What the Dickens is going on here?

Hey Drew,

Is it me or has this gotten to be a really long century already? Barely a dozen years into it and I’m exhausted. Dispirited even. As a more modern Dickens might have said: “The season of light, this ain’t.”

The wars, the environmental catastrophes, the wild stallions of unbridled greed. The self righteous barf coming out of every self serving jackass for whatever the moronic cause of the moment happens to be. TV talking heads pushing divisiveness like it’s ice cream. The reactionaries. The holier than thou hypocrites. The willful ignorance. The lambs and their slaughter. The liars and their willing minions. China and Russia. Again! The Mideast which, by the way, I’ve been sick of at least since Raiders of the Lost Arc.

And then there’s genocide. I mean, you would think we’d of had about enough of genocide but it remains as popular as ever. It’s kind of the default bottom rung along with sexual slavery and kidnapping for body parts. You’ll be gratified to know that there is an official list of world problems (suitable for framing) and that those little gems all made the cut.

The list of the Top Ten Problems of Humanity for the Next 50 Years reads like a David Letterman top ten monologue of the apocalypse. The list is as follows:

Energy

Water

Food

Environment

Poverty

Terrorism & War

Disease

Education

Democracy

Population

Genocide

Other Atrocities (e.g., trade in women and children for sexual slavery, or kidnapping for body parts)

Weapon of mass destruction (nuclear proliferation, chemical weapon proliferation, biological weapon proliferation

Transnational organized crime

The single word entries are by qualified scientists unassociated with any partisan think-tanks or groups with a name that ends with the word “Institute.” The intensely verbose entries are by “The High Level Threat Panel of the United Nations.” Typical of decision making by consensus. Everybody in a group effort wants to get credit. Whatever is gained by overall consent (if not exactly agreement) and the resolution of objections, is bought at the expense of brevity.

Admittedly this list is more than ten and, ok, it’s a combination of a few “Lists of 10” but that just goes to show you how discombobulated we are as a species. No doubt, there are plenty of animals that foul their own nest but I’m pretty sure we’re the only ones that have a real good look at the pile and then sit back down on it.

And its not like I’m a big news hound. I’m informed to the point of worry but ignorant enough to avoid being paralyzed with fear. I like to think of it as a balanced approach that favors sanity. And, in any event, I don’t believe my hand wringing changes anything about the forces in play. Still, I resent the partial reporting of news and how it has become a way of leveraging offscreen private interests. It’s little wonder that people like their tranquilizers. I want to be tranquil too but I think drooling is unattractive.

Did you know that Americans eat about 25 million Percocets and Vicodins a day? Over 244 million narcotic prescriptions a year? Holy cow! No wonder we can’t get off the couch. It’s a testament to our boundless stamina that we can even operate the remote. But that doesn’t explain or excuse Ranch Dressing flavored Doritos. Caffeinated candy bars, Torture, Tilapia, Fried Twinkies, Corporate Hegemony or Low Carbohydrate Beer.

Thankfully there is an explanation. My dad is presently a day older than god. But back when he was in his sixties and between marriages he had a girlfriend. She was a prominent doctor at an important teaching hospital in Philadelphia. She was super smart, attractive, caring, worldly, affectionate and willing. Unfortunately she also reminded him of his own mother so the relationship was doomed. Nevertheless, she had a wealth of clinical experience and she understood all these trends. Her insight was as follows: “95% of everyone is an asshole.” Assuming for the moment that I am in the 5%, who am I to argue?

I don’t watch television and I haven’t in many years but it is almost all anyone talks about anymore. Maybe that’s not true where you work but it certainly applies to the pudding-heads I’m mixed up with. Don’t get me wrong, they’re a great bunch of guys but they think that TV is real. They think watching television is an activity. Like playing tennis or reading or going for a walk. And I suppose it is an activity if you take out the active part. From their conversations, it sounds to me like going to your job and having some network air the results is now cause for celebrity. Hell, you don’t even have to go to work. I’ve heard them talking about celebrity video gamers, celebrity card players, celebrity eaters, celebrity adulterers, celebrity driving, shopping, dieting and dancing. Those last two, you can have separate or in combination. Aren’t those things we already do ourselves? You know, except for the adultery. That’s always someone else. Just ask the moralists.

For many people, life has become a spectator event. Safe at home, life has been outsourced to onscreen professionals. But to hear tell it, they don’t do any better of a job than we do. Often times not even that good; and that’s saying something.

Add it all up and it just seems like this is the worst of times.

And you know what? We already know what’s going to happen for the rest of the century. Do we really have to slog through the particulars? Way hotter, lots of extinctions, rising sea levels, mass displacements, environmental degradation, overpopulation, famine and wars. Lots of wars. Wars for resources, civil wars, culture wars, holy wars. Pretty much wars for war’s sake.

I guess you can see where I’m heading with this.

I say no!

Let’s not bother. I’m ready to move on to the 22nd century right now. Who’s with me?

History only looks linear because we’re standing at the end of the line. I say let’s break the line. Let’s put an end to the tyranny of chronology. The narrative is ours to arrange, or rearrange, as the case may be. Historians and pundits do it all the time. Let’s take the present and just push it into the past. Let’s allow the glorious past to become the future. And let’s take hold of that shining future and make it our magnificent splendiferous present.

Genius right?

Ok, so let’s take a look at some long term predictions about the 22nd century and see what “far, far better things” we have to look forward to.

……Oh my! That’s not good.

You know, I was talking on the phone with my mom today. She has a new hip and its working out great. And as I sit here on my sofa, writing on my iPad, drinking fair trade coffee with the smell of bread baking in the oven, the kids evolving around me and my wife tossing me a wink, I suddenly realize what they mean by the duality of life. Yes, spring came a month early this year. It is worrisome! But the flowers are lovely.

I guess when Dickens said “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” he had a good reason for putting it at the beginning of the story. It’s the beginning of every story! It is the human condition. Every moment in history can be characterized that way. There are surprises in store but there are no endings. And as the cheat sheets remind us:

There is a constant tendency toward violence and oppression.

There is always the necessity of sacrifice.

There is the ever-present possibility of renewal and redemption.

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Palm Reading

Palm Beach is not a place that invites comparison. It is not a place that makes you think of other places.

It might be a place that other places makes you think of, but no place comes to mind.

The basic components are the same as any beach; sun, surf and sand, but here, even those few elements mess with your expectations.

The sun is sharp, the way it is at high altitudes where the air is thin. But of course the air here is heavy with water and the essence of plants. Like a character in a movie it seems to be more itself than it is in reality.

The sand is not so much pulverized stone as it is finely crushed coral and shell; ground down so fine that it fools your toes. It takes me four days to realize this and only after having built multiple sand castles with my three little guys and digging countless holes looking for sand crabs for them. I don’t find any but on the fourth day a fellow walks by with a five gallon bucket half full of them. Like in their hurry to avoid me they all jumped into his pail. It feels a little personal.

I have also been digging up dozens of Burrowing Crab holes that have not once yielded a crab. On our last day, I run into Mr. Sand Crab again. It is he who actually tells me the holes I’ve been digging up are Burrowing Crabs and he says he sees them all the time. He’s starting to get on my nerves. I’m also beginning to think this beach is deliberately toying with me.

And then there’s the water. I give up on the water. Twenty years working on the water; high water, low water, slack water, up and down twice a day but this tide is a mystery to me. Each day the ocean seems to choose a tide it likes and it stays at that level all day. I’ve never seen anything like it.

We are three families on vacation with five children among us; guests of old and dear friends. The kind of friends that cannot be made after a certain age. I don’t know if it’s the shared battles of youth or the constraints of adulthood but the depth of feeling, of trust, is not possible after a certain age. Once you know who you are it isn’t possible to know other people in the same way.

On our last morning, looking out on the Atlantic, there was a low water calm and no breeze to speak of. I went about gathering mask and snorkel and boogie board and set out upon the quiet sea to discover… whatever.

As I wade into the surf my feet press down on the mortal remains of countless sea animals deposited over tens of millions of years. I walk out about ten yards, lie on the boogie board face down and paddle. The bottom gives way to nothing but rippling sand for a long while.

The optical properties of mask and water make it appear that I am in just a few feet of water but putting feet down to test for depth I am unable to find the bottom. I let go of the boogie board and plunge headlong into this other atmosphere. The bottom is a foot or a yard or a mile away. However near or far, it is beyond my reach. I return to the boogie board and resume my effort. I paddle for what seems like quite a while but time, like distance, is difficult to gauge on the water where no reference points exist.

All of a sudden I see a silver fish and then many and within a few minutes I am floating over thousands of them. Big and small but all appearing to be the same. Herring I’m told; slowly swimming and as calm as the rippling sand. I look down on them the way aliens must look down on us, with detached amusement.

My mask, pink and perfectly fitted to a ten year old girl, is slowly taking on water. I lift my head to clear the water and have a look around. Calm sea. No indication of what lies beneath the surface, beneath my dangling feet. Hidden yet totally exposed. Head down and there they are completely out in the open. Head up, gone. Down, up, down, up. These two worlds spanned by my body and by my attention. My head in the clouds the earth far below my feet and me suspended like a hopelessly undereducated astronaut.

Tomorrow I will be back in New York at work and I will open the paper and find a picture of a twelve year old boy smiling next to the carcass of a 551 pound Bull Shark caught at Palm Beach. It will be declared a state record besting the previous carcass by more than 30 pounds. But that is tomorrow.

Today I am far out in the water off the beach. It seems probable that one of the boats that I can see from my low position in the water is the one carrying the boy to his inevitable destiny. He doesn’t know that he is heading toward the shark. The shark doesn’t know that he is heading toward the boy. And I certainly don’t know that I am likely swimming between them.

Each of us has a date with death. This boy will be the agent, the proud agent of this sharks demise. It makes me think how odd it is that we picture the grim reaper as a tall, cloaked and hooded figure, quiet as the grave. It is not so. Each of us is the agent of death for each of the other. Sometimes it is in one great struggle. A struggle that may be going on even as I am afloat in the warm waters, face down, immersed as I am in this cradle, swimming with the fishes. But more often I think that we are each, incremental slayers of each other. It is no one great battle but a thousand skirmishes that does us in. As the father of three boys I say this with a lot of confidence; the devil isn’t in the details, he’s in the other room fighting with his brothers.

Returning to the house, the villa, involves a transition from the beach through green gardens that surround it. Gardens that include a private nature trail. A description of its lushness seems pointless. I’m not that articulate. Take my word for it, it’s lush. Really, really, lush. The owner, father of our hostess, is a self described “frustrated architect.” He is also an accomplished amateur landscape architect and collector of exotic plants. The house, private apartments arranged around a sliced coral courtyard and fountain is all white columns and tuscan terra cotta roof tiles. The rest is greenery.

It’s on the beach but nestled in among the palms and aloes and whatever else you call these shady cool bushy broad leafed things and in this it is unusual. You might say that its most prominent feature is that it’s concealed.

I’ve been up and down this beach and every house, great or grand, palatial or simply extravagant, is fully exposed. Some beyond great incongruous lawns, others right on the beach but all with a pornographic full frontal quality; “Hi. my name’s Lance. What’s yours?”

But this house, this restrained house wrapped in its protective gardens appeals to the blend in, assimilate, stay below the radar jew in me that has I’m sure, to some extent, made me uncomfortable with aggressively promoting myself. On the other hand I haven’t had my village burned recently so survival-wise it seems like the way to go.

That of course is not a problem that the owner of this place suffers from. Yet the place definitely says something about the man. He has carefully and shrewdly guided his legacy, the family business. He has made it into a giant, privately held corporation that you very likely never heard of.

In this house we are not so much guests as we are a group mingling around food and drink, pool and beach, reading, music, talk and quiet.

There is no timeline and no schedule. Nothing seems imminent. We are each moved as movement dictates. We are somewhat amoebic in our integrations and disintegrations.

We are all, in our middle age, bonded in our common sense of leisure. There is no other agenda and nobody has anything to prove. We are each ourselves within our capacity to be ourselves. We are all comfortable with quiet. The lack of entertainment affords unlimited opportunities to notice the minute details of pleasure; small scenes, textural contrasts, atmosphere.

The young are, as ever, immune to pleasure confusing it as they do with excitement. But I have no old man’s lament about youth being wasted on the young. For although I was young once, and wasted, now I see it as each according to his ability.

Unbelievable but True

Hey Drew,

I’m gonna let you in on a little secret. I know the meaning of life. That’s right! The número uno of the big three existential questions. The other two being, is there a god and what’s for dinner. Pretty cool huh? And surprising coming from me, right? I’ll tell you what; I was surprised too. Not because I don’t believe I’m smart enough or old enough or worldly enough; I’m passable on all those counts but because I hadn’t known it was really and truly available and, I think this is key, I hadn’t really cared. Why should I? Why would anyone? It’s a cotton candy question. All fluff, no substance and it attracts pests.

Okay, so lets get clear that we don’t want this investigation into meaning to devolve into a messy debate about related questions. Questions like: Does anything matter? Does anything have intrinsic value? Is there good and evil? The answers to those are No, No and Yes, but only relatively speaking.

Also

What is the meaning of life?

Is not

What is the meaning of my life?

Everyone is self centered, so the one is often standing in for the other. The answer to What is the meaning of my life, is simply, how the hell should I know? What am I, a mind reader? That’s your problem. But in the big picture the answer is nothing. Individual lives have no meaning in the big picture. Of course, ultimately even the big picture has no meaning in the big picture but let’s focus. Think of the millions who died during the reign of the Black Death. A full third of Europe. I’ll bet you can’t name one of them. The event, en masse, had far reaching consequences. It truly changed the history of the world. Lives were lost, families were destroyed, wealth and power shifted. The ensuing labor shortages alone changed the dynamic between an idle elite and the peasantry that supported them. It changed the way businesses did business. But the individuals, their sufferings and their heroics, they are forgotten, lost with no effect. It was the aggregate depletion of humanity that bore the meaning.

Even the greats, Caesar, Hannibal, the Khan’s (Genghis and Chaka) Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Roosevelt, Gandhi, Einstein, Cher; they were smart, talented opportunists who were good at what they did. People care but history doesn’t. The world is full of people who are good at what they do. The names are incidental. The greats were just good at what they did at a moment when the doing needed to be done. I don’t want to minimize great achievements but If those individuals hadn’t been there, someone else would have done the doing, or not. Probably differently and still we would view it all as inevitable. Manifest destiny. The forces at play are all so extraordinary that they seem to demand meaning but that is a human issue, an issue of brain architecture. Looking for the pattern. We are pattern recognition machines and we will find patterns. Period! The greats, giants though they may be, were just in the right place doing whatever it is that they did best when the historical imperative coughed them up. Events demanded that a person fill a vacuum and voila Jerry Lewis.

Jerry and the rest may have changed the course of history but they didn’t stop history. The arrow of time continues, the end will be the end and the cosmic difference will be zero.

Additionally, this is not a philosophical discourse. I know that in the wrong hands a conversation like this can easily slip into an argument about semiotics and religion and Hegelian something-or-other until all sides end up either in armed conflict or fast asleep.

That’s what makes me so perfect for the job. I don’t know the first thing about that stuff. Syntactics, semantics and pragmatics are words that I didn’t even know until just now when I looked up semiotics. I even had to spellcheck most of that last sentence. So, not withstanding that I don’t know anything about philosophy, and a whole bunch of other stuff besides, I have the mind of a scientist. Unbelievable but true. I rely entirely on observable phenomenon and cool word play. If it involves a willingness to believe in something without a shred of evidence you’ve got the wrong guy. Quoting proverbs and muttering affirmations? Pardon me while I flatline. When people like that tell you they have the answers (and they tell you that constantly) it’s only because they haven’t bothered to ask any questions.

Finally, and most emphatically, this is not a self help tract. That would require an altruism that I do not possess and an interest in people that is as foreign to me as uninterrupted sleep and disposable income. It would also require a conviction in my cause that in itself would be cause for suspicion. There is no end to the self help books that will tell you how to create meaning in your life. I don’t read that crap. Its very existence as a genre is a backwards pointer towards meaninglessness. It creates that which it proposes to subdue. Which is not to say that I couldn’t write a manifesto.

Like the expanding universe we create meaning as we go.

As with relativity, the meaning we create exists only in contrast

to the other meanings surrounding us.

These other meanings have a dampening effect or an amplifying effect

depending on how they resonate harmonically with our meaning.

Meaning resonates with other meaning not only in its immediate

vicinity but across great distances.

Distances in both space and time.

See? Anybody can write that stuff. And you know what? People will pay for it no matter how convoluted. In fact, the weirder the better. Look at any religion. People of faith are tied together by their mutual willingness to believe in absurdly implausible creation myths. Once you’ve got them to jump through that hoop the rest is easy. Then you just tell them stuff they already know and they think you’re a genius.

Don’t kill each other

Don’t steal anything

Stop lying for one minute would ya?

Don’t take more than you need

Don’t curse around your mom

Wash behind your ears

Give a guy a break

Don’t let your jollys get the better of you

Eat your veggies

Have a nice day

Bound by this common leap into the ridiculous, faith offers the ultimate in self help. Just replace your problematic self with a standardized template of preordained behavior. And, of course, follow the leader. Deeply fascist but then there’s the promise of rich rewards down the road. So far down the road that you actually have to be dead to collect. What a load of shit. If my business plan was to borrow your money, promise interest compounded daily until the day after you expire and then sell stock in this venture I would be locked up forever. Unless I called it insurance. Either way it’s a Ponzi scheme. Just another yellow brick road with a promise of safe passage at the end.

Okay, so the key to unraveling the meaning of life started with a mundane event. Of course. Your not going to find something really important in a situation that is screaming “Look, Look”. We reserve those moments for commercial activity. No, the really important stuff is found just sitting there. Out in the open. It looks like everything else because it is everything else. It looks like something that has been discarded because it has been discarded. It looks worthless because it is worthless. It all started because the dog wasn’t feeling well. I can tell when she isn’t feeling well because she pants and paces around. Also because last night she soiled the rug in a Saint Valentines Day Massacre of shit. I’m a light sleeper so tonight her pacing and panting downstairs wakes me enough to do the calculation. It’s 3:20 in the morning. Do I want to get up and walk her or do I want to clean and mop the floor when I wake up for work in an hour and a half? After the walk I lay back down and let my mind wander.

There are other things I never cared about besides the meaning of life. For instance, I never cared where I lived even though I grew up in a large beautiful house surrounded by horse chestnut trees. I never cared what I wore, though I had parents who were happy to dress me any old way I wanted, on no notice at all. I suspect they didn’t care about clothes either. I never cared what I ate though my mother is an excellent cook. When we were growing up we would always tell her that she was the best cook in the world and we really meant it.

Aren’t those supposed to be the basic elements of survival? Food, clothing and shelter? And I never cared about any of them. And you know, I have to ask myself, Why is that? The answer could be that you don’t have to care about things that are present but invisible. Invisible because they are a given. As adults we are led to believe that we are masters of our own destinies. But as children we recognize our situation, whatever it is, as a given. That’s why it’s hard to get people to care about the air they breath. Until the air becomes visible as a hazy green monster of smog it’s just a given. When millions of people are having trouble breathing, then and only then do we ask ourselves if maybe air is important. The very euphemism, trouble breathing, seems crafted to minimize the worry factor. Trouble breathing? How many steps are there between trouble breathing and not breathing. I count one. I suppose we could throw in extreme distress but that’s really parsing things. Still, I’m feeling generous so let’s say two. We live in cities where we are routinely two steps away from expiring from the air.

So meaning is like air in that respect. When it is present, it is invisible. We notice it by its absence. We notice it by its corruption. When life fails to be meaningful we struggle, as if for breath. We are launched into crisis or its contrasting equivalents; melancholy, weariness, apathy, ennui; fast food, popular music, television and shopping; alcoholism, drug addiction, lechery and extravagance. All the awesome stuff! Bacon should be in there somewhere. Candy too. But you can’t build a life around it anymore than you can build a meal out of candy wrapped in bacon. And believe me it isn’t for lack of trying.

It’s important when talking about big themes in few words to make sure we understand exactly what each word means. I failed philosophy twice in college so believe me, I know.

“The Meaning of Life”

only has two words that need considering; two words that may help point us in the right direction.

Life is the easy one. That one doesn’t need elaboration. If you are alive you know it. You may feel numb, detached and indifferent, apathetic and dispirited. You may feel dead and describe yourself as such but only live people do that. Only the living feel dead.

The meaning of Meaning is, according to dictionary.com, “the end purpose or significance of something.” Right here it seems like we run into a problem because the end purpose of something is not knowable until after its end. Often well beyond its terminal limit. And until a moment becomes historical it is really beyond accurate evaluation. Still, meaning need only satisfy the beliefs of the individual in the moment. The sense of doing the right thing while being in the right place at the right time. And that may tell us something because we can’t choose our time and as a rule we do what we believe is correct. It is not rare for people to be deceived or deluded, stupid or selfish. It is not rare for people to be pompous, egotistical, shitheads but it is the rare person who deliberately does the thing that they themselves think is wrong.

So, if time is not of the essence and, in a subjective way, we know right from wrong, that leaves only one variable. Place. I don’t want to go too deeply into this for reasons that will become apparent but it would seem that meaning is not a what; it’s a where. Meaning is not a thing, it is a place. And we’re not talking about a metaphysical place as in:

“My head is in a good place, man.”

We’re talking about a location, an actual spot. If you’re sitting at the counter at the Soul Spot on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn you are, without a doubt, standing in high cotton. If you’re right across the street at the Dept. of Correction’s, Brooklyn House of Detention, you have most definitely left your cake out in the rain.

From this we can conclude that where you are is where you’re at.

So the question, What is the meaning of life? is really the question Where is the meaning of life? And this is great because I really have it wrapped up here. And when I say here I really do mean here. I am standing in the epicenter of life’s meaning. You should see it. If I didn’t already know it I never would have guessed. Because the only indicator is my presence.

So you see I really do know the meaning of life but it would be pointless to tell it to you because you’re somewhere else and so is everyone else. But take it from me, it doesn’t make a bit of difference. It changes nothing. I had it right from the very beginning when I said I didn’t care because, Where is the Meaning of Life is not a question, it’s a statement.