paid (one of the awards was a pile of books, which is better than a check, to be sure), finished an alpine 175-page dissertation for my Ph.D. in Educational Psychology, blog weekly at Bierkergaard, and self-published a book on the college transition called On the Edge: Transitioning Imaginatively to College. Current Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #4,185,077. Clearly, the book is on its way to the best-seller list (or projects itself scaling that heap, higher and higher).

However, I’m not sure all that makes me a “writer,” as in, paying-the-bills-with-writing sort of writer.  

But Todd is a writer. Moving to L.A. from Central Pennsylvania Dutch Country about a decade ago to pursue his bliss, he is a rarefied one who is making it professionally, has penned a best-selling book, Something Startling Happens, and sold several screenplays. Todd is embodying Stan Lee’s advice offered during his presentation at the festival: “Try to do things that you like doing.”

And Todd looked the part at the book festival, too. His longish blonde hair, parted in the middle in an artsy coiffure, his leather jacket and skinny jeans, his hipster shoesall were accoutrements singling him out as artist, as word-maker. Me? Eddie Bauer ball cap, University of Montana t-shirt, cargo pants minus the marsupial multitudinous pockets, and Nike jogging shoes. My hair, cut short, face unshaven. More a middle-aged ex-jock look. All markers singling me out as, well, me.

Going to the L.A. Festival of Books was our Super Bowl. We share a love of books and writing. I occasionally peer at my “Book Hall of Fame” as I sit here and type at home, gazing affectionately upon them as a parent would his children. God in the Dock by C.S. Lewis holds a special place on the shelf of my heart.

At the Festival, the two women were representing The Emerging Voices Fellowship, sponsored by PEN, a “literary mentorship that aims to provide new writers who are isolated from the literary establishment with the tools, skills, and knowledge they need to launch a professional writing career.” One word in the description of that fellowship does nail it in regards to me: isolated. I live in Columbia, Pennsylvania, a hard-luck town along the Susquehanna River that missed becoming the nation’s capital by a vote or two.

The fantasy of forgoing my full pension (I am a high school counselor by day), which is about seven years away, growing my hair long, parting it down the middle, and moving out to L.A. tempts me in my less sane moments. Todd quit his graphic design position, sold his cottage in Mt. Gretna, PA, and left family and friends to pursue his California dream. I admire and even envy his daring. I respect his talent and how hard he has worked.

Central Pennsylvania folk are hard-workers and Todd embodies this attribute mightily, even though he has jettisoned most of his history. In his California incarnation, he consumed Subway $5 Footlongs for years; he broke his arm skateboarding and couldn’t go to a hospital to have cast put on because he had no health insurance; and, of course, he ran out of money. Family and friends who believed in his dreams fronted him some buffering cash to get him back on his feet.   

I am not as brave as Todd; I’m more risk-averse. Jerry Stahl, in a panel discussion about memoir, said, “Heroin made [him] forget there was no net.” I need the net of steady income. Yet, I have drafted off of Todd’s courage. When he co-wrote The Milton Hershey Story, a play which premiered at the Whittaker Center over a decade ago, I spent the time before the play perusing course offerings at Temple University’s Harrisburg campus and came across a brochure about a master’s program in Educational Psychology.

Although I already had a master’s degree in a related field, the brochure opened my eyes to a new direction. Philadelphia’s main campus offered a doctorate in Educational Psychology, and I was toying going back to school to earn a Ph.D.

To see Todd pursue his dream inspired me to pursue mine but in a more calculated and cautious manner. The courses listed in the brochure like Cognition and Learning Theory struck a chord in me. Two years later, I was on sabbatical and enrolled full-time in the Educational Psychology program.  

After a long, hard, eight-year ascent to Ph.D. attainment in 2010, I had my mountain-top revelation. After all that ridiculous research about college preparation and transition, the developmental issues associated with both, my discovery has been a simple one: imagination, not information, is the biggest cloud-breaking, sun-bursting clarity-bringer.

While I may totter around on the hard trail rocks of reality that I’m not a Successful L.A. Todd or a nascent Emerging Voices Fellowship recipient, imagining myself moving toward them, becoming them in shifts and conversions, is far more powerful to me. Imagination gives me the integrity to say my Yeah, um, sort of with a little more certainty.

A Review of Barton Swaim’s Memoir, The Speechwriter

In 2016 an American writer pauses at his keyboard. He is working on a project, but this morning he has decided to put it aside to write a letter to America. The letter is his attempt to re-court a prodigal country, and while he’d love to follow John Steinbeck’s lead in Travels with Charley, devoting a year to search for her and dedicating an entire book to describe her, he is hoping the morning’s work will convince his dearest to return to him and be the country he knew.

What he needs to do, he is convinced, is write about Donald Trump. He needs to explain to his beloved America the cost of her flirtation. In this, he hopes to channel Mark Twain’s Dr. Robinson from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Like our writer, Dr. Robinson refuses to stand idle as imposters deceive those close to him. While the King and the Duke pose as the late Peter Wilk’s brothers, attempting to steal Wilks’s fortune from his nieces, Robinson steps forward and declares the King and the Duke impostors, frauds, tramps. Drawing upon his long-standing friendship with the girls, Robinson pits his character against the character of the King:

“I was your father’s friend, and I’m your friend; and I warn you as a friend, and an honest one that wants to protect you and keep you out of harm and trouble, to turn your backs on that scoundrel and have nothing to do with him, the ignorant tramp . . . He is the thinnest kind of an impostor—has come here with a lot of empty names and facts which he picked up somewheres, and you take them for proofs, and are helped to fool yourselves by these foolish friends here, who ought to know better.  Mary Jane Wilks, you know me for your friend, and for your unselfish friend, too.  Now listen to me; turn this pitiful rascal out—I beg you to do it.  Will you?

With minor substitutions, the Dr. Robinson’s plea is precisely what the writer wants to say to America. It is an appeal from the heart predicated upon character and love—both exhausting and cathartic.

***

At least I imagine this to be a typical scenario, since virtually every writer I follow has commented upon the Trump phenomenon.

Many of these pieces have been memorable—baseball writer Bill James’s cranky rant at The Federalist demonstrates how far the impulse has travelled, and David Brooks’s gloves-off, governing cancer thesis typifies the urgency and tone. But most remarkable is how, for my writer (and by implication, for these real writers), the similarities between Dr. Robinson’s situation and his own extend to their results. The Wilks sisters dismiss the doctor in the most unfortunate manner—Jane votes for the King by entrusting to him her inheritance of $6,000—and all Dr. Robinson can do is affirm that he told everyone so: “But I warn you all that a time’s coming when you’re going to feel sick whenever you think of this day.” The writer, meanwhile, if he lives in a state with an early primary, is left to watch America pass a bag full of delegates to the real estate mogul-turned-politician from New York.

My writer’s primary trouble is not the nature of his opinion or even his desire to make an appeal, but that his strategy mimics Dr. Robinson’s tactics, not the tactics of Dr. Robinson’s creator, Mark Twain. The doctor is correct, but he is frustrated. His good-natured and rational appeal to character is powerless before a pair of crooks who do not abide by his rules of conduct. Twain, on the other hand, always managed to subvert such maneuvering. His arrows flew true and his barbs held tightly, maintaining their grip long after killing their target.

twain

The legacy of Mark Twain’s satirical strategy is evinced in Barton Swaim’s memoir, The Speechwriter, in which Swaim ably uses humor to reduce a public figure to his proper size. In this case, the public figure is Swaim’s old boss, former governor of South Carolina, Mark Sanford. And while for any reader of The Speechwriter, Sanford’s political standing will shrink, the book will assuredly inflate his status as a comic figure. No matter what else he achieves, Sanford will live in my mind as a comic grotesque.

Swaim’s sketch of his boss had me shaking with laughter, fearful I’d wake my wife. The governor was so cheap that his staff’s Christmas presents were re-gifted trinkets, “…a Christmas ornament bearing the words, ‘Merry Christmas! Love, the Peterkins,’” so verbose he used “indeed” to cover over poorly phrased nonsense, “Jefferson and the founding fathers indeed founded this nation on the notion of limited government,” and so vain that “he apologized to his mistress and to his family…in that order.”

Yet as funny as this material is, its value arises primarily from the insight it provides. Swaim’s book, published well before the 2016 election, has shaped my view of Donald Trump’s triumphs this primary season. And while the tower of Trump might be larger-than-life, Swaim’s point of view has helped me see him less as an anomaly and more as a sharply outlined type.

Swaim articulates the particulars of this archetypal 21st-Century Politician in his concluding chapter, pointing out that high-level politics cater to a certain kind of person: “People like Tom Sawyer [here he quotes Catherine Zuckert], serve others not for the sake of others…They serve because they glory in receiving glory.” Applied without exception the claim is unfair, and Swaim recognizes this and accounts for its varying degrees. But Swaim also observes that these elected officials have “sought and attained high office by innumerable acts of vanity and self-will.” In this, our democratic process, which can variously resemble the election of a prom queen or the selection of sides for schoolyard football, does not always feel like governance. And it certainly doesn’t feel like service.

Certainly, a person might enter politics out of a desire to advance a good cause or serve a constituency—local elections can feel purer in this way—but the process sifts candidates until those of only a certain mettle remain: the kind of person who enjoys the glory that attends being elected and getting things done.  “What drives him is the thirst for glory; the public good, as he understands it, is a means to that end.” In this sense, Swaim’s depiction is wondrously similar to the description of the Pharisees in the New Testament, the ones Jesus excoriates because they “love the best seat in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces.” Not wanting particularly to vote for Pharisees for President, I wonder: can’t we choose someone else? Can’t we find the humble candidate and uphold him or her?

Unfortunately, in answering this question, Swaim brings us more bad news by reminding us that, “Successful politicians are people who know how to make us think well of them without our realizing that that’s what they’re doing; they know how to make us admire and trust them.”  If Swaim is right, then the candidates who strike us as selfless and trustworthy are likely the most adept at using their self-will to hide their vanity.

***

What, then, is my despondent writer to do? To accept the truth of Swaim’s final thesis could invite despair: they’re all miserable! They’re all selfish, glory-seeking, unctuous Pharisees! And America is falling for their wiles! But to temper this truth by adopting Swaim’s approach, the approach of the humorist, is to see that truth in perspective.

This is where Swaim’s memoir moves beyond depressing description and provides capable guidance. While laughter is a familiar political tool, used to imitate Alaskan governors and make modest proposals,  the laughter Swaim induces represents more than a typical gag or criticism. He’s not just mocking ineptitude or dishonesty or bias—though he does those things—and he’s not just laughing to keep from crying. For Swaim, his laughter is a declaration that he recognizes the farce, that he will not be duped again into trusting the 21st-Century Politician. 

I say duped again because the key element of Swaim’s experience is that he plays the stooge for his own joke. As exaggerated and vain as his boss clearly was, Swaim trusted this governor. This was his mistake. Now, while Swaim can’t change the man, he can choose how to see him. He can see him for what he is and he can choose not to trust him.

And the best way to assert his lack of trust, to inoculate himself against the 21st-Centry Politician, is to laugh at him.

Yet while laughing at someone is essentially the definition of mockery, I would characterize Swaim’s laughing differently. It is closer to the laugh of self-deprecation, because it sees the truth—even though it is preposterous—and recognizes the truth for what it is. It sees that this preposterousness is partly our own doing, our own desire to hear what we want to hear and see our leaders as we want them to be.

***

Mark Twain claimed that his humor was a vehicle, not the purpose, for writing what he did. “If the humor came of its own accord and uninvited,” he wrote, “I have allowed it a place in my sermon, but I was not writing the sermon for the sake of humor. I should have written the sermon just the same, whether any humor applied for admission or not.” In this way Barton Swaim imitates the American master of satirical humor. His insights can give us the perspective we need during an election where humorists are straining to parody an already exaggerated reality.

 

She Left Me at a Praise Rally

I wasn’t confused about much when I was 16, really just three things: God, myself, and other people. The first was the most important—my church, my youth group, and my Christian school were clear on this. The point of a holy life was to have a close, personal relationship with Jesus. Understanding the self mattered less. As long as your thoughts were pure, no one cared what other feelings lurked inside. Paying too much attention to feelings was kind of girly anyway. The third thing, other people, was tricky, because they kept complicating everything else.

For me, this complication kept focusing on Helen, a girl in my youth group. I thought she might feel the same way, judging by the way we exchanged glances and smirked about teachers and youth pastors and praise songs that kept repeating the word “desire.” I wasn’t sure how she felt, though. We didn’t talk about these things. We had started to do something much better.

First there was the kiss in the pool, where we were splashing and joking in her backyard one night and then suddenly for a few seconds we were embracing in the blue glow of the underwater lights. Then just as quickly we were splashing each other again and she tried to dunk me, probably because her parents might look out the window at any time. And now she let me put my arm around her, here on the open road, away from the gaze of parents and teachers, even if our youth group still had chaperones. We were on a coach bus heading south from Chicago, toward a four-day youth rally in Knoxville, Tennessee. All year we had worked to raise money, holding car washes, hosting a spaghetti dinner, and selling candied nuts at Christmas. Now we’d find out if the annual rally was worth the hype from upperclassmen. You got two kinds of descriptions, depending on who you asked. Sometimes it was all about “powerful” worship and getting on fire for Jesus. But then Helen’s friend’s sister told us, “It’s supposed to be this big spiritual thing, but it’s all about hooking up. Don’t go with your boyfriend or girlfriend. You’ll break up.”

We rode all night, Helen burrowing in her hoodie and sleeping, and me too excited to sleep. In the morning we disembarked in the July heat, sunlight already glaring off the sidewalk. A woman with a clipboard checked us in. Why were we so sleepy, she wanted to know. Weren’t we excited to be here? I had to look away from the radiance of her morning cheer. Helen caught my eye and smirked. The woman handed out little maps and warned us the campus was big.

“Here’s your dorm, and way over here’s the cafeteria, and down here is the arena where the nighttime rallies are,” she said. “That’s almost a mile so give yourself plenty of time. Grooters & Beal are playing all week, so you’ll want to be in time for the music.” I squinted and nodded. I hadn’t given much thought to where Knoxville was—the South? Appalachia? I had a typical teenage gaze that focused only on people within a few years of my age. Everything else was background blur.

The convention planners understood this phenomenon, and every element of the program was dialed in to register at our frequency. I’d already heard about the basketball tournament, whitewater rafting trip, and nightly karaoke. I thumbed through the booklet of morning sessions. Many advertised “inspirational,” “quirky” or “powerful” testimonies. Most were on what you’d call “teen faith issues”. Several promised to answer whether secular music was permissible for Christian youth. Inevitably, one session on dating was titled “How Far is Too Far?” I’m sure it was jam-packed. I’m sure a session on “How to Get Farther” would have been even more popular. I told my little joke to my friend Derek, who laughed. We found our way to the dorm to unpack.

“Are you going to hook up with Helen or what?” he wanted to know. “You better decide before you get distracted.”

He tilted his head toward the window and the busy sidewalk below — a parade of soft cotton tank tops and tanned legs. I didn’t expect to get distracted in the way Derek meant. I found Helen plenty thrilling, partially for tank top-related reasons, and partially because, as much as anyone, with her I could at least kind of be myself, whatever that meant. I didn’t know how to whisper sweet nothings on the bus, but she didn’t either, and neither of us minded. In safer settings, we had fun. She shot me a glance while the clipboard woman was talking and I knew we’d laugh about it later.

The first genuine, non-sarcastic fun happened at the evening rally in the campus arena. Grooters & Beal was a praise-rock band from Holland, Michigan, who understood the power of volume, stage lights, and sing-along choruses. They had learned devotional yearning from Michael W. Smith and punchy power chords from Bon Jovi. I had written off this kind of contemporary Christian music, but I’d never heard it played this loud, in a stadium this big, with thousands of other excited kids. I’d only been to a few real concerts, and this was as exciting as any of them.

“That bass player can play,” Derek yelled into my ear.

I knew what he meant. You could feel it in your chest.

“Feed the fire, Lord, be my one desire,” Grooters sang, and we soon learned to sing along. “Fan the flames in my heart.”

Those evening rallies became the highlight of each day. After dinner, sun-worn and giddy, we trekked through the lingering heat to hear a preacher or inspirational speaker followed by soaring devotional anthems. There were even goofy motions to some songs, and I was surprised to find myself not rolling my eyes but participating. I didn’t feel self-conscious. A crowd of peers can do that.

“Light a spark, lead me on through the dark,” we sang. “And feed the fire in my heart.”

The only morning session I remember was a faith-and-music thing where a speaker surprised me by sneering the word “Aerosmith.” His voice carried so much revulsion it sounded like the aging hard-rock band had personally seduced his daughter. Aerosmith was a guilty pleasure for me. I knew they hadn’t been cool since the 70s. I knew their guitar solos mostly sounded the same. I knew “Pump” and “Get a Grip” and “Big Ones” were silly. I didn’t care—I loved them. To be honest, I was mostly taken with Steven Tyler, the serpentine frontman who screamed, yawped, caressed his microphone stand, and dressed in leopard-skin shirts and got away with it. He was confident, outspoken, uninhibited—the things I wanted to be.

Earlier that year Aerosmith had released a single with these lines:

There’s a hole in my soul that’s been killing me forever.
It’s a place where a garden never grows.

I misheard the last part as “a place where a girl can never go.” To me, it sounded like unintentional prayer. It sounded like this vocal atheist was primed for a conversion.

Jesus, I wanted to tell Steven Tyler. That’s the only thing that can fill the hole in your soul.

I knew it was stupid. What can I say? I rolled my eyes at well-intentioned church ladies, slouched through entire meals at home saying as little as possible to my family, and inside I harbored fantasies about washed-up rock stars coming to Jesus.

If you pressed me to say what I believed about Jesus, I don’t know what I would have said. A personal “relationship” with him was supposed to be at the core of my life. But he was more of an idea than a person, an abstraction that filled me with a vague anxiety that I was failing some test. Steven Tyler, on the other hand, I could picture clearly in his leopard skins and leather jeans. Now this youth pastor from wherever was dismissing one of my favorite bands without even saying why. He couldn’t imagine grace flowing through, or toward, my crass hero. I wasn’t interested in whatever else he had to say.

Helen and I kissed just beyond the lights of the karaoke stage on the second night. I could sort of sense this one coming, unlike the surprise in the pool. I still didn’t know if it would happen again, up until it did. We were watching karaoke in the muggy night and I was hoping and waiting for an opportunity. Finally she leaned over and said “Do you want to walk me back to the dorm?” Even I wasn’t too clueless for that hint. We left and found our own little shadow beneath the campus trees. The soft press of her lips was exhilarating, both for the culmination of weeks of wondering, and for the promise it held of future embraces. I casually assumed this promise was a done deal when I floated into a blissed-out sleep that night.

And I was still assuming when the phone woke me the next morning. It was Helen. “Hey. Do you guys want to come to breakfast with us?”

“Did you seriously have to call so early?” I said, still finding my bearings.

“Whoa, Mr. Cheerful,” she said.

Any number of apologies would have worked for me here. Anything to acknowledge that her considerate phone call didn’t deserve my rude remark. But apologies showed weakness, right? They brought you into the messy realm of feelings. Much simpler to insult the girl I’d been longing for.

“Whatever,” I said.

“All right then. Forget it.”

She went to breakfast without us and realized that hanging out with her girlfriends at convention was a lot of fun too. For the rest of the week we sort of coexisted on uncertain terms. We didn’t talk for a while, and there was so much entertainment buzzing around us that it was easy to forget we hadn’t moved past our little fight.

The last-night rally was meant to be a climax. Grooters & Beal led us in the praise anthems now familiar to us. We counted down to the revealing of next year’s convention location. Speakers blared “I Love L.A.,” a song I’d never heard before. Video screens flashed palm trees and the Hollywood sign. Actual screams swept across the crowd. I didn’t know if I’d be going next year and didn’t know if I liked Los Angeles. For the first time in the arena I wondered if I was as excited as everyone else was acting.

The band played slower, more reflective songs, and the mood shifted. Brian, the leader of the organization that ran the whole convention, spoke about the joy of being with young men and women all week. He spoke about the awesome privilege of seeing Jesus change hearts and lives. His voice grew quiet as he leaned out toward the sea of faces.

“I’ve got to tell you: Tomorrow morning you’ll be packing up and going back to a world that doesn’t care what you’ve experienced here. They don’t care.”

His voice grew even softer. “They don’t care.”

He told us what this would be like and how our faith would make a difference.

“You can be strong,” he said. “You can feed the fire.”

Finally, he invited us to leave our seats and move toward the stage. He wanted to offer a blessing, or a final chance to recommit ourselves to God, or a place to repent…or something.

My friends pressed forward, tears streaming down their faces. I moved forward to stay with the people I knew. Helen drifted a few yards ahead—a flash of blond hair disappearing into the crowd, the last I would see her that night. The dim corners of the arena emptied out as figures flowed toward the stage, arms raised. Music played slow and mournful. Everywhere I looked faces were blotchy and teary. I don’t know if they were experiencing shame, relief, or something else. I was too concerned with what I was feeling. Or, rather, wasn’t feeling. I wanted to be carried away in a cathartic wash of tears, but I wasn’t carried anywhere. Instead I felt stone dry.

At the end, Brian said there were adults backstage who could pray with us one-on-one. My youth group was going back to karaoke. Neither direction seemed right. I drifted with the crowd into the night, unsure of where to go. We came to the university running track, its field lights blazing. I set my sandals and t-shirt on a bleacher and felt the nubby rubber surface under my feet. Back at school I was a mediocre cross country runner, but I never ran without timing myself and measuring the distance. Here, I eased into a jog. The day’s heat lingered into the night, and by the second lap I was sweating. My mind returned to the rally. I was so eager to be swept away in the arena. Feeling some intense spiritual climax was supposed to be the whole reason for coming to these things. It made no sense, just like how everything with Helen fell apart before it got started. I wouldn’t have minded apologizing for being rude to her on the phone—pride wasn’t the issue—but something had stopped me.

My muscles loosened and my breathing settled into a rhythm. As I lost count of laps, I felt calm for the first time in days. I realized I was disappointed—disappointed and weary. That should have been obvious, but it wasn’t. Guys didn’t go out and name their feelings, even to themselves. Guys weren’t supposed to have feelings. It was shameful. Getting a spiritual high at a praise rally, sure, that was a noble condition. Steven Tyler rolling his hips on stage to demonstrate his desire, sure. But not getting all emotional when I couldn’t even say why. A life of faith required discipline, I thought. Determination. We were supposed to worship a savior who didn’t lose control.

The track’s nubby surface tickled underfoot. The faintest trace of a breeze swept across the infield, and I remembered there were mountains standing off in the distant dark. I was finally noticing things outside the clamor of my mind. As my legs pounded, I felt a deep sense of gratitude for that moment alone in the night. A sense of fullness came down and settled on my skin like the humid air.

LSD and the Baptisms of Tahquitz Canyon

Fifty years ago Lonnie Frisbee took LSD and wandered into Tahquitz Canyon naked. He returned a born-again Christian. While in the canyon, Lonnie had a vision of hundreds of thousands of people being baptized in the Pacific Ocean, and he felt a voice in his spirit tell him that he had been selected by God to become a modern prophet for the gospel of Jesus Christ. Within two years Lonnie was baptizing hundreds of people a day on the beaches of Southern California. He would go on to be a key participant in the birth and dramatic growth of what Time called the Jesus movement, and two very large Charismatic churches, Calvary Chapel and The Vineyard.

According to Cahuilla legend, for whom Tahquitz Canyon has held spiritual significance for thousands of years, it is the prison of the first shaman created by Mukat, the creator of all things. After being scorned by a woman, Tahquitz turned against humanity and was exiled to the canyon forever. He is said to be the father of all shaman. During the 1960s, in a sort of spiritual gentrification, it became a popular destination for hippies and spiritual seekers who wanted to go into the desert to get high and have orgies.

Lonnie was a natural evangelist. If he found truth, he shared it. He was captivated by Harvard professor, Timothy Leary’s writing, and regularly organized “Turn on, Tune in, Drop Out” sessions in the canyon to introduce his friends to psilocybin, LSD, and peyote. But psychedelics were not just for “spacing out” and Lonnie was a believer in Leary’s claim that psychedelics can facilitate a confrontation with one’s true self. Leary also advised using music, spiritual texts, or holy places to help direct that confrontation. Lonnie would often bring along spiritual texts to the canyon and read them aloud while he and his friends tripped balls.

Before his own conversion he had led a group to the foot of the 60-foot waterfall in the canyon. After getting high and painting an enormous image of Jesus on a nearby rock, Lonnie read from the Gospel of John and implored the acolytes of Timothy Leary to become disciples of Jesus Christ. In what might be the most unorthodox baptism in history, a stoned, unordained and unbelieving priest baptized several couples at the base of Tahquitz’s eternal prison.

Divinity at the Tip of the Tongue

In a 1967 episode of Firing Line, Timothy Leary attempted to clarify the impact of and justify the use of psychedelics to William H. Buckley Jr. He claimed that psychedelics were not just another form of escapism. “It’s like a microscope,” Leary said. LSD does not draw you away from the essential elements of your existence but turns them into a searing coal and presses them against your lips just as the Seraphim pressed the coal of the Lord against Isaiah’s lips in the throne room of heaven.

Leary told Buckley that LSD would provide a path through the confusions of modern society by focusing the mind of the user on what is truly real and essential—family, friends, personal health, etc. Intentionally or accidentally, Leary employed the language of religious ascetics like St. Anthony who fled the interruptions of the city to devote themselves to prayer and focus on God.

Second Class Mystics

At about the same time that Lonnie was baptizing hippies in the Pacific Ocean, Jim Bell was attending College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts and preaching the Be Here Now gospel of Baba Ram Dass. One Christmas break, he and a group of friends had taken a double dose of peyote buttons and barricaded themselves in a New Jersey apartment to ride out the wave. During an interview he said:

“We were seeing all sorts of colors and we were totally out of orbit so we turned the lights out. And we each had a sleeping bag. My friend Joe was in a sleeping bag next to me. And Eleanor Rigby was playing on the radio. And I was really zeroed in on the idea of existential loneliness. And I had a vivid vision of Jesus on the cross. I was startled. It was like Jesus was looking at me with a double look of sadness that I had departed from my childhood Catholicism and compassion because of how confused I was. And he said, ‘look at what I’ve done for you.’ So I turned to Joe and said, ‘Jesus claimed it all, do you think he was right?’ But Joe didn’t answer.

Over the next few months Jim struggled to “blend Christian love and Buddhist wisdom” but ultimately he settled into a Pentecostal church made up of a lot of people with similar experiences to his own.

“People have said, ‘You saw Jesus on drugs. So it is illegitimate.’” In an interview, Jim told me, “Well it is illegitimate. I could have seen Buddha or anything. But I saw Jesus. God was using the vision to speak to me.”

How do the rest of us understand the experience that Lonny and Jim claim? In The Varieties of Religious Experience William James quotes J. Trevor contending that the legitimacy of the experience is in the impact is has on a person’s life,

The spiritual life…justifies itself to those who live it; but what can we say to those who do not understand? This, at least, we can say, that it is a life whose experiences are proved real to their possessor, because they remain with him when brought closest into contact with the objective realities of life.

I think this is true of Lonnie Frisbee or Jim Bell. Their mystical experiences were not passing visions that mixed with the hundreds of previous psychedelic and mundane experiences. Neither were they just a “simple beliefs that run dry” as professor of Religious Psychology, Ralph Hood has said. They are “experiences that are embedded in your very nature that ensure you with a sense of ontological validity because they elicit in you a sense of ontological wonder that occurs when the self dissolves and is made a part of a greater reality.” In other words, when a person has a mystical experience it changes how they see themselves in relationship to everything around them.

How to Disappear Completely

Most of us are never caught up in a revelatory tsunami that strips of us our confusion and sends us into the desert of life like Moses leading the Israelites, a pillar of fire showing the way. Maybe it is better that way. It is good to have one Moses. It would be unbearable to have thousands.

Revelation comes to most of us in the microscopic miracles of daily life like a slow intravenous drip for our existential longings. Our baptism is not one of fire but of patience. But regardless of the intensity or frequency of a spiritual experience, the challenge is the same as it was for Lonnie or Jim every day after their visions. How do we live in honor of the experience of god long after the experience has passed? Drugs or no drugs, mystical revelation or the reliable rhythm of daily prayer, we have to be able to live meaningful lives without depending on something from without to shatter our reality each moment.

If we expect the divine to only appear to the saint, the mystic, or the psychedelic shaman then we believe in a god who deserves not our love but our scorn. The experience of god is “not too hard for you, neither is it far off,” to paraphrase Moses. “It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us?’… Neither is it beyond the sea that you should say, ‘who will go over the sea for us?’…but the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart.” Our moments of nakedness before god do not happen only in the deserts of California, or at the mercy of peyote, but in every act of love that we give or receive.

The Turkey Bomber

I’ve never felt comfortable interpreting my life’s events. When someone suggests that my alarm clock not going off was meant to teach me a certain lesson, that “there is no such thing as coincidence,” I cringe. It’s not that I shouldn’t learn a lesson, but that it feels presumptuous to interpret such an event as providence, presumptuous to determine with such confidence why something happened.

Yet as ridiculous as it may feel to interpret a small happening as providential, I admit it can feel similarly ridiculous to declare every circumstance coincidental. That is certainly the case with a recent incident involving my father-in-law.

My father-in-law spends much of his time in one of three places in his office at home: lying on the floor, lying on the sofa, or sitting in his rocking chair. The piles of papers and books that cover every inch of the desk amply prove he never sits there. Yet in this instance, he sat at his desk, his phone to his ear, waiting for a human being to pick up.

Despite the 20-degree temperature outside, the room was warm and pleasant, filled with light from the four casement windows. My in-laws were the only ones home; the radio, TV, and computers were silent. Then the second window to my father-in-law’s right exploded, propelling shards of glass across his office.

Given the angle of his seat to the window, he could not have chosen a safer place to sit. Twelve feet across the room, four-inch shards of glass impaled the sofa, the drywall, and a wooden picture frame. In the middle of the room, two panes worth of glass rained upon the open magazine and scattered books. In the back of the rocking chair, near the window, and just below where my father-in-law’s head might have been, glass tore holes in the suede backing. Thus, his position was as perfect as it was unlikely.

Like me, many are uncomfortable interpreting stories of coincidence. A distinctly American form of this discomfort reaches at least as far back as Nathaniel Hawthorne, who in The Scarlet Letter wonders about our penchant for interpreting natural phenomena as personal signs. When Arthur Dimmesdale is suffering in guilt and standing upon the scaffold alongside Hester Prynne, he looks to the midnight sky and sees a giant, red A. Such a case as this, Hawthorne asserts, “could only be the symptom of a highly disordered mental state, when a man…had extended his egotism over the whole expanse of nature, until the firmament itself should appear no more than a fitting page for his soul’s history and fate!” Hawthorne sees in Dimmesdale’s interpretation arrogance; only vanity could believe the entire universe revolves around him. And similarly, even though I view God as creator and sustainer—a personal being providentially guiding creation—I chafe at the idea of interpreting every coincidence as a kind of handy providence. Something about the way it’s applied strikes me as off-kilter, like a too-convenient exposition of a poem.  

Yet as self-conscious as I might be about my vanity, coincidence still intrigues me. This American Life explored the phenomena of coincidence and our attitudes toward it memorably, and while some of the incidents they share occupy the realm of the bizarre, host Sarah Koenig admits she found it difficult to remain skeptical in the face of these stories. Though she began a skeptic, she ended up

“agreeing with this one woman I interviewed about her coincidence: she knew her story could probably be explained away with statistics and probability, but she said, “There’s just a poetry to things like this when they happen. There’s some kind of beauty in it. There’s meaning in the noticing it at all.”

As This American Life suggests, the more random and strange the coincidence, the easier it is to see the poetry behind it. No matter how skeptical we are, poetic coincidence can provide the opportunity to see a bit of providence in the world.

After the window exploded, my father-in-law’s next sight was equally shocking: in the middle of his office floor, an adult turkey convulsed violently, feathers scattering everywhere. 

We initially speculated that the turkeys, a species of limited aerial ability, were using the hill above the house as a launching ramp, enabling them to reach their roosts in the ponderosas behind it. This turkey failed to attain the goal.

Whatever the cause, as I consider how narrowly my father-in-law escaped injury, I keep returning to Problems with Hurricanes, a poem by Victor Hernandez Cruz:

A campesino looked at the air
And told me:
With hurricanes it’s not the wind
or the noise or the water.
I’ll tell you he said:
it’s the mangoes, avocados
Green plantains and bananas
flying into town like projectiles.

How would your family
feel if they had to tell
The generations that you
got killed by a flying
Banana.

The campesino’s question has always struck me as funny. Poetic coincidence is often something to be thankful for, but it can also be humorous. Now, in my gratitude that my father-in-law was not hurt by this fowl kamikaze, I find it even funnier, with my laughter acting as a celebration for his safety.

Still, questions linger. Is it arrogant for me to celebrate my father-in-law’s seemingly random moment at his desk? To celebrate his safety as providential? If I celebrate his safety as providential, am I suggesting he is more important to the one who determines providence than those who have coincidentally suffered? Am I as arrogant as Arthur Dimmesdale, interpreting the movement of the galaxy as part of the text of my life?

Despite my reservations, I think not. My sincere gratitude arises not from arrogance but from humility. It admits that apart from providence, my father-in-law has no protection, even from random natural phenomenon like turkey bombers. My own interpretive gratitude, then, is not an attempt to explain the ways of providence, but an attempt to accept them.

To the fowl and her relatives, the incident appears far less coincidental. My father-in-law put her out of her misery as quickly as possible, spent 12 hours cleaning his office, and had the window repaired. Two weeks later, with no one in the room, another turkey propelled herself through the glass, dying on impact. Clearly, we now realize, the birds are seeing something in the window and diving for it. So my father-in-law has covered the windows with black plastic and blue tape. While grateful for providential protection, he is not so arrogant as to demand it again.

The Danger of Reading

My family owns a book I will never read.

Actually, we own more than one book that I’ll likely not take time for: my stepson’s copy of Si-cology written by Duck Dynasty star Si Robertson, my husband’s 150 Years of Baseball, and a borrowed copy of James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces I have kept way too long. Those books lie squarely outside my interests, and with so little time and so many books, why bother?

But there’s one book we own that I would probably enjoy but still will never read: John Green’s A Fault in Our Stars. Granted, it’s a young adult book. But that didn’t stop me from reading The Hunger Games. My husband read Fault and liked it. He’s actually watched the movie version a couple of times without me. It’s that good, according to him. But I will never read Green’s book or others like it because it is about cancer and someone in the book dies of the disease. For a cancer survivor who came close to dying of the disease myself, reading about people dying of cancer stirs up emotional turmoil.

Apparently this kind of selective reading has become popular among college students who ask to be excused from assigned readings because of the “triggers” contained in some classic literature. According to sociologist Frank Furedi, “At universities around the world, students are claiming that reading books can unsettle them to the point of becoming depressed, traumatised or even suicidal.” In his Aeon essay “Books are Dangerous,” he lists Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs Dalloway (1925), F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), even Ovid’s Metamorphoses as books students have labeled psychically harmful.

Furedi spends most of the rest of his essay enumerating the many ways over the centuries that others have imposed danger labels on literature to keep students, women, the “uneducated,” the religiously pious, and other readers away from the influences of reading. From the Roman philosopher Seneca, “who advised that the ‘reading of many books is a distraction’ that leaves the reader ‘disoriented and weak,’” to The Lady’s Magazine: Or Entertaining Companion for the Fair Sex, Appropriated Soley for their Use and Amusement of 1780 that “warned that novels were ‘the powerful engines with which the seducer attacks the female heart,’” to 20th century Moralisers “who feared the malevolent influence of texts drew the conclusion that censorship served the functional equivalent of quarantine,” reading has a long history of inciting distress in its readers, according to some.

Growing up, my own religious training attempted to motivate us toward a self-imposed “trigger warning” approach to media consumption. For movies and music, the issue lay primarily in the moral arena: sex, nudity, profanity, and violence were to be avoided at all costs, regardless of the merits of the film or composition. But for books, the standard centered more on the ideas they contained. On many occasions, I was presented the metaphor of a counterfeit money expert who is able to identify fake currency not by studying the many different possible knock-offs, but by studying the real thing. In other words, I shouldn’t seek knowledge and truth outside of the texts our religious forbearers had already identified for us. To read books about Islam or atheism or evolution would invite trouble. Reading was dangerous.

Actually, reading is dangerous—possibly in the ways we have been warned about throughout history, where our minds are tainted by new ideas and tempted by knowledge of questionable deeds, but mostly in the ways we are pushed to question and analyze and possibly even reject old notions for new ones. When we read, we change—a dangerous proposition indeed.

“It is precisely because reading catches us unaware and offers an experience that is rarely under our full control that it has played, and continues to play, such an important role in humanity’s search for meaning. That is also why it is so often feared,” Furedi concludes.

But there is another danger in reading, perhaps even a greater danger, that is easily hidden among our preferences and ideologies.

Recently, my husband and I were discussing presidential politics and the primary election season at hand. About one candidate whom neither of us is voting for, we both expressed incredulity over the reasons anyone would make that choice.

“It’s not just that someone would vote for him, but that they aren’t doing any research to find out what he’s really like,” Steve said.

“Well, actually the problem might be that they are doing research but from a biased source,” I suggested, mostly because just the day before, I saw a conversation on Facebook in which two people offered sources to support opposing views about the same issues.

“When everything we read supports what we already know, who can argue with that?” I said.

Dangerous reading indeed. And not just in politics. Of course I’m not advocating only hostile reading, when our books and journals and magazines and newsletters whip us into a frenzy with every perusal. When I read authors who share my opinion and ideologies, I’ve found affirmation and increased understanding. But in hindsight, I also believe that I’ve stunted my own growth when I failed to challenge myself and my opinions by reading broadly and deeply from opposing positions, too.

But reading grows even more treacherous when we limit it not just by subject but by kind, because we have come to believe that our choices are not just morally or ideologically preferable but also intellectually superior. Of course there are many ways to frame these dichotomies. In literature we talk about literary fiction vs. genre fiction. In education, we think of the academy versus vocational training. There are films versus movies. High art versus low art. In “Reverting to Type: A Reader’s Story,” Alan Jacobs, Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program of Baylor University, frames the dichotomy this way: “the guy who talks about ideas” versus “the guy who makes things,” or the Intellectual and the Engineer. In his own reading, Jacobs started out as scientifically curious and increasingly became densely literary. He went from reading for enjoyment to “reading while thinking about what I am going to do with that reading.” When later he came back to both the scientific and science fiction reading of his youth—a reading that differed both in subject and in kind from his own professional reading—what happened surprised him.

“I pursued these matters out of relatively pure enthusiasm, delight in stretching parts of my brain that hadn’t been used much in a few decades. But in devoting so much of my leisure reading to books by scientists, I ended up, quite inadvertently, changing my views about my own profession,” Jacobs writes.

Primarily the change was this:

“Nobody can get a secure grip on this nearly infinite variety of inquiry and vocabulary, but every attempt to read across the boundaries of one’s own preferred practices is a tonic and a stimulant. We tell ourselves that we don’t have time for this kind of reading, but given the multiple rewards, can we afford not to take that time? Often it’s confusing, sometimes it’s clarifying, usually—if you can find the good, clear writers in the various fields—it’s a great deal of fun.

Of course “fun” doesn’t actually preclude danger. Reading of the kind Jacobs suggests is dangerous. But so is the alternative.

Maybe someday when I’ve been cancer-free for five or ten years, I’ll read The Fault in Our Stars. I know I’d like it. But before then, maybe I should pick up Si-Cology or 150 Years of Baseball. It might be fun.

The Day That Often Isn’t

“There are the stars—doing their old, old criss-cross journeys in the sky…this one is straining away, straining away all the time to make something of itself. The strain’s so bad that every sixteen hours everybody lies down and gets a rest.” —Stage Manager, Our Town

Today is my 10th birthday, and I turn 40. I am a Leap Day baby. Generally speaking, this strange fact has always worked in my favor. Once people know it, they rarely forget it, and while birthday greetings might wane during the three years between leap years, I achieve a sort of celebrity status on the years there is a February 29th. I believe I could make a fairly strong case that, at least in the areas of recognition and popularity, Leap Day is the absolute best day of birth to have. But, of course, there are aspects of it that have always bothered me.

A few weeks ago I spent a Sunday afternoon in front of Agnes Martin’s Wind at the Columbus Museum of Art. This work looks like a penciled grid of thin vertical and horizontal lines—like a narrow calendar grid that, rather than just one month, encompasses an entire life or two. Were it that, which I know it is not, I wondered how it would account for time’s refusal to fit into a nice, reliable grid of our own making. 

Creating a visual vocabulary for time is an immemorial conundrum. Nothing will suffice. We’re all familiar with timelines, but this means of visual representation is just a little over 250 years old. Until the mid-18th century chronologists used complicated tables, charts, and matrices of varying forms to convey the passing of time visually. The timeline offered a needed simplification, but it is problematic. We make a line to represent time, and then we hash mark a point on it and name it with a title of an unacceptably short length that we can fit on a diagonal just above or below it. We take events, narratives packed with details and lives and emotions, and we cliff note them into a phrase. Monumental moments like births, deaths, weddings, wars and treaties are marked briefly, but all of the events leading up to and following them are left out. Their significance and context are left out. We all know this.

Even further removing life from cumbersome specificity, we bracket years and file them away as “Civil War,” “Renaissance,” or “BC” or “CE”. Yes, there is a practical purpose to this well-established practice of recording our histories, but it comes with the caveat that we must always remember more is going on within any moment of time than we can possibly recognize, much less remember or know.

And to go even further, let’s remember that before we put any of our own experiences within time, we have to go about creating calendars and clocks that will help us conceptualize it. But even those, with their long history of some of the most complicated math the human mind can muster, have to be adjusted so we can stay in sync with our seasons. The real clock is our solar system. Our time pieces are just meager attempts to capture what is going on up there and display it on our wrists, mantles and walls.

“So do you celebrate on the 28th or the 1st?”

This is almost always the first response when someone learns my birthdate. It’s as predictable as a new time traveler’s reaction upon entering the Doctor’s spaceship/time machine, the TARDIS (short for “Time and Relative Dimension in Space”) in the BBC’s famous sci-fi show, Doctor Who. On the outside, the TARDIS looks like a 1960’s London police box, but on the inside it is infinite in size, going on and on and on and on. No one ever sees the entire thing. Wide-eyed and open-mouthed, newcomers will walk through the creaking doors of the TARDIS and begin stumbling upon their words, but eventually they will get it out, “…It’s bigger on the inside!” Every time.

In a recent episode, the Doctor was allowed to enter his own TARDIS incognito. His companion didn’t recognize him, and so, realizing the opportunity he was walking into, the doctor paused before stepping in and smirked, “Finally. It’s my go.” He begins his reaction with the usual line, and then he carries on in true, Shakespearean fashion, dramatic arm gestures and all, “My entire understanding of physical space has been transformed! Three dimensional Euclidean geometry has been torn up, thrown in the air, and snogged to death!! My grasp of the universal constants of physical reality has been changed…forever.” Then he turns toward the camera and says, “Sorry. I’ve always wanted to see that done properly.”

I am not sure what the proper response to the Leap Year phenomenon should be, but as I am one of those born on the day that often isn’t, I think about it a lot. The question, “So do you celebrate on the 28th or the 1st?” always seems like the wrong question. Neither day satisfies. On the 28th my birthday has not yet happened, and on the 1st it’s a thing of the past. Visually, it occurred somewhere within the thin line between the boxes of the two dates on the calendar grid. Were the hash mark “My Birthday” looking for a place to land on my timeline during those non-Leap years, it would be rebuffed. On a timepiece, the moment occurs somewhere between a tick and a tock. The real question seems to be, “How do you recognize something of such significance when it’s not allotted even an actual second?” And suddenly, my birthday only serves as an easy example of something that is happening all the time.

On the plaque next to Agnes Martin’s Wind is a quote from Martin, “…perfection can’t be found in something so rigid as geometry. You have to go elsewhere for that, in between the lines.” So now I am a tiny version of myself trespassing into Martin’s painting. I am walking around on it, walking through the days, hopping from space to space, moment to moment. I imagine the pencil lines as cracks that perhaps I could wriggle into. On those years where I am not allotted a vertically oriented rectangular space, maybe I could alter the grid and make one. Or better yet, maybe I could do this for any moment that needs more time for recognition, not just my silly birthday. If I could squeeze myself into one of the lines, maybe I could press against the days or hours, claim a space, and expand the crack through which, to borrow from Leonard Cohen, the light could get in. I could conjure up the strength of Samson and make it…bigger on the inside. I could twenty-four hour a second.

I recently enjoyed a performance of Thorton Wilder’s Our Town at Kenyon College. I’d read the play a number of times, but I don’t think I’d ever seen it performed in a theatre, and was fascinated with the way it lends itself to both speeding time up and slowing time down. It is divided into three acts between which a number of years are implied and summarized, or “timelined” if you will, by the stage manager. But in this particular adaptation of the play, time is occasionally slowed down within an act. The actors pause, and a chorus of voices planted in the audience sing a singular and sustained dissonant chord. This happens during Act 2 when the characters Emily and George, as their teenage selves, recognize their mutual love for one another. She has just reprimanded him for becoming “conceited and stuck up.” She expresses her hurt in having to tell him, but also her responsibility to do so, and George, surprised, receives it with gratitude, “I…I’m glad you said it Emily. I never thought that such a thing was happening to me.” They then have a nervous back and forth, and she drops a school book. He kneels down to pick it up, and then the pause begins. The wonderfully dissonant chord comes from all around us, and time slows down. We watch them lock eyes as he hands her the same book over and over and over again in slow motion.  A few seconds are expanded, offered as a gift to show the beautiful weight of what is happening within them.

“Oh earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you,” Emily cries toward the end of the play. She then pleads with the stage manager, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?—every, every minute?”

“No,” the stage manager replies, “The saints and poets, maybe—they do some.”

That line there is a beautiful one, but I have to take issue with it. I don’t think “realizing life” is limited to saints and the poets unless the realization includes the fact that the saint and poet dwell in each of us. I believe the tension we feel against our perceived constraints of time is a common one. I am just using my birthday to highlight a shared longing. I believe we all recognize our life-long responsibility and desire to expand and carefully witness our moments here. Whether they be experiences of joy or sorrow, we know it is important to be attentive within our days and remember them well. Our star, the sun, is not the only thing “straining away all the time.” The task is brilliant and overwhelming, but in many ways, it is the only task we have.

Today is not a day “added” onto every fourth calendar year. It is always there. We just have trouble figuring out how to make room for it. But if we could squeeze ourselves into it and press out some space, I believe we would find it, as well as every day that comes before and after it, infinite in size and much, much bigger on the inside.

What is a Video Game?

Video games often follow simple storylines. Rescue the princess! Defeat the enemy. Find the treasure. These are the objectives, within these digital stories, that require skill and knowledge to complete. Games are objective-based narratives one engages to reach a certain goal. But what if a game had absolutely no objective? What if it didn’t require any challenge or skill from you, but just your time? Is it still a game?

The Beginner’s Guide is such a game. Released last October, The Beginner’s Guide was created by Davey Wreden. Wreden is a game designer who has received high acclaim for his previous game The Stanley Parable—another first person interactive game with loads of absurdism (a philosophy which argues the search for meaning is pointless, and we should embrace life as is). The only controls available to the player in The Beginner’s Guide are the W, A, S, and D keys for movement, and the mouse.

The player follows Wreden as he shares a series of events from 2008 to 2011 involving his friend Coda, a game designer that he met at a gaming get-together. Coda has created games of varying design and complexity, and through these games Wreden shares his thoughts on Coda, game development, and his philosophical beliefs. Similar to The Stanley Parable, The Beginner’s Guide is deeply absurdist. Many of the levels are abstract, left with bugs, goals that are impossible to meet, or even “unfinished.” In many of these cases, Wreden “comes into” the game to help the player by altering the coding and allowing them to progress. In one level the player walks into a jail cell and has the door shut behind them. The only way to leave is to wait for an hour in real time. At another point, the player is in a room that leads to an underground passage. The player follows the passage, only to see that it leads nowhere. There is an outside, but you just can’t reach it.

As it progresses and you learn more about Coda and Wreden, the game becomes an existential nightmare about their relationship as artists and friends. Beyond the exploration of each game, and learning about this friendship, there is no other objective. There is nothing in the game that tells you what you are supposed to discover or who you are to defeat. There are no points or skill-dependent achievements; the game is about listening. In light of this, what makes The Beginner’s Guide’s a video game?

Mainstream video games—such as Call of Duty, Super Mario, Halo, and The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim—involve higher levels of interactivity, whether that means fighting an enemy, solving a problem, or exploring a map to reach an objective. There is competition, the option to fail, and players can learn from mistakes to find new solutions to problems. In other words, video games allow us to make decisions to reach our goals. Even considering games that don’t always follow a narrative, like Tetris, there is still a goal that the player is pursuing: improving their score.

The Beginner’s Guide plays off these traditional aspects, but puts a unique spin on how they work. Other than to listen to Wreden’s story, there is no clear goal to the game. While there are small decisions to be made, they in no way alter the pace or change or even lose the game; your decisions can’t stop the story. As long as you move forward, the game’s story is told. Yet how this story is told, Wreden’s dialogue, makes for a meta-game, as he explains the functions of a typical video game and how they are created and run. For example: when the player may be trying to complete an impossible level Wreden will speak up, comment on the level, and while altering the game’s coding he discusses how levels are brought together with a gaming engine, and how games function. The Beginner’s Guide is a video game about Coda and Wreden’s relationship, and it is a video game about video games.

The Beginner’s Guide is not the first video game to ask what makes a video game a video game. The game Mountain was released in 2014, and simply invites players to watch over a mountain. No context is given for this task, but slowly over time the mountain begins to change. Text will sometimes appear, and you can tap the screen on mobile platforms to make sounds and spin the mountain, but that’s the only interactivity allowed. There are no points, there are no goals, your only purpose is to watch the mountain.

Meta-video games lead us to ask questions about what exactly is a game. Since you interact with it, type and share content with other “players”, can we consider Facebook a video game? Since it has functions and we use it for certain objectives, can we consider the simple usage of our computers as gaming? Consider how we use our smartphones, the design so similar to how the classic Gameboy functioned. We open our smartphone apps with purpose, to fulfill some sort of goal; this is similar in a sense to popping in a game and going about a mission in hopes to achieve a certain success. Is life a game?

A post at Gamesutra on The Beginner’s Guide states:

“The Beginner’s Guide is a video game about video games, then, but not in a cloying you-are-the-monster way or a hey-remember-Mario way. It’s a video game about the act of engaging with a video game, both through creation and consumption…The Beginner’s Guide is a self-reflective exercise for Wreden, almost definitely. But it is also a self-reflective exercise for the player to think about their relationship with virtual spaces, and with the human beings who craft them.

What makes The Beginner’s Guide excellent are the questions and wonder it promotes. It’s not a “traditional” video game, but a small step into a new world of gaming, one focused on approaching narrative in a new way, and provoking thoughts beyond the end of the game itself. It does what any great piece of art should make us do: question.

Faith is a Foreign Country

Tyburn Convent is minutes away from one of the busiest street corners in London. An unobtrusive brown building overlooking Hyde Park, the monastery commemorates the city’s historic gallows. Petty criminals, failed revolutionaries, and Catholic martyrs all lost their lives on the Tyburn tree. In 1585, after Saint Edmund Campion was hanged, drawn and quartered at the Tyburn, Father Gregory Gunne told a British court, “You have slain the greatest man in England. I will add that one day there, where you have put him to death, a religious house will arise.” In 1903 Marie Adele Garnier, founder of the Adorers of the Sacred Heart of Jesus of Montmartre, a Benedictine order of nuns, fulfilled that prophecy. Today the monastery houses relics from Catholics martyred at the Tyburn; there are linens stained with the blood of Jesuits and a venerable collection of finger bones, vertebrae, hair, and fingernails. The shrine, a model of the three-legged gallows, is a grim reminder of England’s internecine religious history. Inside the small chapel, which is open to the public, there are white bars separating the nuns from those that come to pray. The monastery has sister convents around the world, the order stretching from Europe to South America. All are cloistered, the women living in self-imposed isolation behind the convent walls. They take new names, abandon their past, and spend most of their days in silence. Nothing could be further from the nearby bustle of Marble Arch. The other Tyburn namesake in the neighborhood is a pub.

I was brought up in a staunchly secular household. Nuns, when I thought of them at all, seemed like remnants from another age. Later I became aware of the convent’s more radical history. While religious orders have often reinforced gender roles, they have also offered women an independent space to study. From Hildegarde of Bingen to the Catalan social activist Sister Teresa Forcades, nuns have frequently been formidable intellectuals. Contemporary cloistered monasteries, however, are much easier to dismiss as curiosities, anachronistic and isolated. But it’s that removal from the world that may, ultimately, be of value to people, like myself, who are secular. Religion is not a place where most of us look for counter-culture. Cultural critiques are associated with the more familiar bohemianism of art and progressive politics: the Beat poets, hippies, Luddites, and punks. It’s worth asking whether that should still hold true in the 21st century? The role of counter-culture is to elicit discomfort, drawing attention to otherwise invisible assumptions about society. It may seem counterintuitive to look for inspiration in an institution as the hierarchical and traditionalist as the Catholic Church. But the old monastic ideal, with its separation from the world, could provide a vantage point to critique the way we live now. And so, with that in mind, I interviewed the Sisters at Tyburn Convent.

Sister Thomasina is a cheerful woman from India in her mid-50s. A former mental health nurse, she now wears the white robes of a novice. It is her first year in the convent. Thomasina laughs and shakes her head when I ask if her family was Catholic. “I come from a very communist background,” she tells me. Her father was a councillor in the Bangalore Communist Party and she spent her adolescence in its Youth League. The conversion was less painful than might be imagined. “Jesus,” she says “was a perfect communist, you know. In principle, if you take it literally, he did have a bias for the poor.” Her turn towards Catholicism began with a copy of Augustine’s City of God, bought on an outing with her university. After her conversion, she resisted pressure from her family to marry, turning down a proposal from her Buddhist table tennis partner. “In Buddhism you know, you have to work towards nirvana…And I’m so damn lazy,” she says laughing, “I thought, I can’t be doing all these things, even for love.”

This sacrifice of normal human intimacy is part of contemplative life. Women are drawn to this order from across the world, often at a great distance from family and friends. “For me it was a gradual process of losing family,” says Mother Lioba, who left her family in Australia. “There is a definite dividing line…You have to internally make that decision. So that what you’re doing is saying, okay, I’m leaving those things that are good in themselves and I’m taking the ultimate good which is God.” The question a contemplative must ask herself, she tells me, is: “I love my family, can I, do I, am I, called to love God more?”

Outside of the monastery it has become increasingly uncommon to hear any defense of solitude. We’re a culture that is afraid of loneliness, perhaps because it has become so common. More and more of us are living alone, often far away from where we might consider home. Long working hours leave little time to see friends or make new ones. The connections we make on social networks appear more like a simulacra of company. Despite, or maybe because of all this, it’s considered a failure not to be social. Which is one reason why the choice to enter a cloistered convent appears so jarring.

In this context, the convent provides the shock of the old rather than the shock of the new. Monastic life has fossilized a regard for solitude which has fallen out of favor elsewhere. Talking to the nuns, it’s apparent that part of monastic life is the struggle with time. Those of us in the outside world expect to be almost perpetually occupied. The other side of this quest for ceaseless activity is boredom, frustration, and the nagging fears that surface when we’re alone. Separated from their own history, from family and friends, the women of the Tyburn are left to contend with themselves. “If you’re in the world you have days when nothing’s right,” says Mother Lioba. “Either I’m not right or everyone else is not right. And usually it’s everyone else who’s not right….in the world you’ve got probably hundreds of things you can do that can draw you out of yourself…but in a monastery you don’t have most of those things.”

The Benedictine rule encourages self-knowledge by splitting the day between labor, prayer, and study. “To feed your prayer you have to study, and to mull over what you study that day you need manual labor,” says Sister Thomasina. The purpose is not individualism or self-realization, but the desire to become closer to God. “You have to die of your will. Your will is no longer your own. It’s not what you want to do…it’s what God wants you to do,” the Nigerian novice Sister Mary Jane tells me. The sentiment echoes Augustine’s Confessions: “How can you draw close to God when you are far from your own self?” “One of the definitions of a spiritual life is that you have to know yourself,” Mother Lioba says. “Part of a monastic journey, which is really a spiritual journey, is facing who you are.”

The sacrifice this entails can be daunting. The Mother Prioress M. Catherine, a soft spoken British woman, entered the convent in 2001 at just 19. She remembers the experience fondly, but notes, “as a young person coming into the monastery it is quite a big transition to make. Just the demands of community life. The demands, probably, of a daily time table that’s very intensive and tight. And daily responsibilities and duties that you just never get away from.” Talking to the women here, however, there is a greater sense of contentment than hardship. They chose life in a convent because they feel called to it by God.

A sense of vocation is a common theme in the interviews. The word comes from the Latin, vocāre, “to call,” which is precisely how it is expressed by Sister Mary Jane. The feeling of needing to be here, she tells me, is “like outside somebody called you and you said, yes.” The form vocation takes varies. “It’s very personal,” the Mother Prioress explains, “Some people describe their call in terms of great peace…Some people talk about a nagging feeling…Some people might be reading something and it comes to them, this is what I need to do. Some people, it’s very specifically as a result of suffering.” As she leaves she tells me “I couldn’t say enough about how wonderful the life here is.”

If the past is a foreign country, so is faith. Which is precisely why faith has value even for those who have turned down Pascal’s wager. Most of us live in a heavily interconnected environment,  sharing the same political and cultural vocabulary. While there are sharp divides in opinion, the idea of what constitutes a value is often shared by both sides of the political spectrum; what’s in dispute is the content or route towards that desired outcome. This results in a circulatory effect: social constructs and ideas are recycled. In this digital age, that closed loop can be particularly difficult to escape. It’s been argued that the web has a democratising effect, creating the opportunity for disparate voices to emerge. And while that may be true, it also has the effect of submerging all sides in the same medium, the same avenue of thought and expression.

The nuns of Tyburn Convent provide a more pronounced alternative to the way many of us live now. The women I spoke to have rejected status symbols, human comforts, and exterior validation. They cultivate an interior life that will invariably go unrecognized by most, pursuing knowledge for God’s sake alone. While visiting the convent did nothing to attract me to religion, the purpose of cultural critique is not to provide solutions but to pushback against complacency. By drawing attention to the nature of the choices we make, counter-culture compels us to interrogate who we are. It’s not necessary to follow the provisions of the convent’s  critique in order to feel its value. Life in a cloistered convent is a reminder that the way our lives look is not inevitable; that the terms of personal contentment can change. In that sense, there is strain of independent thinking among the women of the Tyburn that’s revolutionary as any form of counter-culture. As I stepped into the underground after the interviews, I thought of the women listening to the rumble of trains beneath the convent floor; separate from the noise and crush of the crowds and praying for the passengers who ride the rail to Lancaster Gate. I’m glad they’re thinking of us.

On the Minds of Makers

My home is a mansion of many Makers. According to the local census there are only four of us, but if we were numbered according to our creative titles we’d rival the population of a Downton Abbey. We boast a Novelist, a Cook, a Seamstress, two Programmers, a Painter, four Teachers, two Poets, a Web Designer, an Essayist, a Composer, a Model Railroader, two Bakers, and a Botanist. I could go on.

As you would expect, having so many Makers in close proximity results in many messes, the creative debris of each successive artistic eruption. (Here the senior Programmer begs to differ; his desk is always neat.)  But as you might not expect, these merry Makers and all others like us also model a Mystery: in our creating, some might say we are a reflection of the Trinitarian God of Christianity.

That something as inscrutable as the Trinity should find a mirror in the minds of Makers is hardly commonplace, even in Christian circles, but perhaps it’s a notion that should become more familiar. When Christians attempt to describe (to themselves or to others) how one God can exist simultaneously in the three Persons of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the analogies they choose are rarely satisfying and are usually open to grave misinterpretation, emphasizing either unity at the expense of diversity or the reverse. Regardless, through analogies, Christians strive to speak both of simultaneity of being and distinction of roles, in order to preserve the living dynamic of Three-Persons-All-At-Once that the Bible describes—and we must put all this in terms related to our experience, if we hope to grasp it at all.

The standard analogies for the Trinity taught in Sunday School tend to run along the same lines: they pull some object from our experience that we see in different forms and make a comparison. But they all fall short. The familiar comparison of the Trinity to the three states of water suffers from the weakness that the three states must occur to the same water in succession, not all at once; and the tripartite egg can yet be peeled and separated, whereupon shell, white, and yolk can’t each be said also to be “egg.”  The same holds true for the apple and the three-leaved clover. Apparently, mere “threesomeness” in nature is not a guarantee of correspondence to God’s Tri-unity.

But illustrate threesomeness in a dynamic as opposed to a static way, and you may discover a connecting bridge between human experience and the Triune God. In her 1941 book The Mind of the Maker, theologian and writer Dorothy Sayers whimsically defends the notion that the creative mind provides us with an effective and intelligible Trinitarian analogy. As she writes in her preface,

“The point I shall endeavor to establish is that these statements about God the Creator are not, as is usually supposed, a set of arbitrary mystifications irrelevant to human life and thought. On the contrary, whether or not they are true about God, they are, when examined in the light of direct experience, seen to be plain witnesses of truth about the nature of the creative mind as such and as we know it. 

By bringing Sayers’ ideas into contemporary creative conversation, in examining the minds of makers, we might better grasp both the Christian confession of the Trinity and the biblical concept of the imago Dei, the image of God, which teaches that we are all in some way like the Creator who thought up this world in the first place.

Idea, Energy, and Power

Whether the task of creation is mundane or among the finer arts, Sayers explains that all making involves a controlling Idea made incarnate in the world through the Energy of the Maker, and ultimately communicated to and received by other minds via what she calls Power—three elements of human creativity closely analogous to the roles of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit of Christian Trinitarian doctrine. Thus the Cook, for instance, has in mind the Idea of dinner, and exercises her thought and hands accordingly, choosing actions and ingredients that are compatible with her controlling Idea and rejecting those that are not. When the Idea made manifest by her Energy is consumed by herself and others, the Power of the Idea “is released for communication to other men, and returns from their minds to [hers] with a new response” (in this case, hopefully, “Yum! Make this again, mom!”).

Sayers recognizes that while we are all “makers” in the simplest sense of the word, “it is the artist who, more than other men, is able to create something out of nothing.” As she was herself an accomplished playwright and author of detective fiction, her illustrations describe the special creative cases of fiction-writing and drama, though the Trinitarian model of Idea, Energy, and Power applies to all imaginative making.  Speaking as if for every artist, she writes,

If you ask me what is this pattern which I recognize as the true law of my nature, I can suggest only that it is the pattern of the creative mind—an eternal Idea, manifested in material form by an unresting Energy, with an outpouring of Power that at once inspires, judges, and communicates the work; all these three being one and the same in the mind and one and the same in the work. 

And because the creative process sets forth in the world something new—whether made of wood or words or a trio of woodwinds—other humans, having the same triune propensities, may react to what has been made manifest and respond in turn with “an Idea in [the] mind, some form of Energy or Activity (speech, behavior or what not), and a communication of Power to the world around [them].”

Scalene Triangles

Here the Painter in my home wishes to interject into this essay a helpful illustration relating her Energy to the work of the resident Writers: “Just as I patiently apply each successive layer of plaster to a rough wall with a firm but painful hand, taking time to sand the surface smooth till I have a suitable canvas for my mural—so, too, must you smooth each draft of your piece, patiently (and painfully!) eliminating the threadbare expressions and unnecessary words till you have a streamlined vehicle for your Idea.”

Map Dragon (Detail of 4’X6’ wall mural; plaster and acrylic), 2014.

Map Dragon (Detail of 4’X6’ wall mural; plaster and acrylic), 2014.

To be candid, the Writers quietly resent this intimation that their work involves challenges and limitations similar to a Painter’s craft, which is so clearly mired in the stuff of the material world. Plaster and pigment are media that require physical labor and skill to manipulate into some kind of order. “Isn’t the medium of words somehow beyond such effortful Energy?” murmurs the junior Poet. “Surely the Idea is all I need; my natural gift for language will carry it into being.” The Composer might say the same, endowed as he is with more than one human’s share of ear-hand coordination; but he knows he’s beat—entry into the composition program at the music camp requires a passing score on the theory test. Some disciplined Activity is apparently necessary in this world, even for the gifted artist.

It’s hardly surprising that human creators, being both stubborn and finite, would resist or neglect one or another of the three elements of making. In fact, as Sayers puts it, “the co-equality of the Divine Trinity is represented in pictures and in Masonic emblems as an equilateral triangle; but the trinity of the writer is seldom anything but scalene, and is sometimes of quite fantastic irregularity.” She goes on:

“Writer after writer comes to grief through the delusion that what Chesterfield calls a ‘whiffling Activity’ will do the work of the Idea; that the Power of the Idea in his own mind will compensate for a disorderly Energy in manifestation; or that an Idea is a book in its own right, even when expressed without Energy and experienced without Power.

Adopting the language of Trinitarian theology, she identifies as a failure in the “father” any weakness in the controlling Idea (as when “the work, having started out as one kind of thing, ends up as another kind of thing”); as an impoverishment of the “son,” every failure “in form and expression…from clichés and bad grammar to an ill-constructed plot”; and as an abdication of the “ghost,” a fundamental “failure in Wisdom—not the wisdom of the brain, but the more intimate and instinctive wisdom of the heart and bowels.”

Trinitarian Love

Essentially, getting the trinity of making right—or as close to right as we can—is an act of love. On this view, “good” art loves God and neighbor through truth and skill and considerateness. So the Essayist does not gloss over an uncomfortable passage in American history in her article, and the junior Baker remembers to butter and flour the cupcake tins this time. The senior Programmer adds another button to his game and asks the Editor, “Do you think people will understand these directions?”  And the Composer mercifully removes half of the sixty-fourth notes he’d written for the flautist. Truth, skill, and considerateness are the Father, Son, and Spirit of our making. In the trinity of our creativity, we reflect not only the Persons of the Godhead, but also the Love.

FILZ (Java Code and screen shot), 2015.

FILZ (Java Code and screen shot), 2015.

Though the analogy to the divine Trinity breaks down where our human trinities of making go awry, it’s undeniable that Sayers has fingered a reality of the creative experience that resonates with the Makers in my household. Directed by our Ideas, compelled to Activity suiting our various media, and hopeful that the Power of our embodied imagination will be useful or pleasing to others, we daily demonstrate a Trinitarian picture in our creativity. If it’s true that this image captures something of the mysterious doctrine of the Godhead, then, as Sayers has it, “this, at least, is to man a homely and intimate thing, ‘familiar as his garter’”—not so far removed from human experience, after all.

Thumbs Down, Crying Eyes

In my iPhone, hidden among the pre-packaged, processed verbiage of my text threads and emails, probably buried somewhere beneath the emoji, I keep an arsenal of verbs I stumble upon. They’re relics of my reading, souvenirs of indulgence in fiction. They’re verbs that stump me, woo me, and intrigue me, obliging me to run my fingers along their edges, a menagerie of action words, that crucial role in sharpening my view of their stories.  I tend this list for a few reasons, but mostly because I’m a writer who believes verbs, when thoughtfully wielded and precisely placed, are the most important part of a sentence.

Even by themselves, verbs communicate. If you strip down a paragraph to just its verbs, you may miss some important details, but you can still grasp at least the tone and even the movement. For example, a chronological excerpt of a few verbs from my list, all from Marilynne Robinson’s novel Housekeeping, still communicates: swarm, buzz, trickle, melt, thaw, spill, bow, sweet, wave, recede, crumble, hoard, mirror, prowl, brim, seep, upend, swing, slosh. In its proper context, each one of these verbs grounds us as readers and propels us deeper into the story, evoking wonder and curiosity in their sounds as much as their meanings. In his book, On Writing Well, William Zinsser notes the power of verbs to move stories forward: “Verbs are the most important of all your tools. They push the sentence forward and give it momentum.”

Without verbs and their adjacent nouns and modifiers, we miss something. Take emoji for example, the Japanese iPhone keyboard with hundreds of cartoon symbols which were designed and devised for convenience in communication. According to Spectator, emoji characters “were dreamt up in the mid-1990s by Shigetaka Kurita, a Japanese tech developer, as a way of making unfashionable corporate pagers appeal to teenagers.” And fashionable they have become, perhaps even a mode of propaganda: the White House has started using them in social media campaigns for millennials, and, according to New York Magazine, recruiters for ISIS are using emoji in their friendly sounding, ISIS-promoting tweets.”

I’m not involved in the business of propaganda, but I get it. Because sometimes, instead of perusing my verb collection for just the right word to describe my toddler’s tornadic behavior on any given afternoon, I settle for the cartoon versions (yes, both the baby and tornado emoji exist). Because, like that Japanese businessman and the White House, sometimes I don’t know what to say. But I want to connect. I want to make it easy. And most of all, I want to ensure I’m understood the first time around.

That’s what emoji are, aren’t they? Cute cartoon symbols devised to connect a message with a particular set of consumers—a means of convenience, which, if we value function over form, may not appear to be a problem on its own. Unless you’re a sentimental writer like me, hungry for cadence and vitality, but instead commonly settling for a diet of convenience and virality.

What could possibly be missing from the nearly 1,000 emoji? For the pragmatist, not much. But for English majors like me, everything. Emoji can say a lot, but are missing the little things that make English beautiful, the small, unappreciated words that direct our gaze, orient our souls, and shape our perspectives. As an article in Wired states, “all the little linking words that we take for granted but give English the power to identify, modify, and look at things far away in space and time.”

But emoji’s limitations don’t just drain the nostalgic; their excessive use will affect anyone who treasures human connection. The same Wired article (in a pro-emoji article, I should mention) acknowledges emoji’s limitations and how they affect us socially: “Digital communications have always been a little socially handicapped. Unlike the written and typed communiques that came before, digital mixes immediacy with intimacy in a way that strips nuance and drains context.”

Our long strings of emoji are missing specificity, even precision. And if speaking or writing with precision is one powerful means we have to elicit specific responses and strengthen relationships, we may be doing something wrong in choosing the thumbs up emoji instead of a genuine, affirming word. When we pick the pre-packaged version of what we intend to say, we sacrifice a valuable dimension of real connection. We converse in a way that waters down or even avoids the beauty of words. Emoji may not be the problem, but they are certainly a symptom—just one sign of a culture afflicted by convenience.

Such symptoms go way beyond how we use our iPhones—they’re all over our language and conversations. In her book Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, author Marilyn Chandler McEntyre likens our preparation and consumption of language to nutrition, lamenting the demise of enlivening language in favor of ease:

“Like food, language has been “industrialized.” Words come to us processed like cheese, depleted of nutrients, flattened and packaged, artificially colored and mass marketed. And just as it takes a little extra effort and intention to find, buy, eat, and support the production of organic foods, it is a strenuous business to insist on usable, flexible, precise, enlivening language.

I’m a participant in the consumption of fast language. It is easy to choose comfort and convenience in a pinch, because cadent language struggles to keep up with an un-cadent life. There is little space to pause for beauty. A quick question demands a quick answer, hence the pre-packaged predictive iPhone text like “I’m on my way!” or “Can’t talk now!” It’s the difference between fast food and local, farm-to-table fare. One is lightning fast but leaves you hungry shortly after, while the other marinades and simmers a bit longer, but whose complexity of flavor both quenches hunger and dances on the palate.

Our choice of viral over vital and convenience over cadence shows we are satisfied with the approximate when abundance awaits us. But how do we build a balanced diet, especially as digital communication continues to grow? Maybe we just need to slow down. Maybe we need to adopt mindful thinking, even in the crevices of our lives to which we assign less importance.

Maybe, to learn how to pause for beauty—a discipline that will nourish us all our lives—we must start in the small places, like our phones and our text threads. And maybe, when we slow down, we will find the right words have been there all along—tucked away in our iPhones, somewhere between the thumbs up and heart eyes emoji, waiting for us to wield them.

Agents of Change

CI recently took one of my classes at Wheaton College to an on-campus, student performance of Bertolt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle. It was a stirring interpretation of a play that continues to challenge audiences, just as it has since its first performance by students at Carleton College in Minnesota in 1948. For those unfamiliar with the play, it portrays the story of a peasant girl who decides to care for an abandoned baby during wartime. Through her love and self-sacrifice, she proves to be a better caregiver of the child than his wealthy parents.

Later, when we reflected on the performance in our “Philosophy of the Arts” class, we had a vibrant conversation about what makes theatre unique among the arts, the benefits and challenges of live performance, and how our understanding of our embodied existence might be informed by watching a play. We also considered how the love displayed by the peasant girl might point to our call to love our neighbor and how a theatrical performance might enrich our understanding of the incarnation of Jesus Christ.

For theologian James McCullough, while questions about the nature of theatre as a form of art might be interesting, far more important are those questions that will lead to personal transformation. According to McCullough, our class trip to Wheaton’s Arena Theater, like other engagements with the arts, can and should lead to spiritual growth. In Sense and Spirituality: The Arts and Spiritual Formation, McCullough affirms what might be called a practical theology of the arts according to which the arts can serve as a catalyst for spiritual formation. The notion that our perception of the arts should have an impact upon our spiritual formation may come quite naturally to some, though certainly not all, ecclesial traditions and communities. But McCullough seeks to bring together two fields–theological aesthetics and practical theology–that have had limited interaction academically.

ssp

Within the growing field of theology and the arts, McCullough stands in the tradition of Nicholas Wolterstorff and others who have maintained that the arts are not primarily something to be contemplated passively. Rather, they should be put to active use and can be agents of change in our lives, which according to McCullough should entail spiritual formation. More particularly, he contends that aesthesis, which is concerned with the perception of art and the development of the imagination, should go hand in hand with ascesis, a term that classically referred to athletic training, but has been adopted and applied to spiritual growth. Or, as he re-phrases it, his argument is concerned with both sense and spirituality, “how skills in sensory perception and imaginative engagement exist in a dialectical relationship with those related to ascetical development or spiritual formation, and how this dialectical relationship can be mediated, enhanced, or catalyzed through encounters with the arts.”[1]

The first half of McCullough’s relatively brief treatment of his topic offers a theoretical framework for what follows. Here, one encounters some of his foundational principles, including the affirmation that art is a form of communication that provides “cognitively valuable content.”[2] In addition, he argues that art is best understood as the amalgamation of three features: the employment of craft, which involves the intentionally communicative use of a disciplined skill; the production of content, which relates to its formal principles and organizing structures; and the dynamics of context, which point to the cultural situatedness of the artist, the artwork, and the audience.

In the second half of the book, McCullough turns to the practical application of his argument by considering three works by confessionally Christian artists in poetry, painting, and music, respectively: T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets; Makoto Fujimura’s The Four Holy Gospels; and James MacMillan’s Seven Last Words from the Cross. In each case, following a brief introduction to the artist, the particular work is explored in light of its craft, content, and context with an eye towards its applicability to spiritual formation.

Overall, McCullough helpfully draws an explicit connection between aesthesis and ascesis – or, sense and spirituality – and lays the groundwork for further cultivation of this fertile soil. In this regard, he offers a laudable counter to those who fail to recognize that the arts have value beyond their contribution to the history of culture as well as those who fail to see a connection between theological affirmations and the practices of faith.

The book’s brevity makes it quite manageable and accessible, but unfortunately it also means that some aspects of McCullough’s argument are not as developed as they could be. For example, he provides brief vignettes on particular artists or scholars, including Francis Schaeffer, Rembrandt van Rijn, Ludwig van Beethoven, James Loder, and Helen Louise Gardner. These asides are helpful, but they are at times so brief that they leave the reader crying out for more than just a few sentences.

Likewise, while McCullough provides the theoretical framework for the possibility of art serving as a catalyst for spiritual formation, there is little reflection on how these particular works of art might actually lead to spiritual growth. He contends that the arts “catalyze spiritual formation by mediating the dynamics associated with aesthetical and ascetical practices,”[3] and he suggests that spiritual growth “comes about through looking and looking. And listening. And watching. And waiting. And reading. Over and over again.”[4] Encouraging such engagement with the arts with the goal of spiritual growth in mind is surely beneficial, but it leaves several questions unanswered: How, exactly, do such encounters with the arts shape people into more faithful disciples of Jesus Christ? How is this related to prayer, communal worship, the reading of Scripture, and other spiritual disciplines? Why are some experiences of the arts spiritually transformative while others are not?

Related to this, the important question of agency remains unresolved throughout the book. At times, one gets the impression that art itself is the initiator of this spiritually meaningful communicative experience. Surely, the triune God – through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit – plays a role in this encounter that leads to spiritual formation.

As one who teaches philosophical aesthetics, I share McCullough’s view that art is a powerfully communicative medium. That was evident enough after our class trip to the theatre. More importantly, as a Christian and a theologian, I share his hope that our encounters with the arts can lead to spiritual growth. Hopefully, my students walked away from the performance and our class discussion not only with a better understanding of the nature of art but also with a desire to demonstrate the kind of sacrificial love that Christ calls them to show. By God’s grace, the arts can play a role in shaping our spiritual lives and turning us into agents of change.


Sense and Spirituality: The Arts and Spiritual Formation, written by James McCullough, is published by Cascade Books.

[1] James McCullough, Sense and Spirituality, 9.

[2] Ibid., 15.

[3] Ibid., 15 .

[4] Ibid., 111.

 

*Featured Image from the UBC performance of the The Caucasian Chalk Circle

The Worlds Numbers Built

A young Michael Clune sits in front of his family’s television long after the jumbled noise of the VCR tape has stopped, absorbed in a primordial void of static, waiting for something. What is he waiting for?  He does not know. After 30 minutes, the static begins to take form. From the nonsensical ocean of static frizz, a single symbol emerges: a winged ‘W’ hovering over the formlessness of the black and white slats. “I was ready for the words at the end of television,” writes Michael Clune. So began his initiation into a new world of video games. But Michael has barely scratched the surface of this new revelation; what awaits him beyond the ‘W’ at the end of television is the binary at the end of language. What Michael has yet to realize is that ‘W’ is a fabrication of an even deeper reality: the terrifying determinacy of numbers.

Gamelife, by Michael Clune, is a memoir about coming of age in a time when technology has just begun to dominate children’s imaginative and emotional worlds. It is also, therefore, a timely memoir. Millennials are the first generation to be raised with easy access to virtual realities. C.S. Lewis once wrote that George McDonald’s fairy tales baptized his imagination. Clune’s imagination is baptized by the Commodore 64 and a library of floppy disks: Suspended, The Bards Tale II, Wolfenstein, and Elite. This changing world leads Clune to adjust his own understanding of reality. Through powerful storytelling, he demonstrates how, for better or for worse, video games provide narratives, hermeneutics, and revelations that shape how adolescents move through the world. “My imagination was as weak as a bay’s arm until computer games trained it. I can’t even remember the things I imagined before computer games.” Video games, though a kind of artifice, act as formative agents, teaching him how to understand his environment, God, life and death, and himself by training him through intensive repetition that would put a Suzuki pedagogue to shame. In narrating this formative aspect of gaming via memoir, Clune demonstrates the influence that virtual reality can exert on human lives. Though mediated by technology, the game worlds players inhabit, however temporary, take on lives of their own through their sheer expansiveness, becoming seamlessly merged with players’ interpretations and implicit philosophies.

Take, for instance, Michael’s experience of video game statistics. After facing an impossibly tough boss battle in The Bard’s Tale II, Michael wonders what it means to be hit for 490 points of damage. “What did it look like? What did it sound like? What did it feel like?” This arbitrarily large number, an expression of the “damage” the boss was able to inflict on Michael’s in-game avatar, begins to work on Michael’s imagination. For Michael, numbers become the key to completely new imaginative horizons, some of which are terrifying in their numerical precision.

Perhaps it is this precision that Michael’s parents fear in his experience of video games. When Michael’s mother realizes that The Bard’s Tale II is a role-playing game similar to Dungeons & Dragons, she confiscates it immediately: “It’s turning kids into satanists. They’re acting out the violence from it in school!” The video game becomes a forming subject; while still a fiction, “it” is nevertheless capable of transforming children into real life versions of the in-game characters. There is an intuitive linking of the numerical values and landscape of the game with the moral values of the real world. Though the game is a fantasy, it is not a stretch to imagine that it bears out real-world consequences. The numbers, their proportions, can be extrapolated into life itself. Like many evangelicals who grew up in the 90s, I was raised in a home where video games were strictly regulated based on content. Rather than dismissing these fears, Clune validates them. “I don’t think you have to be an evangelical Christian to know that there is such a thing as an evil truth and to know that it leaks constantly from the fantasy of numbers,” Clune observes dryly. Clune’s “evil truth” is that the numbers are, in a sense, more real than words. Words are insufficient, pale imitations of reality. “If we talk to nature or God in words, it doesn’t understand us. Words just sound like noise to nature.” Words are static. The primordial ‘W’ that emerges from the television static before Michael’s eyes is simply formlessness given shape.

While words are superficial, Clune claims that numbers are a fundamental scientific reality; they determine everything—even morality. Numbers can explain something as simple as a children’s game, or candles on a birthday cake. Numbers can describe the funnel of a tornado, or the severity of an earthquake. Numbers are utterly determinative—terrifyingly so. Clune’s revelation is that video games are, just like the world behind our computer screens, “numbers become flesh.” The numbers are real, and the images that wrap them are simply a shell. This is true of both fantasy and ‘reality’; the preeminence of numbers, Clune claims, is one of the universe’s foundational truths. If, as Clune claims, numbers are the cellular building blocks of reality, then real life is actually a video game that we are always playing. “All you really need for a good body is something that sees, something that knows, and some numbers underneath.” Perhaps this is all you need for a system of ethics as well.

The lessons that Clune learns from video games are not novel. In fact, in the utilitarianism of John Stuart Mill, western philosophy already has an ethical system based on mathematics. In Utilitarianism, Mill writes, “the ultimate end… is an existence exempt as far as possible from pain, and as rich as possible in enjoyments, both in point of quantity and quality.” For Mill, experiences of pleasure and goodness are quantifiable, being that which afford the greatest enjoyment to the largest number of people. What follows is Mill’s metric for evaluating the morality of a pleasure:

“If I am asked, what I mean by difference of quality in pleasures, or what makes one pleasure more valuable than another, merely as a pleasure, except its being greater in amount, there is but one possible answer. Of two pleasures, if there be one to which all or almost all who have experience of both give a decided preference, irrespective of any feeling of moral obligation to prefer it, that is the more desirable pleasure.

Moral obligation is a construct, inferred from the subject’s environment. Morals are mathematical realities, relative statistics of pleasure, pain, and profit that are learned through experience as the subject moves through society and the physical world. The sanctions we experience that prevent us from doing degenerate things do not descend from on high, as though morals were arbitrated by a divine force or figure. Rather, these sanctions are agreed upon numbers, “numbers given flesh,” as Clune would say. Mill writes that “the sanction… is always in the mind itself; and the notion, therefore, of the transcendental moralists must be, that this sanction will not exist in the mind unless it believed to have its root out of the mind…” For Mill, moral sanctions are inferred imaginatively from one’s environment. There is no transcendental morality informing our decisions. The norms we receive are inferred from the mathematic and scientific realities that surround us; how many people are impacted by this good? Is this good desirable by the majority? What causes the least harm?

This idea was a forerunner of the “radical empiricism” that would be developed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by philosophers like William James and Bertrand Russell. Taking Mill’s theory a step further, radical empiricists insisted that mathematical truths were logically perfect, and inherently superior to the linguistic interpretations that enshrouded them. Reality, at its base, is a series of mathematical syllogisms, and language is devoid of meaning unless it directly describes (however poorly) these syllogistic realities. Such a view does away with the need for any supernatural or extra-scientific experience; all that we are left with are the cold, mathematical reality of the universe. This is the “evil truth” of numbers.

It makes sense that this empirical framework is more evident in video games than in lived experience. As virtual worlds assembled on purely mathematical principles, video games are perfectly empirical. A video game avatar’s entire world is circumscribed by numbers and code. Boundaries, abilities, and mortality are strictly delineated by the game’s design. While video games offer the façade of endless possibility, they are in fact profoundly limited. Clune’s avatar in The Bard’s Tale II may wander through its 8-bit landscape in a parody of perfect freedom. But then, in combat, a boss strikes Michael for 490 damage. This is a simple equation, empiricism in its barest form: 490 damage equals death. Numbers become an uncheatable barrier. To get by the dragon, troll, or sorcerer you need to play the numbers game. Divide and multiply. Like any child, Clune reaches to understand this reality, making imaginative leaps in the process. The numbers inflate the battle on an exponential scale, and Clune can’t get his head around them. They reach beyond his lived reality, and somehow they seem more real. The numbers present an actual quantity, nearly tangible in its specificity. There is no mystery, no deus ex machina. All that remains is the machine.

Video games teach Clune, with more honesty than his own social world, the difference between how things appear, and how things are. Numbers, angles, lines of sight; the structure of video games come to structure the world his body inhabits. They offer his imagination a hermeneutic, an interpretive lens, to grapple with the confusion and disorientation of puberty in public school, moving to a new home, and divorce. In a life of constant change, there is something therapeutic, even preferable, about living in a world in which everything is explicable and predictable. As Clune describes his real-world experiences alongside the video games he played at the time, he integrates reality and fantasy, interchanging them, even confusing them. Video games have been mapped onto his life.

I was surprised and disturbed by Gamelife. It is not only an engaging read, but a poignant one as well, depicting a difficult childhood through the lens of virtual reality. Video games are not merely toys. They grip us, much like a painting, a film, or a novel. The images they present stick in our minds, and become points of reference for us. Though they are not “real” per se, we receive their meanings as applicable to our lives because of their believability. Clune’s memoir is an honest assessment of what video games are capable of, both as a form of entertainment and a form of education. Video games are not escapes from reality, but tangents. And as tangents, they are half-truths. Our world is, in a sense, circumscribed by numbers. This boundedness is an “evil truth,” or at least a limiting one. And yet, the inexplicable remains. None of us actually describe our lives in terms of syllogisms or formulas; we do so with stories and images, and even develop our own unique terminology for these experiences. Video games can teach us much, but they cannot circumscribe our reality, even though we may want them too. And sometimes, when we question this reality, we arrive at a different answer than Clune.

“What did it look like? What did it feel like?” When I was a ten-year-old playing Pokémon Red Version, I wondered how a tiny Pokémon, like the worm-like Caterpie, could possibly survive an attack from one of its larger brethren. If a Snorlax (visualized in the game as an obese, narcoleptic sloth) performed a ‘Body Slam’ on a tiny Caterpie, shouldn’t the smaller Pokémon be squished to death? After all, I knew what happened to insects that were trampled in real life. But in the game world, if the Caterpie was “leveled” enough, if it had enough hit points to receive the damage from its foe without “fainting” (Pokémon’s sanitized version of in-game death), it would in fact survive the blow, shrugging off the weight of a creature more than twenty times its size. This fact was fundamentally at odds with reality as I experienced it outside of the game world. That I could revive my tiny Pokémon to fight again after such an onslaught made no sense. Wouldn’t the Caterpie simply become flattened, squished, or otherwise cease to exist? What would happen in the real world if the same amount of force were exerted?  Instead of intuitively using virtual reality to question and clarify my lived experience, I was doing the opposite. I was taking what I knew of the real world to reveal the artifice of the game.

Clune was formed by The Bard’s Tale II, but only insofar as he chose that reality over another. The Bard’s Tale II wasn’t “right” about numbers being our fundamental reality, and when we think about it, The Bard’s Tale II had no authority to make such a declaration. Nevertheless, Clune wanted The Bard’s Tale II to be right, in the same way that many of us want our imaginations to be right. The trap of the video game, as a completely immersive experience, is that it makes its case so persuasively. We are persuaded because video games have the capacity to become reality to us, as they did for Clune. This is why Clune’s memoir is so valuable. We, too, should reflect further on the imaginative transformations that are occurring as we move through a world in which the digital and the physical, the ‘0’ of binary and the ‘W’ of language, are increasingly enmeshed.

The Art of Memoir

Over the weekend, my husband, Steve, mentioned a radio news segment he heard about my alma mater.

“The Silent Night game?” I asked, referring to Taylor University’s now famous tradition during the last men’s basketball game before winter break.

“Yeah, they had a story on ESPN radio,” he said. “Did you do it when you were a student?”

“It’s where they all dress in pajamas and are quiet until someone scores a point, right?” He nodded. Actually, the crowd dresses up in all kinds of costumes and is quiet until the 10th point is scored by the home team. Then applause and shouting erupt, and at the end of the game, the entire crowd sings “Silent Night.”

“Yeah, I’m pretty sure I did that,” I said, trying to remember what I wore and whether I went all four years. “I didn’t go to a lot of sporting events, but I went to some. I’m sure I went to the Silent Night games.”

“Even the president of the college went this year,” he said.

“Back when I was there, Jay Kesler was president, and we would all wear pajamas and go to the dining hall and he would read ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas,” I explained. “Did they mention that in the news story?”

Steve shook his head.

“Maybe I’m confusing the two,” I said, racking my brain again, trying to remember myself in pajamas at a basketball game. “Just a minute…”

I ran to get my iPhone. With a quick Google search, the facts began to transform memory into truth.

“Well, it says here that the tradition has been going for 19 years. I graduated in 1993. Apparently I wasn’t even a student when they started Silent Night,” I told him. I felt like a fraud, though we both just laughed it off. Over the past few years, I have heard so much about the tradition, I had started to believe I participated.

But as a writer, particularly a writer of personal essays and memoir, I was mortified. How easy it is to get the facts wrong, to misremember, and in the process, to create an alternative version of the past, to create a different version of myself—one who went to college basketball games in my pajamas, even.

In her latest book, The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr talks a lot about truth and memory and self-perception in creative nonfiction. “The thought of misrepresenting someone or burning down his house with shitty recall wakes me up at night…So when people ask in challenging tones how I can possibly recall everything I’ve published, I often fess up, Obviously I can’t. But I’ve been able to bullshit myself that I do. By this I mean, I do my best, which is limited by the failures of my so-called mind,” she writes.

Of course, among the more egregious failures of an author’s “so-called mind” is the zeal that leads some authors to intentionally create a less truthy truth. To lie. Karr highlights “fake Holocaust survivor” Binjamin Wilkomirski, the over-the-top addict James Frey, and the “skunk-posting-as-saint” Greg Mortenson as recent perpetrators of this kind of deception.

While bemoaning the fact that even the occasional fabrication creates “a sweeping tendency to deny even the possibility of truth” and “bogs down our collective moral machinery,” Karr describes a worse fate for authors who lie. “Forget how inventing stuff breaks a contract with the reader, it fences the memoirist off from the deeper truths that only surface in draft five or ten or twenty,” she writes. “Some memories—often the best and worst—burn inside us for lifetimes, florid, unforgettable, demanding to be set down.”

Perhaps the greater failure of our writerly minds, however, the one more memoirists must face—especially those who are seeking the deepest level of truth—is believing the false perceptions of ourselves that the past and our present memories of the past create. “I often find students in early pages showing themselves exactly opposite from how they actually are,” Karr writes.

Maybe that’s what was happening as I somewhat confidently latched onto past events that didn’t even happen. It had nothing to do with an intentional lie (I didn’t even know I was lying, in fact) and probably much to do with fabricating a false self to present to my sports-enthusiast husband, a self that frequented sporting events and participated in campus traditions when, in fact, I was more often in the library or the newspaper office and usually bypassed the shouty, dress-up activities that many co-eds on campus enjoyed.

This kind of self-deceit may, in the end, be even more harmful to our writing and to our relationship with readers than intentional deceit, Karr contends. “We can accept anything from a memoirist but deceit, which is—almost always—a shallow person’s lack of self-knowledge,” she writes.

Getting to the truth of oneself, though, requires more than just a good memory or even the maturity of self-awareness. The quest to truly know oneself, especially on the page, comes down to a battle with pride, the pride that always wants to see oneself as better or smarter or meaner or any other superlative than what reality has given.

“No matter how much you’re gunning for truth, the human ego is also a stealthy, low-crawling bastard, and for pretty much everybody, getting used to who you are is a lifelong spiritual struggle,” Karr writes. “Start trying to bring yourself to the page, and fear of how you’ll come off besets even the most forthright. The best you can hope for is to rip off each mask as you find it blotting out your vision.”

The battle with pride may even result in contradicting one false self with another, making myself out to be more academic and more serious than I really was. Could it be that I skipped most athletic events in college not because I was studying or playing gatekeeper over campus news but instead because I was watching TV in the lounge or exercising on the StairMaster? I struggle to remember.

Karr offers two primary suggestions for memoirists to be both honest and humble.

First, write with carnality, which Karr defines as that which you can perceive with your five senses. “Carnality sits at the root of the show-don’t-tell edict that every writing teacher harps on all the time, because it works,” she writes. Concrete details of a story not only bring the scene and characters to life; they also help us sift through the fog of the past. Karr listed four stories she could tell in order to highlight one element of her childhood. Three of the stories were vague and may have been part of a neighborhood legend. She could recall very specific details about only one of the stories. “Those concrete images made me trust my memory of the whole scene as mine, not just something I heard about,” she said.

That was my own first clue that something was missing about my memories of the Silent Night games. I couldn’t see myself there. I couldn’t remember what I was wearing. I couldn’t even recall who I was sitting with in the bleachers when that 10th point was scored.

The second suggestion for great memoir contradicts the first: focus on the interior life of writer as narrator. “Carnality may determine whether a memoir’s any good,” Karr writes, “but interiority—that kingdom the camera never captures—makes a book rereadable. By rereadable, translate: great. Your connection to most authors usually rests…in how you may identify with them. Mainly, the better memoirist organizes a life story around that aforementioned inner enemy—a psychic struggle against herself that works like a thread or a plot engine.”

Of course, the interior struggle of the narrator fills in the gaps of carnality’s details. Interiority allows the author to fess up that she has always tried to be less herself and more what the people around her want her to be. Acknowledging an internal struggle allows the author to even present sketchy evidence of an event as long as she is honest about it … and willing to admit that perception and truth don’t add up yet.

But coming to terms with the true self, though personally liberating to the writer and emotionally rewarding to the reader, doesn’t make drafting a memoir easy. Turning the awareness of the true self, whoever she ends up to be, into a character on the page can feel like a type of failure of its own.

“Writing the real self seldom seems original enough when you first happen on it,” Karr says. “In fact, usually it growls like a beast and stinks of something rotten. Age and practice help you to rout out vanities after you’ve ruined perfectly good paper setting them down, but you can’t keep them from clotting up early drafts.”

Apparently I’m not the only one with a fuzzy memory about Taylor University’s Silent Night tradition. A 2014 article in the Indianapolis Star tried to trace the tradition back to its founder, and though the silence until the 10th point part did start in 1997, the rest goes back a little further, back to a certain college president in pajamas.

“Silent Night started in the late 1980s with then-Taylor president Jay Kesler, who invited students to his campus residence for cookies and a reading of The Christmas Story. In 1988 he showed up to the pre-exams Friday game in pajamas. In 1989 Taylor students showed up in pajamas too. In 1997 they watched in silence until Taylor scored its 10th point, then erupted,” writes Grey Doyel.

When the reporter attended the Silent Night game in 2014 and ended up talking with Jay Kesler himself, Doyel had a few questions.

Wait – are you that former president? Are you Jay Kesler?

“Sure am,” he says. “And this is the Kesler Center—my tombstone.”

Kesler tells me he started wearing footie pajamas “to restore the idea of a family Christmas, the nostalgia of Christmas. You’re not too big a big-shot for Christmas, just because you’re in college.”

Kesler tells me the 10th-point eruption came from a student. He doesn’t remember the kid’s name. 

“All I know is he said his high school had this tradition where they’d hold newspapers and look disinterested until a predetermined time, when they threw the papers and made noise,” Kesler says. “He wanted to know if we could do something like that here. I said sure.”

Why after 10 points?

“No idea,” Kesler says. “It was arbitrary.”

“Even for the founder, Silent Night is equal parts history, mystery,” Doyel writes.

Maybe I was there, I think. Not for the 10th point cheering, of course, but the pajamas and the story and the singing of “Silent Night.” Maybe I did go to a few basketball games and show up for the happy-clappy traditions, when I wasn’t studying or watching TV.

And maybe writing about that formative time in my life requires something deeper than details, something more than just the facts. It’s about remembering who I was, who I am, even if I’m not always sure myself.

Thoughts & Texts to Accompany Your Advent

Nov 29
“But unto you that fear my name shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings…” A curtain closes and a 400-year wait begins. 1

Nov 30
And the Psalmisťs words resonate. “We see not our signs; there is no more any prophet; neither is there among us any that knoweth how long.”2

Dec 1
But the propheťs words seemed to carry with them a certain imminence. Are hope and despair endpoints on a common scale that tips with time?

Dec 2
“I’m homesick—longing for your salvation; I’m waiting for your word of hope. My eyes grow heavy watching for some sign of your promise…”3

Dec 3
Little darling, iťs been a long cold lonely winter
Little darling, it feels like years since iťs been here
Here comes the sun 4

Dec 4
Waiting as part of community seems more heartening and anticipatory than waiting in solitude, where it can take on a certain dreadfulness.

Dec 5
“To expect too much is to have a sentimental view of life and this is a softness that ends in bitterness.”5
Malachi 4:2 1
Psalm 74:9 2
Psalm 119:81-82 3
Here Comes The Sun. The Beatles. 4
Flannery O’Connor 5

Dec 6
“All around us we observe a pregnant creation. The difficult times of pain throughout the world are simply birth pangs.”6

Dec 7
“The experience of each new age requires a new confession, and the world seems always waiting for its poet.”7

Dec 8
What was that about being “despised and rejected”? Isn’t that incongruous with the image of the promised redeemer?

Dec 9
Who can pretend to empathize with the nine-month waiting of a pregnant and unmarried, teenage virgin?

Dec 10
Wonder like a child whose expectancy is untainted by the disappointments and broken promises of yesterday.

Dec 11
Did those who were waiting ever picture dirt floors, straw and the smell of animals?

Dec 12
The stuff of expectancy: name choice, nursery colors, and shower registry somehow seem superfluous.

Dec 13
Anticipation can be so sweet when you’ve heard the angel say, “Fear not!”

Dec 14
“These sterile and barren bodies of ours are yearning for full deliverance.”8

Dec 15
Fresh bread and rich wine prove the sensory power in anticipation.
Romans 8:22a The Message 6
Ralph Waldo Emerson 7
Romans 8:23 The Message 8

Dec 16
Now bread and wine remind us as we wait again.

Dec 17
The poetry of longing: yearning, ache, burning, hunger, thirst

Dec 18
Iťs already settled. His name will be Jesus.

Dec 19
Remind us again what the angel promised.

Dec 20
Anticipation’s counterpoint is often-times anxiety.

Dec 21
“Come Thou Long Expected Jesus.”9

Dec 22
“a Man of Sorrows”10

Dec 23
Prince of Peace

Dec 24
Birth pains

Dec 25
Incarnation!
a hymn by Charles Wesley 9
Isaiah 53:3 10

 

 

References

1 Malachi 4:2

2 Psalm 74:9 2

3 Psalm 119:81-82 3

4 Here Comes The Sun. The Beatles.

5 Flannery O’Connor

6 Romans 8:22a The Message

7 Ralph Waldo Emerson

8 Romans 8:23 The Message

9 a hymn by Charles Wesley

10 Isaiah 53:3

Being Near The End

Editor’s Note: This reflection on the end of David’s life was consented to by his family. We would like to thank them and and his friends for this intimate look at his death.

Maya’s calm and thoughtful features hover kindly over her father’s hollowed face. David’s prominent cheekbones are exaggerated by the Chiaroscuro effect of a bare-bulbed lamp. Strings of dark hair frame Maya’s profile in the windowless bedroom. Propped up on an elbow, she is beautiful, yet the role reversal is obscene. Cancer—like a madman who begins and ends his massacre in our bodies—has catapulted this family into a parallel universe where a parent becomes a child. David’s fiancée Micilín lies prone alongside her lover’s body; Ruth, his sister, kneels at his bedside. They clasp his hands that jut out at right angles on brittle elbows. The women encircle their man as his life quietly slows down, holding on as Maya tends to her father with a grace beyond her eleven years.

When I arrived from England fifteen years ago, David was the first photographers’ agent I worked with. He sponsored my work visa and sold my pictures. We shared a deep love of photography. He possessed the uncanny ability to make sense of the contact sheets from a messy shoot. He’d stab his finger at a frame and say, ‘that one.’ Then, after considering my arguments in favor of another, he’d nod, smiling, before lobbying his choice again. He was always right.

Our English sense of humor and those cultural references sculpted by the same generation formed an even stronger bond. We exchanged wry observations about the differences between life in the England and the US. We struggled with the dichotomy of loving America yet missing the UK.

One day, as I pitched him ideas for stories over lunch, he said: “I think you’ve been here too long when you go home and policemen’s hats look ridiculous!”

“And don’t you find the pavements too narrow?!” I said.

It had been a while since that breaking of bread. I think we’d seen each other only twice since that lunch. I wanted to say ‘Hi’, ‘How’s tricks?’ but he hadn’t returned my phone calls. I quizzed April—a woman David and I had worked with at Corbis/Sygma, the photo agency—on his whereabouts. To her he was something of a mentor, but he’d dropped off her radar too, so we joined forces to track him down. Even for New York City standards, it was strange we hadn’t heard from him, but, hey, people get busy…

It didn’t take long to find him, but she called with bad news. Cancer. Her voice shivered down the line with the diagnosis. We learned from his partner Micilín that on Saturday he couldn’t get out of bed and by Sunday he couldn’t talk. April wanted to visit him. I told her I’d meet her if she wanted company.

When imagining the visit, I thought I’d pop in with bunch of grapes, make David laugh, rib him a little bit about not telling anyone about the cancer, and head back into the unfashionable end of Brooklyn, to feed my cat, Cato, and go for a run.

April’s fragile figure near David’s home in Greenpoint, Brooklyn told me that plan was out the window. By the time I was close enough to touch her, the tears were already streaming down her face. That started me up too and we sobbed and clung to each other. Sunbathers squinted at us and commuters quick-stepped around us, heading to yoga or to binge on Netflix.

Micilín greeted us at the door of the cozy apartment she shared with David. In a calm friendly tone she explained that David’s ex-wife Junko and their eleven-year-old daughter Maya were here, preparing to say goodbye. Ruth, David’s sister, would arrive on a last minute transatlantic flight, booked hastily when Ruth discovered what we were now being told… David wasn’t expected to live through the night.

The apartment was an old-fashioned, straight through ‘railroad apartment:’ three open rooms in a line. The bedroom took up the center of the apartment like the captain’s cabin in a submarine. As she talked I peeked in. In a broad metal-framed bed the figure of a man was laid out, swaddled in white sheets like a shroud. 

“Let’s have some tea,” said Micilín, selecting British tea bags from the cupboard. Cookies were already fanned out on a plate. “This green tea kettle is a pretty good stand-in for an English teapot. I hope it works for you.”

I nodded and fiddled with my camera strap hooked diagonally across my chest. It was an old Canon rangefinder I’d taken to carrying around for those unscheduled candid photographs of people in the street, hopefully with the perfect balance of content and composition. The ‘decisive moment.’ Only, that morning I’d opened the camera’s back to slide a brand new, coiled roll of black and white film into its body, feeling the weight of a promise in the roll of unexposed film. There’s still an unconscious counter in my head that resets to 36 and counts down every time I shoot a new roll of film. When I have a camera up in front of my face, the world is contained in a tiny rectangle; my perception of depth is altered—one eye is closed—and my concerns are on focus, exposure and composition. Whatever images I record it is done almost mechanically.

A young girl, thin and surly, slipped by and scooped up a cookie. Headphones and an iPad held at arm’s length signaled keep back. She disappeared into the cave of her bunk bed. Maya, David’s daughter. The last time we’d met, he’d talked about his divorce and how the separation would affect her. When was that? I’d never even met Maya, now here she was, straggly long hair, petulant and evasive. How many times had David and I met in the last decade? And how many more rain-checks? Within the time it took for Maya to appear in this world and turn into this languid tween, I too had been married and divorced. I was ashamed I hadn’t been a better friend.

“Do you want to say hello to David?” said Micilín.

Cancer got my dad three years ago. But when I last saw him in England, I’d been told his final days were weeks or months so I flew back to the US for Thanksgiving. And when the phone rang—at exactly the moment I slid a sheet of turkey into lake of cranberry sauce—I knew. One thing you could always say about my father, he was never late for dinner. I said goodbye to my Father and there was peace between us, but I hadn’t been there when he passed.

We followed David’s partner in the gloom. There’s been some mistake, I thought, this wasn’t David. He looked nothing like the man I knew! This man was tiny and frail. David was bigger than this, a little shorter than I and like me a fading redhead. This man who lay on his back, slack jawed with a wispy beard, weighed no more than 100 pounds.

“David?” said Micilín, “April and Neville are here to see you.” We stood by his bed grinning like idiots. “Hi David,” we chimed.

Vibrating with shock I wanted to be sure—to confirm David’s identity—so I climbed up onto the bed to look into his eyes. I flopped down in the position Micilín assumes in the picture. David’s lips were drawn back in a dry smile and his eyes were dilated. He was so doped up, I wasn’t sure he could see me, but Micilín said he was still communicating with hand squeezes and some sporadic nodding and blinking, so I took his hand—it was wiry and warm and it twitched when I lifted it. In his glassy eyes something sparked and faraway I heard his laugh.

“You bastard, David. Why didn’t you tell me you were sick?” I said.

The remark shot out of me with finesse of a bullet. It should have slid out as a joke, putting an end to all this ‘nice’ respectful nonsense that seemed appropriate but David would have hated. April started to cry, she smiled at me—she knew what I was trying to do—and I started to cry too. On the bed, close to David, I held back the floodgates. I shook it off and he watched me in silence, his gaze was unwavering. Maya slithered up through the knot of adults onto the bed and gently squeezed a juice box over his dry lips.

Screen Shot 2015-12-02 at 11.00.12 AM

We stepped back to the kitchen. Maya’s mother, David’s ex-wife Junko, appeared from somewhere smiling broadly and we all came together. David’s sister Ruth arrived and bustled in with her bags. We stepped back to give her space.

I thought of another photographer and Brit, our mutual friend, Jason. David introduced us a few days after 9/11. Jason and I had made a short film about our experiences during the terrorist attacks. He was preparing to leave for East Africa. I suggested to Micilín I invite him over. She brightened at the prospect and encouraged us to call all David’s friends. April made a list and I called Jason. I explained the situation to him, trying not to be too melodramatic. But in the end I had to be explicit.

“Jason, mate, you coming by ‘in the next couple of days’… probably isn’t an option. They say he won’t last the night.”

“Oh God,” he said, “I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

People started arriving. Mourners-to-be formed a line into the bedroom. Some of them I knew only as acquaintances, yet they all greeted me with warmth. What is this thing? I thought, a wake? No, a ‘goodbye’ party, perhaps?

“A celebration!” said Micilín. “A celebration of his life, don’t you think? Send him off in style! I’m sure he’d protest but it’s a good thing—all his friends are around him.”

“Well, he doesn’t have a lot of choice.” I said, and we laughed. It was my first real laugh of the evening.

Micilín cranked up a playlist of his favorite music. We texted Jason: Pick up some beer! We ordered pizza and haggled over the toppings. An old-fashioned house party kicked into gear. People drifted in and out of David’s room with beer cans and folded pizza. They sat on the bed and talked to him. They waved phones in his face as some of his dearest friends scattered across the globe said goodbye via video chat. Maya, intrigued by the company, walked amongst us with big shy eyes. Junko fired up the Playstation for her and pretty soon her voice could be heard above the adults.

The girl forced a handset into my hands and quickly flipped through the menu on the screen. She pressed her little fingers on my big, stubby thumbs to activate the buttons on my controller, explaining in detail how to play. We plunged headlong into Medal of Honor: Pacific Assault. It was a ‘first-person-shooter’ with close quarters fighting, bayonets and pistols, hand-to-hand combat; brutal. I fought next to Maya and we laughed and shouted as we guided our rifles towards a jungle outpost whilst our friends egged us on. Her eyes shone at me as she bent double and giggled as I repeatedly tossed hand grenades at my own feet. Junko feigned horror as her little girl dispatched Japanese troops with the rat-a-tat of a Thompson machine gun and just for a moment, we forgot why we were there.

David was now a centerpiece for our strange communion. Life and laughter encircled him, lifting him up. He became buoyant on a raft of friendship and laughter. And even through the fog of morphine, I’m certain he heard the sound of his daughter’s laughter, once again.

Screen Shot 2015-12-02 at 11.01.10 AM

Sometime after nine o’clock, World War II paused. Friends and family slumped into a slow mumble.

I stood in the kitchen talking when a heart-wrenching moan drifted through the apartment. The house fell silent.

I slipped into the bedroom behind Ruth and stood at the foot of the bed next to Junko. In the half-light my fingers stumbled on the dials of the old Canon. The small camera had a fast lens and was loaded with black and white film but I knew not to trust the exposure meter—it would never cope with the dark. I rotated the shutter ring on the barrel of the lens down to a 1/4 of a second and steadied myself against the doorframe, lifting the camera to my eye. I brought the two half moons in the viewfinder together and focused on David’s gaunt face.

Maya slid onto the bed at David’s head at a right angle his body. Ruth stood at the side of the bed and took David’s hand in hers. Maya stood up to give Ruth room to sit down,

Click.

The shutter was a thunderclap to me, but only Junko noticed. She indulged me with a smile; she too saw the beauty in the scene, and David—an advocate of reportage—would have scolded me if I hadn’t made the shot. Still, he was my friend and I trembled in my task. When Maya climbed back up onto the bed she curled her legs around her father and shuffled up around his head once again, burying her face in the pillows. She was crying very softly. David’s breathing rattled slightly, his chest rose and fell slowly and evenly. With my thumb I slowly cranked the film advance lever.

Click.

Ruth—her left hand still holding David’s—knelt down and put a hand on Maya’s knee to reassure her and set her still.

Click.

Ruth held tight to David’s hand as Maya sat up on her elbow. For a second David and Maya seemed connected vertically through the same focal plane by a thread—I held the focus there.

Click.

Ruth looked up at David and Maya looked over at Micilín. Micilín cooed slow words of reassurance in her lover’s ear.

Click.

I let the camera slide back to my hip and I left them in a ring of love and grief. These two women and a girl sent a current of warmth and compassion swirling around the room. Eddies of smoke and sparks spun out in a hearth, reappearing as quickly as they disappeared.

In the kitchen, numbers had dwindled. Micilín came out of the bedroom to our expectant faces.

“He doesn’t want to go yet,” she said, “he’s having too much of a good time!”

She grinned at us and we let out a collective sigh; the rubber band unwound. Maya lay quietly next to her father, the kettle bubbled on the stove, and at that moment it seemed appropriate to leave.

April and I found ourselves traveling together in the same direction home. I don’t remember what we said to each other on the journey, though I’m sure we must have talked. I do remember spilling a new reservoir of tears when she switched trains. We hugged each other and promised to check in the morning.

I descended the stairs to my connecting subway train deep underground. At this time of night, the line that would take me home was a ‘local’—it stopped at every station—and the few anonymous souls accompanying me made no eye contact. Slowly, I was ferried through the underworld to my destination. A few stops before the end of the line, I got off and trudged up the stairs to the world above.

I woke to my phone rattling at my bedside. I fumbled for my glasses; I’d overslept. Two texts.

From April: ‘You ok?’

The other from Jason: ‘cheers geezer. sad. but glad I could be there’

I replied to April, ‘ just woke up. I’m ok. talk later

I fed Cato, fired up the coffeepot and opened all the windows to the New York summer. A neighbor chuckled, a siren wailed, Cato crunched her food.

The phone buzzed again. A third text. Micilín.

“David just left us at 10.47. Me and Maya and Ruth were with him. He was at peace and he looks so beautiful now. The room is just bursting with the love you and all his friends brought over…And His phone has been blowing up with messages of love and stories of laughter and gratitude which we continued to read to him. Thanks for giving him the royal send off that he deserves.”

I put down my coffee and called Jason.

A few days later I stood at a large lightbox at the photo lab. Backlit and magnified in silver and plastic, the five reversed frames of David and Maya on the bed seemed more permanent between my fingers than they ever would enlarged as positives on my computer screen. Like a Cyclops I scanned the tail of blue cellulose, but couldn’t decide which image was the strongest, giving the scene the most dignity and, most importantly, recording the event accurately. I needed counsel. David’s face flared at the edge of my loupe like a crack in the sun and for a moment I could see him grinning, healthy and animated, eager to help me choose. That one.

A college fund has been set up for David’s daughter, Maya. Please consider contributing to it here.

The Landscape of Joy in a Fast-Happy Society

Pseudo-spiritual self-help memoirs line bookstore shelves, instructing us how to use our breath to get happy. Hot Yoga classes with a side of watered-down Buddhism shape our bodies and minds, selling self-actualization like a commodity. We sample the aspects of cultures and religions we find rewarding, spending time and money excessively to achieve “flash happiness.” But what happens when the flash burns out? Again, we toil.

If happiness is a commodity, then we’re facing a recession. According to a recent Harris poll, only one third of Americans are “very happy,” and The World Happiness Report ranked the U.S. number fifteen of all countries—puzzling when our wealth and resources far exceed most of the countries ranking above us. Where have we gone wrong? Perhaps the answer lies in our definition of happiness, which, according to The Washington Post, has come to mean increasing comfort by achieving a higher individual income—less about a journey, more about a destination. So, rather than a hard-wrought reward of plunging our own depths in self-examination, rather than the presence of joy, happiness has become more about what it isn’t. Our idea of happiness has morphed into avoiding suffering.

So what’s beyond the name-brand happiness we strive for? Could there be a more nourishing, sustainable landscape for us to step into? And if so, how do we get there? Therein lies the paradox of our solo quests for satisfaction—maybe it’s not about avoiding suffering, but walking right through it, all the way to joy.

Joy, like many virtues, is hard to find. But ten minutes into Pixar’s Inside Out, I was convinced it would find me. The film gives us a peek inside the mind of eleven-year-old Riley, whose family endures a difficult cross-country move from Minnesota to San Francisco. Through the journey, we see her emotions of sadness, disgust, fear, anger, and joy personified, running a “command center” in Riley’s brain. Joy, voiced by Amy Poehler, is the peppy ringleader.

The relationship between Joy and Sadness (voiced by Phyllis Smith of The Office) intrigued me from the beginning. Joy, head of the command center, harnesses all the other emotions, takes especial care to protect Riley from Sadness. In one instance, we see Sadness fumbling around the command center, unable to pull herself out of a slump of melancholy. Fearful Sadness will take the steering wheel of Riley’s brain on a whim, Joy commands her, “Stay in your circle!” As the determined Joy fights for her rightful plot in Riley’s mind, a thesis practically built itself in my mine—joy commands us! Happiness will find us! Joy is the most powerful, poignant emotion, to which sadness is ultimately subservient.

inside out

But as the movie progresses, Joy and Sadness develop a rapport, even a partnership, collaborating and sharing resources to give Riley a full, genuine emotional experience. Where Joy used to call the shots, she begins to yield to other emotions, realizing they may lead Riley to something more lasting: a more complex form of joy, sweetened and hallowed by the pain of knowing loss.

One scene in Inside Out shows the power of Sadness to reap lasting happiness. In a quest to cheer Riley up, Joy revels in a memory of a hockey game, and what appears to be a celebration. But Sadness remembers it differently: the team had actually lost, discouraging Riley, but also leading her to the joy of genuine time with her family. Sorrow lent the celebration a more complex flavor: a little bit bitter because of the loss, but a sweet finish because her family was there to encourage her. It was the initial sting of loss and the vulnerability of suffering that prompted Riley to seek comfort in her parents, opening her up to the joy of intimacy and connection with those close to her. At this point, Joy starts to realize the power Sadness might have to enrich Riley’s life.

Maybe that’s the sweet spot we’re missing in a fast-happy culture. The contrived veneer of happiness will always fail us, because it doesn’t have a foundation. After all, why would we treasure joy if we hadn’t first experienced its absence? The film suggests that joy and sadness can indeed coexist, and they should—their collaboration yields the happiness we search for. Real joy, then, isn’t a commodity, but a discipline, the hard-won fruit of being willing to first trudge through undesirable emotions.

On the other side of the hustle for happiness is the mindfulness movement emphasizing mindful meditation, a practice designed to reduce stress and anxiety not by consuming, but through quiet noticing. Through increased attention to the mundane of the physical, mindfulness practices summon us to observe the very sensations that keep us alive, ultimately minimizing stress and reducing pain.

Sounds good, right? Not to critics of “McMindfulness,” who claim the “colonized” American version, uncoupled from the ancient Buddhist practice, is “marketed to reduce stress,” when it is actually meant to be part of an ethical program to propagate “wise action.” Ron Purser, Professor of Management at San Francisco State University, wrote in The Huffington Post: “When mindfulness practice is compartmentalized in this way, the interconnectedness of personal motives is lost. There is a dissociation between one’s own personal transformation.”

This version of mindfulness meditation promotes noticing without the act of judging. But is simply noticing sadness enough to achieve real joy? Or does genuine happiness reside on the other side of the transforming crucible of suffering?

Though we pour our money and time into escaping the discomfort bound to plague us, Christian writer C.S. Lewis argued that our desires, especially our desire for happiness, aren’t too strong; rather, they’re too weak. He writes in The Weight of Glory, “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

If mud pies are the happiness we forge with feeble hands, joy is the holiday at sea. And according to Inside Out, there is no way there but through sadness—we must exist in it, engage with it, trudge through it to experience real, meaningful joy. Like Robert Frost writes in his poem “A Servant to Servants,” “the best way out is always through.”

Toward the end of Inside Out, in a culmination of fear, disgust, and anger, Riley runs away from home, hopping on a bus back to Minnesota where she thinks she’ll find joy again. Of course, Riley does choose to return safely home, but it’s not Joy who convinces her— Sadness propels her back into her parents’ arms. The sadness of imagining life without her family led her home, to joy, where she belongs. Joy gets the last say, but not without the help of her counterpart, Sadness.

It’s certainly possible to experience isolated joy without the prerequisite of sadness, and Riley does—the film flashes back to early, foundational memories of pure joy, like her first hockey goal while skating with her parents on a lake and laughing with a friend while blowing bubbles in milk. But the emotion that propels her to take positive action in her life—the one that brings her home—is the same one we try to escape from: sadness. Maybe the isolated moments make us happy, but it’s the mingling of pain and beauty that makes us human, drawing us into the most vibrant version of ourselves. That’s the beauty of collaborating with the whole spectrum of emotions. When sadness carves a deep valley in us, it’s also making space for joy to burst in—our holiday at sea.

The Sensational Lives of Clergymen

Beginning in the nineteenth century, the English-speaking world saw the rebirth of a strange type of clergyman: the priest-scholar interested in the otherworldly. While men of the cloth have long been part of the Christian intelligentsia (as have many scientists, inventors, and philosophers), with the nineteenth and twentieth century decline in church attendance and the rise of a techno-scientific elite, a small group of occult-minded priests and pastors began reviving the medieval and early Modern tradition of the holy man as expert demonologist. Along the way, these men, most of whom proudly upheld the stereotype of the eccentric English gentleman, helped to lend a certain level of respectability to the study of monsters and murderers.

Of course, given that we are talking about the post-Enlightenment world, the difference between men like the Anglican priest-scholar Sabine Baring-Gould (born 1834), an antiquarian, hagiographer, and scholar, and Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger, the sixteenth-century German priests who composed the anti-witchcraft treatise Malleus Maleficarum, is fairly large. While the latter were steadfast believers in the existence of witches and witchcraft, the Reverend Baring-Gould, best known as the composer of “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” studied such things as werewolves and revenants as a rationalist scholar interested in the origins of myth and folklore.

Baring-Gould’s interest in the darker strains of European superstition would have marked him as a person-of-suspicion during the witchcraft trials that erupted throughout Europe between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries. If not for his belief that lycanthropy was the result of a mental disorder, Baring-Gould may have faced the Inquisition owing to his Protestant faith alone.

When the prolific Baring-Gould died in 1924, the spirit of his work was picked up by another unusual English clergyman. Born Augustus Montague Summers in Bristol, Montague Summers initially trained as an Anglican priest and was ordained as a deacon. However, rumors abounded that Summers had a less than passing interest in Satanism. More shocking still, Summers was charged with molestation, but was acquitted. These two rumors prevented Summers from advancing in the Anglican Church and followed him throughout his life. Summers devoted one of his volumes of poetry to Antonius, the young male lover of the Roman emperor Hadrian, which continues to be used as evidence of Summers’s leanings towards pederasty. Partly owing to these vocational roadblocks, Summers converted to Catholicism in 1909 and began claiming that he was an ordained Catholic priest. Known for wearing a simple black cassock and a biretta at all times, the eccentric Summers began publishing books like The Vampire: His Kith and Kin and The Geography of Witchcraft in the 1920s.

Whereas Baring-Gould brought heavy skepticism to his subject, Summers’s work openly displays his belief in the existence of vampires, werewolves, and witches. German sociologist Max Weber would argue that this difference is due to the differences between Protestant and Catholic doctrine. More specifically, Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism argues that Protestantism, with its heavy emphasis on rationalism and economic thrift, creates a type of mentality, or “spirit” that creates an inquisitive impulse that is not easily satiated by traditional explanations. Catholics, on the other hand, “prefer to sleep undisturbed” and prefer “a life of the greatest possible security, even with small income, to a life of risk and excitement…” Within Weber’s prism, Baring-Gould’s approach to the supernatural is thoroughly Protestant because it seeks to understand historical superstition from a rationalist, well-researched position. Conversely, according to Weber, Summers’s reaffirmation of European superstition is very Catholic because it merely accepts the dogma of the medieval church as factual.

Of course, this Weberian reading of Barine-Gould and Summers fails upon closer scrutiny. After all, Weber linked heavy rationalism with Calvinists, not the quasi-Catholic Anglicans. Still, the stereotype of the even-minded Protestant and the pearl-clutching Catholic persisted well into the twentieth century. Interestingly, this stereotype was somewhat subverted by two other occult-minded clergymen, both of whom discussed the supernatural via fiction. One was British, the other American; one was a Catholic convert, the other an ordained deacon in the Episcopal Church. Most importantly, one achieved fame and respect during his lifetime, while the other was relegated to the sleazy pulp markets. Both men, Monsignor Ronald Knox and Reverend Henry S. Whitehead, helped further extend the phenomenon of the strange clergyman as something delightfully native to the Anglosphere.

Henry St. Clair Whitehead began his life in Elizabeth, New Jersey, on March 5, 1882. From here, he followed the time-worn WASP trajectory of Harvard (where he graduated alongside Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1904), travel, and a prestigious job as a newspaper editor in Port Chester, New York. Instead of entering into politics, Whitehead decided to attend Berkeley Divinity School in Middletown, Connecticut in order to become an Episcopal priest. After becoming a deacon in 1912, Whitehead was posted to the Danish West Indies (today’s U.S. Virgin Islands) between the years 1921 and 1929. Even before Whitehead returned to the States and settled in Dunedin, Florida, he had already made a name for himself as a short story writer with a taste for the fantastique. Whitehead tapped into his Caribbean surroundings and began writing about something that was sure to both scare and tantalize the readers of the pulp magazine Weird Tales: voodoo.

Whitehead’s best tales take place in the Virgin Islands and feature the narrator and protagonist Gerald Canevin, a fellow writer and Whitehead’s alter ego. The supernatural pervades Whitehead’s version of the West Indies, with voodoo rituals and curses as common as rainclouds or local legends about lost pirate treasure. “Passing of a God,” widely considered Whitehead’s finest story, treats Haitian voodoo as a topic of intellectual interest, especially since the subject had been covered in 1929 by the once enormously popular travel writer William Seabrook in The Magical Island (which would provide the source material for the 1932 horror film White Zombie). Whitehead was a serious student of Haitian folklore and did know quite a bit about the practice of voodoo in the West Indies. It’s unknown whether or not Whitehead seriously believed in black magic, but he certainly wrote as if the topic was within the realm of possibility.

“Passing of a God” and Whitehead’s other macabre tales are smart, well-crafted odes to conventional, if not exotic, horror. Despite his friendship with fellow Weird Tales regular H.P. Lovecraft, Whitehead did not write about cosmic monsters or the inability of humanity to comprehend the contents of the universe, even though the two collaborated on the short story “The Trap.”  Whitehead’s contributions to Weird Tales were frequently out-of-step with the magazine’s usual content. This may be why Whitehead is so little-known today. The only whisper of his legacy in popular culture remains Lucio Fulci’s 1979 film Zombi 2, a zombie film about a voodoo curse on the fictional island of Matool (based on Saint Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands).

While Whitehead lived a dual existence as a church rector and producer of uncanny and bizarre horror stories, Ronald Knox was busy codifying detective fiction, a close cousin of horror fiction, in Great Britain. Inspired by his religious training and his desire to make detective fiction more respectable, Knox created a set of ten commandments for the Detection Club, a formal group of British mystery writers of the likes of Agatha Christie, Dorothy S. Sayers, and G.K. Chesterton. The commandments are as follows:

1. The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow;

2. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course;

3. No more than one secret room or passage is allowable. I would add that a secret passage should not be brought in at all unless the action takes place in a kind of house where such devices might be expected;

4. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end;

5. No Chinaman must figure into the story;

6. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right;

7. The detective must not, himself, commit the crime;

8. The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader;

9. The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be slightly, but only very slightly, below that of the average reader;

10. Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.

Knox, an Anglican priest at Oxford before his conversion to Catholicism in 1917, particularly wanted to rid British detective fiction of the influence of Sax Rohmer, whose popular character Doctor Fu-Manchu (the “Chinaman” of rule number five) blurred the lines between pulpy, overly sensationalist speculative fiction and detective fiction. For Knox and the other members of the Detection Club, mystery stories were first and foremost logical puzzles posed to the reader. Rationality and deductive reasoning were the meat of the genre, not trapdoors, happenstance, and the supernatural.

As with most commandments, Knox’s stipulations were frequently broken. Even when British mystery writers of the 1930s tried to conform to Knox’s dictates, they could not fully escape their chosen genre’s affinity with horror fiction. After all, death is the ultimate mystery, so anything dealing with death is bound to be a little spooky. Knox’s own detective novels were no different, with 1927’s The Three Taps, featuring the insurance investigator Miles Bredon, being the most outré.

Try as he might, Knox was in many ways a relative not only of Whitehead, but also Baring-Gould and, to a lesser extent, Summers. These four men were not only clergymen who all shared an interest in the Stygian aspects of life, but they were all dedicated writers who crafted books and short stories that dealt more with the secular world than the cloistered one. Some, like the Catholic Knox and the Anglican Baring-Gould, looked to scientific rationality when it came to the topic of human darkness. The Episcopalian Whitehead and the Catholic Summers did the opposite, writing about superstitions as if they were universal facts.

Taken together, these four men problematize the stereotypical dichotomy of the reasonable and analytic Protestant versus the credulous Catholic, which in turn may say something about how Christianity reacted to the growth of secularism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. During the age when popular occultism reached its peak in North America and Europe thanks to seances, spiritualism, and certain groups like the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (which included members like Aleister Crowley and W.B. Yeats), these clergymen carved out space of Christianity among the darker strands of popular culture. Interestingly, they came not to proselytize, but to remind readers that this world is full of magic, some of which is conducted in the shadows.

Dinosaurs, Time Travel, and the Importance of Being Where You Are

I blame the dinosaurs.

When I was young, I set my heart on becoming an archaeologist. If I had known better, I would have aspired to paleontologist because the desire sprang from a grade school field trip to the Indianapolis Children’s Museum. The dinosaur exhibit near the entrance left a deep impression on me, as did the fieldwork demonstrations where I meticulously brushed away sand and dirt to reveal bits of bone, teeth, and other relics from the past.

Of course those things were all orchestrated to inspire young children like me. If my deep—though temporary—passion for archaeology was any indication, it worked.

What is it about children and dinosaurs?

In his Atlantic essay “The Artists Who Paint Dinosaurs,” Ross Andersen theorizes about the childhood mystique of dinosaurs. Their “size, their ferocity, the number and sharpness of their teeth”—certainly that must be part of it. But there’s more to it than that, Andersen suggests. We have such little information about the dinosaurs, so few bones, really. Whatever we choose to believe about these ancient beasts, most of it is a result of our imaginations.

"Record Unit 95, Box 33, Folder 23"; "Six children play on the sculpture "Uncle Beazley," the 25 foot long replica of a triceratops, placed on the Mall in front of the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH)."

“Record Unit 95, Box 33, Folder 23”; “Six children play on the sculpture “Uncle Beazley,” the 25 foot long replica of a triceratops, placed on the Mall in front of the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH).”

“A dinosaur is a muse, then. To contemplate a dinosaur is to slip from the present, to travel in time, deep into the past, to see the Earth as it was tens, if not hundreds, of millions of years ago, when the continents were nearer, when the forests and oceans teemed with strange plants and creatures. In childhood, the mind is alive to the thrill of that perspective shift.

I imagine the college student who recently made a significant fossil discovery in the New Mexico desert brushed up against that same thrill of digging into the past—probably from the time she was young. Carissa Raymond, now a paleontology student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, will go down in history for uncovering the teeth of a beaver-like animal that lived 65 million years ago. It was her first fossil-hunting trip.

“I walked over this little hill, and I saw this row of black teeth just sticking up. And I thought, wow, I’m so glad I finally found something. I didn’t know it was something so important,” she told NPR’s Steve Inskeep during an interview for Morning Edition.

Some adults still find digging into the past thrilling too. Especially “paleo artists” who use a little science and a lot of imagination to recreate dinosaurs in their original settings. Andersen writes about one such illustrator, Simon Stålenhag, whose 28 digital paintings reside in Sweden’s Natural History Museum.

“I asked if there was anything I could help with. I told them I didn’t care what it was for. I just wanted to paint dinosaurs,” Stålenhag told Andersen.

Most of us will never find a dinosaur bone or paint a dinosaur in his natural environment, but when pushed, we still crave the mystery and danger only our imaginations can create, like going back in time to face dinosaurs. It’s easier than it sounds actually—time travel. In fact, comedienne Amy Poehler, in her memoir Yes Please, says she travels in time quite often.

“Time moves too slow or too fast. But I know a secret,” she writes. “You can control time. You can stop it or stretch it or loop it around. You can travel back and forth by living in the moment and paying attention.”

For Poehler, time travel happens when we pay attention to the everyday things that happen in our lives and later are given the chance to recall those details again.

Several years ago, a young Poehler and her comedy troupe, the Upright Citizens Brigade, opened a concert for American singer/songwriter Patti Smith in the Netherlands. Poehler recounts how they met again, this time by chance outside the bathroom at a New York restaurant, and was stunned that Smith remembered their first encounter.

“Patti Smith knew who I was. I shook her hand. Suddenly, I was transported back to Amsterdam. Time stretched and bent and I went for a ride. I dare anyone to prove that I didn’t,” Poehler writes.

Of course, it’s the same Patti Smith who only recently released a memoir, M Train. Writer Anwen Crawford says in an October New Yorker article:

“Patti Smith is a person for whom the material world veils—flimsily—a set of more lasting, luminous truths. These are the truths of art, genius, fate; she has no truck with the irony or flippancy endemic to the contemporary perspective. She is an unreconstructed Romantic, which makes reading her books rather like time travel.

Time travel.

When I was a child, I thought a lot about shedding the constraints of “right now” every time I watched the vortex created by the tub drain as I let out the water after my baths. To my little girl imagination, the swirl created there was just like the portal in the waterfall that swept the Marshall family into the world of dinosaurs in my favorite television show, Land of the Lost. Though my size would have made it impossible for me to get sucked down the drain, I wasn’t one to get hung up on impossibilities. For all I knew, there were dinosaurs waiting for me on the other side of that little metal screen.

Eventually, I stopped worrying about the bathtub drain. Land of the Lost was cancelled after three seasons, and as far I know, the Marshall family never made it home. They dropped completely off my radar. I caught up with the dinosaurs again on that school field trip, but it took only the two years of middle school and the self-consciousness of puberty before “right now” became the most important thing. By then I was taking showers. I rarely looked down at the drain anymore.

But now years later, I have found new importance in being present in the now. Too often I am tempted toward the past, but not the one our imagination creates, not the one where dinosaurs live. Rather, I am prone to look at the swirling water in the bathtub and feel like life itself has been wasted, like all my good intentions are going down the drain. But if I am so distracted by those earlier years that I fail to experience what’s going on right in front of me, I’ll get stuck in the past. I’ll miss the portal of my presence and attention that allows me to transcend time in both directions.

Recently, we have seen a new interest in dinosaurs with the return of the Jurassic Park franchise and Walking with the Dinosaurs. We just can’t stop wondering what it would be like to live with these giant reptiles. Whether we go back in time to them or we bring them through time to us through preserved DNA, we just can’t let the dinosaurs go. Maybe that’s a good thing.

Poehler says her own intra-chronological jaunts, however real or not, have taught her a very important life lesson: that she is always just where she needs to be. More than anything, I think that’s what dinosaurs teach us, too. The fact they they—with their size, their ferocity, and the number and sharpness of their teeth—are not here now and I am. Makes me think I am right where I need to be, too.

 

 

*Featured Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institute Flickr Archive

Living the Fantasy

Until last week, online fantasy sports betting was a prosperous and unregulated new industry, but things are shifting as Nevada regulators determined that fantasy sites are not skill-based, but rather a form of gambling.

These quick leagues offer instant satisfaction compared to the traditional fantasy leagues where participants were stuck with the team they chose before the start of the season.

I recently saw Living the Fantasy, a straightforward documentary which follows several top fantasy football players during the 2014 season. Living the Fantasy tells a story, but like most art, it also helps us ask questions. This look into the world of online fantasy sports raises questions about the allure of quick money and the contradictions of internet-based community—about how we interact, compete, and commune. Traditional, real-life fantasy leagues brought individuals together and stimulated people’s imaginations. With the shift to online fantasy sports, gamers are isolated in their pursuits, and the payoff shifts from the thrill of competition to a million dollar jackpot. Yet, even with the changes and the questions they raise, there is something powerful in watching people compete.

I recently had the opportunity to talk with the director of Living the Fantasy, Joshua Adler, about his film and the questions it raises.

Sarah Hanssen: Can you tell me about the genesis of Living the Fantasy? Why did you think this was a story worth telling?

Joshua Adler: I’m a filmmaker first, but a big sports fan as well. I’ve been playing fantasy sports for many years (even when I was in film school at Columbia). I discovered daily fantasy games about three years ago and found myself playing practically every day.

In September of 2013, I was on a site called DraftStreet (which has since been acquired by one of the largest daily fantasy sports providers, DraftKings) and I was playing a daily fantasy baseball game that night. There’s a chat board on the site that shows up at the bottom of the page. You couldn’t avoid seeing it. And I noticed people would write the most absurd and obnoxious things on it. I saw that someone wrote “Fuck Mark Teixeira. I hope he fucking dies of testicular cancer.”

That intrigued me. What kind of people are so obsessed with this game that they, even jokingly, wish testicular cancer on a stranger because he had a bad day at the plate?

That’s the genesis. I wanted to learn who these people were. However, I never really learned who “that person” is. But it was the beginning of wanting to make a documentary on the subject.

SH: Were there any moments or angles you wish you could have included in this film that didn’t make the final cut? What else do you wish audiences could know about in the fantasy sports world?

JA: We started making this documentary quickly. The world was blowing up so fast that we could hardly keep up. Time was a factor, and if we started making the film today, it would be significantly different, more well thought out. However, while it wouldn’t simply be a document of how fast the fantasy world was changing in 2014, we could have delved into the speed of the change a little more. When we started, no one really knew about DraftKings or FanDuel. Now, you can’t turn on the television without seeing one of their ads.

I also would have also have liked to explore the “gambling” aspect of this world a bit more. It’s a fascinating question whether this is a skill or gambling, and my thoughts changed back and forth as we shot the film.

SH: After being immersed in this world as long as you were, what do you think are the pros and cons of the online fantasy league world? Is it bad for society? Is it risky for human beings?

JA: My father said something years ago that has always stuck with me: “Anything in moderation is okay.” Of course there are exceptions to this rule.

That’s the simple answer.

Fantasy sports has been great for sports. For instance, basketball has really embraced fantasy. People like me, who were never big fans of basketball have found how much fun it is to play and through it I have become a basketball fan now. It’s also fun. I’ve had experiences where I’ve had a $20 team and been up to win a million dollars. Nothing beats watching football on a Sunday when you have a legitimate shot of winning big money with your fantasy team.

And trust me, if you don’t know anything about the sport, you’re not going to come close to winning money. That’s the big difference between this and sports betting. Anyone can go to a sports book and put money down on different teams. And anyone will win some and lose some. With this game, you have to know the players and the match ups.

Yet fantasy sports has been terrible for sports. As we say in our documentary (or as people we interviewed said), it’s broken sports down into plays and moments. People who play fantasy, none of them watch games anymore. No one roots for teams. It’s players. It’s moments. I personally can’t watch Sunday football without my computer open—scanning box scores of all the other games.

Fantasy Sports seems tailor-made for the ADHD generation. And it works. The purity of sports is totally fucked. Don’t get me wrong, I personally love it, but it’s still fucked.

As my father said “anything in moderation” and that goes double for fantasy sports.   

SH: Would you have any caveats for people just considering giving it a try? I ask, for two reasons: I’d like to know what you see as the ethical conundrum in this world of fantasy league wagers, and I’d like to know for more personal applications. Modern human existence feels so isolating with less and less face to face interaction. Doesn’t this amplify that problem?

JA: Modern human existence is isolating. Look at the opening sequence of The Social Network (the credit sequence, that is)—it’s beautifully simple how Fincher takes us through the campus of Harvard before Mark Zuckerberg invented Facebook. It shows Harvard campus on a Friday night and people are talking and interacting and riding bikes and hanging out. None of them are looking at smartphones. Fincher subtly sets up the thesis world that’s about to be changed forever.

However, I don’t know if fantasy sports has anything to do with the isolation through media. That happened long before fantasy sports developed. Fantasy sports (specifically daily fantasy games) has simply adjusted to the world that was created by Facebook and Twitter and so on.

I recommend to friends that they play all the time. If anything fantasy sports brings many people together. Because of it, I seek out friends who might want to go to a bar on a Sunday and watch football with me. For season-long leagues, it gets people to sit together for a day or for a weekend with old friends. It helps facilitate friendships and human interaction.

That being said, you go to a DraftKings event and spend a lot of time watching people watching the games. Most of them (including myself) are staring at their smartphones, checking stats. Is that fantasy sports, or is that the society we live in?

Hell, football stadiums now have the Red Zone playing on the big screen. Why? Because they know that in order to get people to come to the stadium and watch a live game, you have to give them the opportunity to see all the other games so they can follow their fantasy players.

SH: There’s something bittersweet and even disappointing about the fact that none of the characters we follow in Living the Fantasy are winners in the end. For me, this mirrors the experience of gambling. Can you talk a little about this parallel?

JA: It’s interesting that you think there aren’t any real winners at the end of the movie. I swear I’m not saying this, but I think they all win at the end. They just don’t win a million dollars in the last tournament.

I’ve been to Vegas many many many times. I’ve sat at tables with people and I’ve seen it in their eyes that they have gone overboard. They have lost it all. They were praying for that last spin of the wheel to finally turn their luck around. It’s horrible and devastating. I once witnessed a woman being dragged out of a casino by her husband because she blew $15,000 on high-stakes slot machines.

This was not the experience of the people we followed in our documentary. They all had fun; some even won a little or a lot of money. And if they did lose any, it could rightly considered “the price of entertainment.”

ESSO—SO—SO—SO

Regardless of the course title, I try to read a poem aloud at the beginning of every class I teach. Some of my college freshmen love this, but most probably don’t. Like me at their age, they do not carry poetry around in their heads to help them make sense of what is happening around them. Yet.

By the third week of any given semester, I can note eyes rolling as I continue to insist on this ritual. But not all eyes are rolling, and in every class a handful of students jot down the name of the poet and poem before leaning in to engage with the words I send their way.

I like to insist that the carefully selected rhetorical devices within poetry have a place in our rhetoric as we compose, say, an argumentative essay in a college writing course. At the beginning of each semester, our first order of business is to re-imagine the word “argument.” We confront visions of dichotomous debate and replace them with a stance that would imply an intense search for clarity. And this stance often looks very much like that posture of the students, leaning in to receive and learn from the poetic phrasing offered at the beginning of each class.

But more importantly, well beyond the college writing classroom, I hope that through these poetry readings, I’m offering my students tools for their engagement with life—not only their outward articulation of feelings and observations, but also their inward understanding of who they are. Poetry offers clarity in the ongoing dialogue we have with ourselves.

I don’t often go into great depth or explanation about the opening poems, and I don’t usually allow them to lead into lengthy class discussions. A Garfield poster which hung in one of my high school classrooms comes to mind: Garfield is walking around with stacks of books tied to his head, arms, chest, legs, and feet. Above him, in that bubbly Garfield font, it reads, “I’m learning by osmosis.” I tend to believe that poetry is powerful enough that mere exposure to it has potency. I simply read the poem aloud to my students once, maybe twice, trusting that it will do the work and that a few students will think—no, they will realize, to borrow from Mary Oliver, “…that it was all the time words that you yourself, out of your own heart had been saying.”

There are a few poems, however, that I do allow to take up a larger portion of our class time, like Elizabeth Bishop’s “Filling Station.” First, I have the students read it alone. Then I have a few read it aloud. Then I share a recording of Bishop reading it. We talk about the poem’s rhythms, the arrangement of the words, and the speaker’s investigation of arrangements at the filling station. The students pull out alliteration and repetition of sounds, words, and images. We imagine the intentionality behind lines like, “…so that they softly say: / ESSO—SO—SO—SO…” We discuss how a new level of accuracy is reached through the decisions of detail within the poem than if the speaker had simply said, “Today I went to a dirty filling station.” The sharing of details opens a more thorough understanding of the situation. Facts are embedded in the pondering. Through a poetic imagining, we are brought closer to the truth of what is actually going on.

And then there’s that beautiful last line that we feel so kindly reaching out to us, “Somebody loves us all.”

When I play the recording of Bishop reading this poem for my classes, I am always tempted to skip her passing comments before and after. In the beginning she says, “This one will have to be changed, as you’ll see, somehow, I don’t know how, at the end, but I’ll read it the way it is now.” And then right after she reads the last line, “Somebody loves us all,” she says in passing, “I’m afraid that’s a wasted… (ha) no… (ha).” It’s not completely clear what she’s talking about, but you get enough of a sense to gather that she feels a bit silly about the end, particularly that last line. Perhaps as silly as someone might feel if, while arranging oil cans at an “all quite thoroughly dirty” filling station, she realizes she is taking the time to arrange the cans “so that they softly say: / ESSO—SO—SO—SO.”

Maybe Bishop didn’t like the way the last line or stanza sounded. Maybe it felt too clean. But I like it, and I need it to end just as it does. In the last two stanzas, there is a shift in focus. The speaker goes from describing the scene to wondering why it strikes her. What is she to make of it? “Why, oh why, the doily?” The answer to these questions, or at least the answer she manages to muster at the time, means everything. For me, her answer, to borrow a phrase from Christian Wiman, “brings a storm of peace.”

My familiarity with this poem has come from my determination to share it. I share it because of how it builds to that last stanza, that last line. And exposing it to others exposes it to me. Repeatedly. Carrying poetry around in my head helps me make sense of what is happening around me, and it is a welcome companion in my pursuits of clarity. So why, oh why, Bishop’s “Filling Station?”

“Oh, but it is dirty!”

When I realized my husband and I would need to separate and I would need to make a new home for my two daughters and myself, I knew I would have to find or create or claim or proclaim or reclaim beauty within dirty circumstances. I could not imagine this being possible. Beauty? In this mess? Nothing was clean or bright. All imaginings came covered in a “disturbing, over-all black translucency.” My thinking became crowded with questions like, “How does this work? How do I do this? Where do we live? On what do we sleep? And then what?” But I began searching for right choices, imagining options I could not see, and, day by day, I found answers to those questions. I found a safe apartment, and I got a good deal on two twin beds and one full. And my landlord, soft to my situation, offered me two weeks rent-free to prepare the place before moving in. I spent hours alone cleaning and planning and thinking, “What do I have to work with? What do I still need?”

Friends offered me sheets and towels. Neighbors offered me pots and pans. A parent from my daughters’ school brought me boxes and boxes of art supplies she’d found at a rummage sale, all practically new. My two brothers drove a moving van eight hours turned ten from Nashville, TN, to deliver some of my late grandmother’s furniture, which had been waiting in storage for someone to need. Also in the moving van were generous gifts from my mother. Soaps and chip clips for me, socks and fresh slippers for my girls. Why the soaps? Why the fresh slippers? Why, oh why, the chip clips?

When I finally brought the girls over to the apartment, it wasn’t ready. There was still a lot of work to do, but they could sense what I hoped it would become for them, for us. I was relieved by their excitement to join in and help with the planning and placement of things.

They both brought special items from the house they knew they wanted to have at the apartment: stuffed animals, certain books and toys, decorations for their room. Olivia included in her stash a straw cowboy hat which she wore as she toured the place for the first time. She let me know we needed hooks, “Lots of hooks, Mom. For hats and jackets and backpacks.”  She was very right. Mae brought a banner she’d made me for Mother’s Day earlier in the year. It had the word “Love” written in red with a thick, fat paintbrush. The “o” of “Love” was replaced with a red print of her left hand.

Together we debated where the banner should go. My room? The girls’ room? The hallway? No. Above the fireplace mantel, the first thing you see when you walk in the door? Yes. So that it can softly say to anyone who enters, “Somebody loves us all.”

Tasting Wonder

“Every real thing is a joy, if only you have eyes and ears to relish it, a nose and tongue to taste it.” — The Supper of the Lamb

I remember the cooking that defined my childhood. It wasn’t anything too extraordinary, but to me, nothing rivaled it. The reviving heartiness of Mom’s casserole and Sunday pot roast, the ecstasy of Dad’s grilled cheese, the comfort of Grandma’s desserts—these dishes forever left their mark on my unformed palate and soul.

I suspect many feel the same way. Our various cuisines, informed by family traditions, ethnic backgrounds, and the particularities of time and locale, form as much a part of our identities as our places of origin. Recalling these earliest experiences of food brings us back to a particular feeling, primal and vital, that is intimately bound up with childhood—a sense of wonder at an undiscovered world, full of new possibilities. It brings us back; or, rather, the past expresses itself again in the present. In such moments, I feel the immediacy of existence here and now, senses reanimated by memory.

Chef’s Table, a new Netflix-produced series from David Gelb (the man behind the 2011 hit Jiro Dreams of Sushi), elegantly captures this mood at the nexus of memory, creativity, and food. Unlike other food shows, Chef’s Table does not involve competitions, recipe demonstrations, or reality-TV drama. Instead, each episode of the series immerses us in the world of one chef, some internationally acclaimed, others in the early stages of their careers, but all captivating: Massimo Bottura (Osteria Francescana in Modena), Dan Barber (Blue Hill in New York City), Francis Mallmann (Patagonia Sur in Buenos Aires), Niki Nakayama (N/Naka in Los Angeles), Ben Shewry (Attica in Melbourne), and Magnus Nilsson (Fäviken in Järpen, Sweden). Breathtaking cinematography and dynamic music—notably Max Richter’s dazzling recomposition, or re-expression, of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons—complement intimate vignettes of work and personal life. What emerges is not a confusion of egotistical personalities, but a unified portrait of artistic endeavor, a kind of phenomenology of creativity.

Each episode of Chef’s Table offers a penetrating look at not only the person of each chef, but also at his or her distinct philosophy and underlying attitude toward food. It slowly becomes apparent, however, that food qua food, although essential (these are chefs, after all), is not the real subject of the series. It might be more accurate to say that the series uncovers each chef’s underlying attitude and orientation toward the artistic process, toward the act of creation itself. And while each chef surely has a distinct style, a particular interpretation of the problem of creation, there remains a remarkable unity among them in the conception of that problem: “How do I effect transformation? How do I make one thing another? How do I make the past present? How do I change the other through my act of giving?”

Dan Barber | Blue Hill at Stone Barns

For Dan Barber, an early proponent of the farm-to-table movement, the answer lies in the holism and simplicity of nature. Barber argues that the most naturally, ethically sourced foods—the greens that you can grow in your own backyard, the vegetables that Barber grows at his restaurant’s accompanying farm—are also the best-tasting foods. Local ingredients combat commercial agriculture’s sterilizing effect on food, which tends to strip away valuable nutrients. Intentionality and care make a particular food something to be considered, experienced in its full, true essence, rather than merely consumed. With enough work and education, with a constant questioning of our conventionally held attitudes and assumptions, one can build a virtuous cycle of sustainability, taste, and pleasure. Barber acts as a kind of Socratic guide and facilitator, opening people up to the possibility of a transformative encounter with a new way of eating and being.

Magnus Nilsson | Fäviken

Magnus Nilsson—head chef at Fäviken, a combined restaurant and lodge in an extremely remote region of Sweden—approaches cooking in a similar fashion. The staff at Fäviken, according to its website, “do things as they have always been done at Jämtland mountain farms.” As at Blue Hill, ingredients are sourced locally from the surrounding farmland. Traditional methods add layers of history and communal richness to the food. Because of the region’s harsh winter climate, the restaurant relies on ingenuity to maintain its localized vision; foods harvested in summer and autumn can be stored or preserved for months at a time, a process that brings out new tastes and qualities in them. Nilsson himself fishes for the selections of the day, and the menu varies depending on what he catches. All these factors work together to draw attention to the slow cycles of the seasons, of nature, against the noisy, breakneck cycles of the technological world. The place has a feel almost of a monastery. Secluded, perched high above the concerns of everyday life, it offers clarity and solace from the chaotic din below. People come here to be changed, renewed.

For these chefs and others in the series, a sort of cosmic unity, a harmony within oneself and with the world, forms the telos that principally guides their craft. Order and symmetry grace their dishes as well as their method. Food is merely the stuff, the means of this endeavor, not the form. The stuff might as well be pigment and canvas, or sounds and instruments. The more basic element, common to all artists, is the formal, physical reordering of that stuff into something else. By this process of transformation, new ideas, experiences, and possibilities emerge. What was once obscured is made visible; truth exists in the uncovering. And yet food is unique after all. It is meant not merely to be looked at or thought on, but ingested, literally made a part of us. Dan Barber’s dishes—whether simple, like radishes and other greens pinned onto a wooden display, or more complex, like humanely-raised veal wrapped in kohlrabi and coriander flowers—transform everyday ingredients into semi-sacramental objects, capable of reorienting us toward a new way of participating in the world. A carrot is no longer just a carrot, a mundane vegetable that, if we’re honest, is not terribly exciting. A carrot becomes something more, something that invites us to ponder, as one food critic put it, the “carrot-ness of carrot,” the depth behind the ordinary.

But a darker, more volatile strain of creativity also appears in Chef’s Table, one that comes nearer to Isaiah Berlin’s description of eighteenth-century German Romanticism:

“Creation was a most ineffable, indescribable, unanalyzable personal act, by which a human being laid his stamp on nature, allowed his will to soar, spoke his word, uttered that which was within him and which would not brook any kind of obstacle.

The chef in this conception is less a skilled master capable of dazzling transformations than a mad genius stricken by fate, doomed to suffer and create. The pursuit of art can be a curse, depriving one of family and friends. But one must pursue it. One cannot live in a world where one cannot create.

Francis Mallmann | Patagonia Sur

This Romantic spirit shows itself most fully in Francis Mallmann, an international chef based in Argentine Patagonia. A fitting epigraph by Blake welcomes us to his Instagram page: “He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence.” Mallmann is easily one of the less likable personalities on the series; while other chefs at least attempt to balance their work with families and spouses, Mallmann has a decidedly more pessimistic view of human relationships. His romantic partner, with whom he has an infant daughter, lives in another country, and he visits them a few days a month, because familiarity breeds contempt. A lifelong friend has developed other interests, and so Mallmann coolly decides he has no reason to speak with him anymore, because life is too short not to act on your own desires. But beneath his libertine, Nietzschean surface lies a powerful creative force fascinating to witness.

Francis Mallman

Mallmann occasionally entertains guests at his island cabin in Patagonia. To get there, one must travel hours by car, then an hour by boat, to the middle of a lake surrounded by the mountains that border Chile. Here, at the end of the world, Mallmann captures the essence of the land in his simple, rustic approach to cooking. Inspired by gaucho practice, he sears giant racks of meat over open wood fires and smolders vegetables in large pits. He utilizes the elements themselves—growing up, he says, “our house was ruled by fire”—creating a multi-sensory experience that puts the diner in the midst of nature. This carefully crafted mise-en-scène is an exhilarating, intoxicating brew. Mallmann plays the master of ceremonies expertly, leading guests to their own rapturous and solitary heights. After coming back down from the ascent, however, it is hard not to feel strangely empty. Freedom can be an alienating road.

Massimo Bottura | Osteria Francescana

Meanwhile, nearly 8,000 miles away in the ancient city of Modena, Italy, Massimo Bottura pursues his craft with a very different kind of vision. At his restaurant Osteria Francescana, currently ranked second in the world, Ezra Pound’s exhortation to “make it new” finds application in a culinary milieu. The “it” in this case refers to the traditional Italian cuisine that Bottura grew up eating, the tortellini and lasagna dishes of Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region. The youngest of a large family, Bottura remembers hiding under the kitchen table as a boy, seeking haven from his raucous older brothers. From this uncommon vantage point he discovered a new world. He would watch through a haze of flour as his grandmother hand-rolled tortellini for the family meal; at opportune moments he would even pilfer bits of the pasta, relishing the taste heightened by mischief and discovery. This dish impressed itself on Bottura so strongly that he has named it his “life plate.”

Bottura Sampler

Although Bottura has earned a reputation for avant-garde, often “irreverent” takes on traditional dishes in his insatiable desire to “make it new,” the image of the child under the table—a memory fusing taste, curiosity, culture, and family—signifies the primary feeling he wishes to impart to patrons of his restaurant. While Mallmann’s wild sophistication often obscures this childlike simplicity, in Bottura it shines forth with joy. His goal is to lead a person back to the spark of wonder that comes on the verge of the unexplored, to the startling shock of surprise at the familiar and unexpected placed side by side. (One of his signature dishes, “Five Ages of Parmigiano Reggiano,” incorporates five different ages and textures of Emilia-Romagna’s ubiquitous cheese. Alas, I cannot speak for its taste, but its charming presentation alone aroused my imagination.) In the end, Chef’s Table communicates this most persuasively: the mysterious and playful interrelation of senses, emotions, and memories which elevates eating from dull routine to sacred ritual.

Terroir and the Phenomenology of Place

Once a year at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, Image’s Glen Workshop gathers writers, poets, painters, photographers and artists to a place of respite, an extended Sabbath, where creativity is nurtured in the communal context of like-minded souls. As a child, New Mexico was that perennial escape from the merciless Texas summers, a land of enchantment where Franciscan monasteries and Native American folk art existed side by side. Returning to the Southwest on the mystic mountain drive from Albuquerque to the mile-high elevation of Santa Fe was a journey into my memory of a Georgia O’Keeffe landscape with coneflower blue skies and rugged land.

As an aspiring art critic, I was thrilled at the opportunity to spend the week screening films and learning more about wine and viticulture. Both seminars were phenomenological exercises in contemplation through visual and oral experiences, offering structured spaces to slow down and attend to particular artistic mediums, whether film or food. It was not until midweek that I attended the workshop on wine and spirituality with sommelier Adam McHugh from Santa Barbara’s Au Bon Climat winery. We began with rosé, not a White Zinfandel blush mind you, but a young French Mondeuse in a sparkling salmon hue reminiscent of a sumptuous Chloé gown. Next came a buttery Chardonnay, followed by an alluring Pinot Noir which interrupted my tastebuds with its balance and all-over silky body feel.

Similar to coffees, my earlier wine selections had been heavy-bodied, bold flavors filled with swagger and bravado, establishing a presence with little nuance. After working this summer for a handcrafted coffee shop in North Carolina, my knowledge of coffee expanded, mapping taste onto global regions. Formerly I had avoided lighter coffee roasts because I wanted a full syrupy body, such as an oily French Roast, that could carry cream nicely. But when I began drinking coffee black (blame it on David Lynch’s Twin Peaks), I realized that the coffee I consumed was like burnt baked goods and the wine I drank was reminiscent of arsenic. It was Ethiopian Yirgacheffe with its the floral, tea-like body, that seduced me with its nuanced and sun-warmed flavors. Likewise, it was that Pinot Noir that arrested my palette with those cherry flavors and velvety tannins.

The desert landscape and California wines were immensely pleasurable and they got better with every sip. Whirling the Pinot Noir round in my glass, watching its legs drip down the sides of the bowl, I perceived its variegated, ombré tones ranging from ruby to carmine, tilting the glass sideways to observe its clarity and density. Mindfully sipping and slurping, I measured its complex structure, viscosity, acidity, and its finish—absorbing all its sensuous and erotic materiality.

My mother has often called me a Pinot Noir. Perhaps made recently popular by its appearance in Alexander Payne’s film Sideways (2004), the main character Miles describes Pinot Noir as he might himself: “thin-skinned, temperamental, ripens early… not a survivor like Cabernet, which can just grow anywhere and thrive even when it’s neglected.” He elaborates that Pinot needs tender care in specific locations, only by the most patient and knowledgeable horticulturists. Yet the rewards are its flavors which are “haunting, brilliant, thrilling and subtle.” It was there in the wine seminar that the human qualities of the grapes and our own personality quirks and characteristics began to show themselves. McHugh, our resident sommelier, insisted that despite all its delicate and complex needs, if Pinot Noir finds the right terroir—it is beautiful.

Wine’s terroir attends to the specificity of a place, contingent on at least three variables: character, quality and personality. Character is the result of matured attributes in the land due to complex root systems, terrain and rich soils, ameliorated over time. Winemakers are responsible to maximize the quality of terroir by harvesting and aging the grapes according to what the varietal needs to showcase its peculiar attributes. Personality is contingent on the region’s day-to-day weather, giving each vintage distinctive characteristics. Thus terroir is the land’s archaeological memory, attesting to its history of cultivation through smell and flavor.

McHugh explained that wine’s expression of place is much like the color palette of landscape, recreating a sense of atmosphere. Just like Cézanne’s countless painted renderings of Mount Sainte Victoire and Monet’s Haystacks are not nearly as much about a photographic likeness (or mimesis) of a place as it is conveying the true essence, wine is an impression of the land in both mood and personality. What do these many dashes and strokes, sips and slurps evoke in us? A sense of how the light framed the mountain this day or emoted peach and cerulean sunrises the next?

It is the same with wine, in both its fragrance and tasting notes, from one year to the next. McHugh explained that the French organize their wines by region, unlike Americans who label by the grape varietal. In this way, the French allow the place—the terroir—to speak. Wine is the diplomat attesting to the subtitles from its soils through both taste and aromas. Are we listening and attending to what is speaking? Chalk, earth, wet stone, smoke, spice, currant? Minerality and woodiness or grassy and citrus?  Are these descriptions superfluous or do they seek to affirm that qualia of being—phenomenal properties of subjective experiences? The “thisness” or “thatness” of the wine (or coffee or color et al) make it different and unique from anything else. This grammar of description from conscious observation cultivates an awareness of what is already there and continually speaking. Perception is primary in our communion in and with the world.

Dust caked my sandals on the walk down from St. John’s College into town, passing adobe walls and turquoise doors, surrounded by lavender and cacti, Spanish gates and iron scrollwork—the aesthetics gems of the southwest. That crisp contracted mountain air, low-hung cottony clouds, the expansive horizon. As the films and the wine marinated my mind, I wandered in and out of contemporary art galleries, perused the open markets of handcrafted Navajo and Zuni Native American jewelry, on the hunt for that ever-elusive thunderbird ring. Quotidian New Mexican staples such as chilies, tequila and chocolate were a part of the daily ritual—whether it was Secreto’s añejo smoked sage margarita or an order of “Christmas” (green and red chilies) at Cafe Pasqual’s over huevos rancheros, or even at a visit to the Mayan chocolate shop Kakawa, for their exotic cacao elixirs. The spicy flavors and punchy colors animated a vibrant cultural energy in the historic mission town.

kakawa-chocolate-house

 

Walking up to Mass in the Saint Francis Basilica downtown, I thought differently about the wine I would receive in the Eucharist. The sweetness of the port served from turquoise and coral-graced hands before the wooden saint retablos felt simultaneously sacred and as ordinary as the wine I had sipped all week. I thought about monastic horticulture practiced by the monks in order to have elements for the sacraments that we had discussed in the wine seminar. I also pondered an aspect of keynote lecture given by Image’s Editor-in-Chief Gregory Wolfe when he discussed the intrinsic relationship between horticulture and the liturgy of the Mass. When the gifts of bread and wine are brought before the priest in the Great Thanksgiving, he noted, it is significant that they are not merely grain and grapes. Rather, it is the work of human hands to transfigure harvested elements into staples of gastronomic sustenance, which are in turn lifted up and confected as Christ’s body. This moment called the “confection”, is where the art of our making and divine transformation meet, and in turn, states theologian Henri de Lubac, the place where “confection in the Eucharist makes the Mystical Body—the Church.”

Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis d'Assisi: Photo by LeRoy N. Sanchez

Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis d’Assisi: Photo by LeRoy N. Sanchez

After these workshops on the material and spiritual richness of wine and food, one might find it odd that the Eucharist appears so meager, so sparse. During one of the afternoon faculty workshops, professor Lauren Winner read from her recent book Wearing God: Clothing, Laughter, Fire and Overlooked Ways of Meeting God on discovering abundance in the simplicity of the Eucharistic meal: “Some days I wish our Eucharistic meal in church were a bit more like a real meal, thick slices of focaccia and glasses of cabernet. But I have come to appreciate the small wafer, the small sip of wine. In the Holy Eucharist, we take a miniature sip of wine and a small bite of wafer, and we call this God’s abundance. I believe by regularly proclaiming that God’s abundance can be found in something small, we are gradually retooling our understandings of what is truly necessary for life.”

Part of the Glen experience is a finding a new conception of plenty through subtlety, remembering to taste and see alongside others. It offers space that the self needs in order to become what it was intended to be. Like Winner’s essay of finding God in artisanal bread and wine, the Glen extends that discovery to chilies and tequila, coffee and chocolate, film screenings and wine seminars, all acting as participatory exercises in relishing delight, wonder and excess. By becoming attentive to the world around me, I fundamentally encounter Being.

In The Zen of Seeing, Frederick Franck names this “an unwavering attention to a world that is fully alive…a direct perception of and insight into the presence, the transiency, and the finitude I share with all beings…a fleetingness that makes this moment infinitely precious.” By learning to savor what is ephemeral, I behold life’s impermanence, and its evanescent flashes of beauty. Observing and absorbing these many saturated yet elusive moments, I acknowledge the sheer gift and divine miracle of being awake.

Moments such as the evening golden hour when Tom and Alissa Wilkinson, Adam McHugh and I sat witnessing the mountains and sagebrush awash in soft dusk tones, the sunset light cutting thru our glasses with its coral hues, incandescent sweat running down the bottle—a rosé-colored lens of the world. As the August monsoon weather shifted its moods into a light rain, I sat unmoved as the droplets increased and distant lightning scampered across the desertscape like an Ansel Adams’ photograph. Those unfolding moments attested to the richness of the southwest terroir, a memory of friendships newly formed and of wine’s intoxicating warmth. Each bottle of Pinot Noir I continue to open will remind me of the New Mexican mountains during that octave of dreamy summer days; its taste arousing me to be gloriously and deliciously alive.

Perec in Purmerend

The stream seems like something that could have only begun as a joke, but in fact, it didn’t. The webcam which streams a roundabout in the sleepy suburban town of Purmerend in the Netherlands came to life as an internet connection test: was it possible to stream high-definition video live over the internet? The answer: a resounding yes.

But it must have quickly turned into a joke. When the stream was recently pulled offline, many people complained. Some said they watched the roundabout several hours a day and that it provided them with some much-coveted peace of mind. Whether the joke consists of actually watching the footage or merely claiming to do so, I’m not sure. All I know is that it intrigues me.

Watching the stream, I am reminded of Georges Perec, the French novelist who once sat in the window of the same café for one long weekend to observe a small Parisian square. He published the results of his little experiment in a small book entitled An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris. Reading the book is a bit like watching the roundabout: throughout most of the text, Perec semi-hypnotically enumerates the buses and cars that pass him by. “Why count the buses,” he starts to ask himself about half a day in. He answers:

“Probably because they’re recognizable and regular: they cut up time, they punctuate the background noise; ultimately, they’re foreseeable. The rest seems random, improbable, anarchic; the buses pass by because they have to pass by, but nothing requires a car to back up, or a man to have a bag marked with a big M of Monoprix, or a car to be blue or apple-green, or a customer to order a coffee instead of a beer…

In Purmerend, you can see just that. Every passing bus is strangely pleasing, because yes, they punctuate time, they reoccur like clockwork, but there is always the notion in the back of our heads that the system is kept running by bus drivers, ticket takers and passengers—humans. The pleasure is in the realization that this could almost just as well be a five-minute film incessantly looped, yet decidedly isn’t.

I decided to do to the roundabout what Perec did to the square; a kind of stake-out observation. I lasted about thirty minutes, if that.

Yet in that half hour, I did pick up on some patterns. Pizza couriers, hurried as they generally are, break the geometric mode of curving around the centre by shooting almost straight across the roundabout, tightly skirting and sometimes traversing the heightened middle section. I noticed that the text of the road signs in the centre of the roundabout is just too small to be legible, which could be considered an incessant taunt, but in a way strikes me as just perfect: it retains the roundabout’s right to be any roundabout in any place. Perec noticed something similar:

“By looking at only a single detail, for example rue Férou, and for a sufficiently long period of time (one to two minutes), one can, without any difficulty, imagine that one is in Étampes or in Bourges, or even, moreover, in some part of Vienna (Austria) where I’ve never been.

But the main reason I stopped my experiment short was, I’d like to think, more profound: Perec’s point was to observe everything. No matter how insignificant the place and no matter how meaningless the exercise, his stake-out would at least be perfect, a complete encapsulation and observation (at which, by the way, he fails bitterly: “even when my only goal is just to observe,” he notes, “I don’t see what takes place a few metres before me: I don’t notice, for example, that cars are parking”).

My fascination with this webcam, on the other hand, stems precisely from the opposite sentiment, the idea that everything occurring before my eyes is utterly mundane, and ephemeral. Nothing matters, so nothing has to be registered. In fact, this opposite view, and this whole situation, the live stream and my observation of it, were anticipated in Don DeLillo’s 2001 novel The Body Artist:

“She spent hours at the computer screen looking at a live-streaming video feed from the edge of a two-lane road in a city in Finland. It was in the middle of the night in Kotka, in Finland, and she watched the screen. It was interesting to her because it was happening now, as she sat here, and because it happened twenty-four hours a day, facelessly, cars entering and leaving Kotka, or just the empty road in the dead times. The dead times were best.

I don’t know if the Kotka live stream really existed back then; if not, the passage is strangely prescient. It goes on:

“She sat and looked at the screen. It was compelling to her, real enough to withstand the circumstance of nothing going on. It thrived on the circumstance. It was three in the morning and she waited for a car to come along—not that she wondered who was in it. It was simply the fact of Kotka. It was the sense of organization, a place contained in an unyielding frame, as it is and as you watch, with a reading of local time in the digital display in a corner of the screen. Kotka was another world but she could see it in its realness, in its hours, minutes and seconds.

At a certain point—I am writing this while casting nervous glances at the screen, which is inexplicably hard to ignore—a woman on a bike, with a girl on the rear seat, rides straight onto the middle platform of the roundabout, does two, maybe three laps, then dives off it again. Over the next few minutes she reappears episodically, entering the screen from different angles, striking different trajectories, almost as if she was airbrushing us a message.

She must have been aware of the webcam, which went viral several weeks back. Her entrance is like a snap of the fingers breaking a spell—the Kotka spell. What her action breaks is “the circumstance of nothing going on.” It turned simple observation—a scarce commodity online—into the now ubiquitous act of performance.

Within this small world of the roundabout, this place “contained in an unyielding frame”, that act was akin to a revolution. I want to bring it back to the screen, but of course can’t, and I am struck by this inability. Everything that appears in video on the screen these days, whether live or not, is captured, catalogued and retraceable. This is not. It is ephemeral; a normal state in the real world, yet a bizarre fact online. It was, unsurprisingly, also DeLillo who once wrote that “if a thing can be filmed, the film is implied in the thing itself.” Perhaps the great thing about this live stream is that, bar the girl, film does not seem implied in it. It is, indeed, simply the fact of Purmerend.

The difference between the video, which can endlessly be replayed, and the live stream, which is always one thing, always the present, always simply the fact of what it is, is like the difference between Perec’s cars and buses: the live stream passes by because it has to pass by; yet the video can back up, can break the ceaseless punctuation of time. In another paragraph from The Body Artist, DeLillo nails this inevitability of the live stream, dubbing it “an odd and hollow urgency”:

“She set aside time every day for the webcam at Kotka. She didn’t know the meaning of this feed but took it as an act of floating poetry. It was best in the dead times. It emptied her mind and made her feel the deep silence of other places, the mystery of seeing over the world to a place stripped of everything but a road that approaches and recedes, both realities occurring at once, and the numbers changed in the digital display with an odd and hollow urgency, the seconds advancing toward the minute, the minutes climbing hourward, and she sat and watched, waiting for a car to take fleeting shape on the roadway.

Turn the stream into a video and this urgency disappears. A video, any video, could never be an act of floating poetry. In the technicalities of its recording and in the inevitable circumstance of determined frame following determined frame, it loses precisely the ambiguous qualities of the poetic. Instead, the stream is more like Magritte’s famous pipe: not simply the fact of Purmerend, but a video of a fact of Purmerend. Nobody wants to look at that.

Life at Keleti Station

Andrew McCall Smith notes,

“Regular maps have few surprises: their contour lines reveal where the Andes are, and are reasonably clear. More precious, though, are the unpublished maps we make of ourselves, of our city, our place, our daily world, our life…our personal memories, that make up the private tapestry of our lives.”

In my own map of memory, one particular set of coordinates—the Hungarian train station, Keleti Páyaduvar—cracked and reshaped my understanding of neighborliness.

Keleti Station and its relentless surge of refugees took the front page of the New York Times in the last few weeks. As I flicked through the slideshow of photos, the picture transported me into memory and the next thing I hear is the melodious ding of the train and then the sonorous Hungarian admonitions of the loudspeaker. The mechanical letters flip rapidly to spell the names of destinations and places: Belgrade, Split, Salzburg, Pécs, Bucharest, Lujubjana, Bratislava, Berlin. Tourists mill about with hiking boots dangling from their oversized backpacks; others travel with a guitar and seemingly little else.

As the commuters, holiday-makers, and ticketed wanderers venture beyond the gates, I turn to the front entrance, opening the door with it Art Deco swirls and slipping outside. For me, the real life of Keleti is beyond the station’s steps, with the people who do not have outbound tickets. The indoor rhythm seeps out of the doors, promptly lost amidst the mechanical swoop of halting buses, the hawking of unregulated street vendors, and the chatter of the streets. I take a seat on the steps of the station, observing the unfolding patchwork of city life. Buses lurch along their pathways; the yellow tram pulls away gently. A tangle of streets converges at the station, ushering in people from every corner of the city. As I consider the scene, rooted to the steps, it begins to dissolve and then rewind, shunting me back through memories compounded by months’ worth of twice-daily walks past this particular corner of the world.

Pedestrian traffic is thick—a convergent mess of people in transit. Contrast the long, purposeful strides of the people with somewhere to be with the still points in the scene—the people who stand still amidst the crowd, with nowhere particular to go this morning. Directly on the train station steps, two characters reminisce over vodka long before lunch. They watch the rest of the world march by with equal measures hilarity and jadedness, everything tinged with lament. Nearby, a disfigured man sits with one hand open guarding a carefully rationed bag of McDonald’s fries. He never speaks but his eyes seem to be always open, hard under a dirty blue cap. At the fringes of the square, gypsies set makeshift stalls selling a motley of goods—sometimes belts and undergarments, peppers and tomatoes in spring, even SIM cards. As commuters march straight past, the swinging lilt of a persistent sales pitch follows them.

The man with a mop-like dog stands defiant somehow among the crowd. If the dog has eyes, they can’t be seen through his matted hair. Similarly, the man’s eyes are half hidden by a bush of hair, at least until I look him squarely in the face. Then, one of his eyes focuses on me, and I can see his face clearly for a moment. He mutters perpetually, and sometimes I catch words the way he catches raindrops in his outstretched cup. Most often, I hear “Isten” (God) shuffled in with other undecipherable Hungarian words. As memory and time lapses, the muddy rain creeps gradually up the dog’s fur until his creamy coat is a new shade of brown.

I weave my way in and out of this scene every day for months—a stranger among strangers. Keleti taught me to look the outskirts of town squarely in the face. The beggars and panhandlers, constant islands in swirling traffic, undid my presuppositions about what cosmic accident landed me among the societally mobile. Keleti stands irrevocably in memory as the place that violently cracked my juvenile understanding of justice and drove the real questions deeper—what is it to be a stranger? Who is my neighbor? Where is Christ here among the desperate vendors, the harried commuters, and aimless wanderers?

Hungary recently found its cacophonous answers to those questions on public display. As refugees pour over Hungary’s borders and into their train stations, the response to the stranger becomes a question of international stability. Like McCall Smith’s public map, the headlines show the gamut of responses to the refugee crisis in Hungary—on the one hand the irrationality and callousness of a barbed wire fence and streams of water flowing across blistered feet at the train station on the other.

Keleti taught me that the public map is actually a complex compilation of private unpublished maps. A national response to a crisis is not a one-time occurrence; instead a stance emerges from the dozen intertwined decisions and attitudes we take towards our neighbors every day. At this microcosmic, personal level, I remember a ragtag Baptist church nearby throwing open its doors and ushering in a group of gypsies for regular Sunday feasts. I remember a group of Neo-Nazi teenagers hazing any gypsies unfortunate enough to be caught in their wake. Somewhere in the middle of that spectrum of courage, I remember simply passing by my neighbors every day, rarely speaking, only sometimes daring to lift my eyes to meet theirs. My silly fear of being followed half a block by an insistent woman hungry for coins waving a pair of underwear at my turned back kept me from knowing my neighbor, let alone loving my neighbor. With the ruts we trace along the daily commutes of our unpublished maps, we choose our own isolation or daring feasts.

If a Tree Falls

There’s one perplexing philosophical dilemma that continues to vex scientists, philosophers, and people  who live under giant sequoias. It is:

If a tree falls in the middle of the woods and there’s nobody around who can hear it, does it make a noise?

The question, of course, refers to the nature of observation: how can you “look“ at something with your ears? It seems like a stupid thing to do. Try it with an eye chart. It doesn’t work for me, but maybe I’m missing something. The question is also about the nature of sound: is it composed of particles which exist independently, or waves which need to be received and interpreted by the arts critic for the New York Times? I know: it’s one of those annoying, esoteric late night dorm room questions without an answer. Or is it? This is the 21st century, right? As a society, we know so much more now than when the question was originally posed by my roommate Matt in 1991.

A quick check of Wikipedia shows that the question was possibly posed before 1991, maybe even centuries before. See? We have technology! We can find stuff out! Which is why recently, I set out to solve this riddle.

My first approach was to try the most direct method possible: leaving a tape recorder in the middle of the woods. If I went back and saw that there were trees that had fallen to the ground, I would simply play back the recording to see if a sound was made. I couldn’t believe no one had ever thought of this before. I figured two weeks was enough time to leave the recording device there.

When I went back, my recorder was nowhere to be found, because the entire area had been turned into luxury condos. Pretty nice ones, too, with stainless steel appliances, granite countertops, even a rooftop pool and a dog run. But regarding the experiment, not very helpful. Maybe our fast-moving 21st century world was actually going to make this harder, not easier.

My next thought was: are there people who have first-hand experience with these types of philosophical riddles, and can I learn anything from them? For instance, there is another age-old Buddhist question: What is the sound of one hand clapping? My next approach, then, became obvious: I would seek out one-armed individuals and have them clap for me, and see what I could learn.

These people were easy enough to find, but totally uncooperative. They didn’t clap for me, and most of them showed me another kind of hand gesture which, although not technically making a sound, still spoke to me in a loud way.

So, that led nowhere. But I liked this angle, though, of trying to apply learnings from other related philosophical riddles. Maybe personal interviews were not the method to accomplish this. Maybe it was the internet. So I set aside several hours to learn as much as I could online about Schrodinger’s’ cat. Do you know what the concept behind that is? I’ll explain it to you:

Ha ha. Admittedly, I never got far on this one. Have you ever looked up anything about cats on the internet? Right. What even happened to those six hours? Let’s just say it’s a good thing Socrates and Descartes didn’t have the world-wide web. I bet we’d never even know who they are today.

Clearly I had to be more innovative in my methods. I asked myself: how do you get information out of people? Of course: incentives! You know those restaurants where if they don’t give you a receipt, your meal is free? I could try the same thing. I printed a large sign that said “IF A TREE FALLS AND DOESN’T MAKE A NOISE, YOUR NEXT MEAL IS FREE!” I don’t know what kind of food trees like, but that was putting the cart before the horse: if a tree came to me demanding a meal, then that would definitely tell me something. So I set the sign in the middle of nearby woods and waited.

When I went back approximately two weeks later, I found that the whole area had been made into luxury condos. Are you kidding me? Maybe the bigger philosophical question is: is there any place in this country that isn’t being turned into luxury condos?

Now I was frustrated and desperate. My next tactic involved the opposite of incentives: threats! I went out walking until I found a recently felled tree and I dragged it home, where I had created a makeshift interrogation room. Why not ask the sucker directly, right? I didn’t get very far before the tree’s attorney, Gloria Allred, called me to tell me that – maybe the tree made a noise or maybe it didn’t, but I’d never know unless I was prepared for a lengthy court battle. How. Hard. Could. This. Be?

Could it be that it was all just a trick question? There’s an old joke that goes like this:

A: How far can you walk into the woods?

B: I don’t know. All the way?

A: Nope. Halfway. After that you’re walking out of the woods.  

Was it possible that there’s no such thing as the middle of the woods? That it was a fictional place like Atlantis or Beverly Hills? I put on my hiking boots and thought about going on an expedition to find the exact middle of the woods, but I stopped before I ever got outside. I was afraid this whole exercise was a trick to try to get me to buy a luxury condo. I wasn’t even gonna go there.

I had basically given up on my quest to solve this ancient metaphysical puzzle. And then one day I was in a Starbucks, enjoying the complete silence inside the coffee shop, when I realized – it’s not silent at all in here. They’re playing Coldplay on the stereo system! How long had I been listening to Coldplay and not noticing it?

That’s when it all came together for me. What if sound is just like Coldplay? What if sound is a pleasant enhancement to your world when you’re paying attention, but is generic enough to virtually disappear when you’re not? What if sound is socially reserved because it’s British? What if sound recently broke up with Gwyneth Paltrow and is just trying to find its way in the world again?

Suddenly, I could relate to sound. I still don’t think I understand it completely, but I felt like I knew it a lot better than when I started this journey of discovery. I was willing to say “I feel you, mate,” and let sound have some privacy for a little while. It was a satisfying enough result for me. That is, unless it tries to reinvent itself and start writing Broadway show tunes or something. Some things I will never, ever understand.