“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Monday, July 21, 2014

In the Crowded Moment atop the Fire Wave

Emily had continued ahead of them all along the trail until she was out of sight. Steven had fallen behind, likewise now occluded by the towering red wall of rock. He was sure for a while after he began following Stacy that Steven would be coming along. But when he stepped up onto an escarpment and climbed a ways to a higher vantage he looked and saw no one on the trail behind him. The way Emily plunged forth with no concern for keeping apace the rest of the group and the fact that now Steven was showing a similar disregard gave him the sense that some deadly tension was building between them. But, then, hadn’t they been like this for as long as they’d been together? He turned and continued along a route above the sandy track on the rock surface, thinking of the rough-grained unyielding folds as ripples caught in some time-halting spell as they oozed along, the lower tiers melting out from beneath those stacked above, the solid formation melting from the bottom up.  

            Marching at a pace to overtake Stacy, he watched the dull blood-stained bands of the undulating sandstone pass through the space immediately before his feet and thought of Darwin striding across the volcanic rock surface of an island in the Galapagos, Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology still resonating in the capacious chambers of his dogged mind, the sense taking hold more solidly that the solid earth beneath his feet had once been, and may again at any moment be, a flowing emblem of impermanence. Later, when the Beagle docked in Chile, the coast only hours before blasted by an earthquake and subsequent tsunami, Darwin, stepping onto the rocky shore, smelled putrefying fish. The quake had lifted what had moments before been seafloor up into the open air, and, seeing the remains of all the stranded marine creatures, he suddenly understood the provenance of the fossil shells and crustaceans he’d found high in the mountains, thousands of feet above sea level.

            A hundred and fifty years later, it seems like such a simple deduction. To advance our understanding of geology or evolution today, he thought, you would have to be much more subtle than that. And yet, he wondered, how many people think of moments in history, the earthshaking conception of earthshattering theories, as they traverse rock formations like these? What do most people think of when they’re walking along this trail? He looked up and saw how the distant mountains bursting up into the sky gave scope to the vast distances, making of the horizon a symbol of the tininess of these individual human bodies tossing imperceptibly about on the tide of eternity, precipitating a vertiginous dropping away of identity, obliteration before the shock wave of detonated timescales.

             Stacy and Emily were still far enough ahead, and Steven far enough behind, that he had the trail to himself. Darwin just isn’t relevant to anyone, he thought. The concentrated heat of the toppling afternoon sun was momentarily chased over the corrugated sandstone by a chill. You can live your whole life, he thought, be moderately happy, and never have to think of evolution or geological timescales even once—hell, you may even be happier that way. And you, he thought to himself, you may have a type of passion teachers think is just delightful—until you let it loose to savage their own lessons. But most people, most of the time, would rather not have to take anything that seriously. Examine the underpinnings to a point. Allow for doubts and objections to a point. The point where having to think about what it could mean isn’t as exciting as it is scary. The way you do it makes people uncomfortable. It made your ex want to kill you.

            He had the thought—before deciding that he wouldn’t be thinking about her anymore this trip—that his ex couldn’t make that final compromise. Whatever disagreement they’d had was years past, but, even though her ability to articulate what this insurmountable barrier in her heart consisted of went no further than “I can’t forgive you,” even though she’d meet the idea with her own detonations, he knew that last unbudgable bit of incompatibility, the ultimate deal-breaker, had everything to do with her gathering recognition that their two worldviews, once so distant, their separate territories so fiercely guarded, had moved steadily closer over the years—and it wasn’t his that was undergoing the displacement. She needed that one refuge of holding out. So I got to be right, he thought. But what’s it worth if I’m alone? And anyway, much as everyone assumes the contrary, I could give a fuck about being right.

            Then there’s Stacy’s easy social grace—masterful really. She has a fine sense of everyone’s perspective, an impressive memory for everyone’s preferences, and, when in doubt, she simply fills the void with the surging energy of her character. Her charms are even such as can accommodate the intensity of his skepticism and passion for science’s refining crucible. What would she be thinking right now? Where she’s going to live in the coming weeks? Whether she’ll be able to find a job in Charlotte? How much she’s going to miss the poor boys she drives so crazy? Or maybe she too is wondering how the rock came to have such clearly demarcated bands, what accounts for the red hues—iron?—and what it means that our human lifespans scarcely even register on the timescale of geology. As vivacious and loquacious as she is, she’s always had an impressively developed inner life. Still, he remembers her nudges under the table that first night he was in L.A., debating with her friends during their apartment gathering about the virtues, or lack thereof, of SSRIs, those nudges which effectively said, “Don’t do that now—don’t be you,” though that last part was more in keeping with what his more recent ex might’ve said.

            As he covered more distance yet failed to overtake the women ahead of him on the trail, he felt increasingly and pleasantly placeless, but the discomfort at leaving Steven behind for all this time began to disrupt the flow his thoughts. Still, he assured himself, it isn’t like any of us will have the chance to pop over again some other time. Steven could’ve come along; it isn’t my responsibility to make sure no one gets stuck waiting for the others—a task that between them Steven and Emily seemed to be going out of their way to make impossible. His mind went back to the party, to Corina, the pretty blonde, talking about how people give her directions out of Compton whenever she drives through to meet with the troubled teens she tries to help. He scanned his memory for evidence that she was offended or unsettled by anything he said. No, she was incredulous—how could someone say antidepressants don’t work? It was such a foreign idea. But she seemed to enjoy grappling with it, batting it back. She seemed exhilarated to be in the presence of someone so confidently misguided. And fine, he would have said, let’s see how far down the rabbit hole you can go before you start to panic. No, he decides, it really is bullshit, all that about me hurting people. The worst that can be said is that I ruined the mood—and even that isn’t true. If anything, I brought some unexpected excitement.

            When he first stepped into the apartment and was introduced to Corina, he put some added effort into answering the question about what it is he does in Fort Wayne, setting his current job within the context of his aspirations, perhaps making it seem more exciting than it really is, as if it were just a way station along the path to his career as a novelist. Speaking of your occupation as a vocation, telling a story about how you came to do what you’re doing and how it will lead to you doing something even more extraordinary—it was something he’d ruminated on as he made the trip westward. All the strangers making small talk on the planes and in the airports, and that question, “What do you do?”, so routine. One or two words couldn’t suffice as an answer. The two words may as well be, “Dismiss me.” Telling a story, though, well, everyone appreciates a good story. You may forget a mere accountant, or programmer, or copywriter, but everyone loves a protagonist.

Maybe, he thinks now, you can do something similar when it comes to your beliefs and your way of thinking and debating and refusing to shy away from disagreements. Present it in the context of a story—how you came to think the way you do—with a beginning, middle, and end.

He imagines himself on a first date saying, I always talk about the importance of science, and I feel it’s often necessary to challenge people on beliefs that they’ve invested a lot of emotion in. So a lot of people assume I’m heartless or domineering—that I get off on proving how smart I am. The truth is I’m so sensitive and so sentimental that half the time I’m disgusted with myself for being so pathetic. If I’m calculating, it would be more like the calculations of someone with second degree burns lowering himself into a tub of ice water. That sensitivity, though, that receptiveness, it’s what makes me so attentive and engaged. I go into these trances when I read or even when I’m watching movies or shows. People are impressed with how well I remember plots and lines from stories. People in school used to ask how I did it. There wasn’t any trick. I sure as hell didn’t apply any formula. I just took the stories seriously—I couldn’t help but take them seriously. The characters came across as real people, and I cared about them. The plots—I knew they weren’t real of course—but in those moments when you’re really into it, they’re real in their own way. It’s like it doesn’t matter if they’re real or not. And that connection I have to novels and shows, you know, it’s like in school they try to tell you that’s not how you should read and they tell you all this bullshit about how you’re supposed to analyze them or deconstruct them. All I can say is when I realized how utterly fucking stupid all that literary theory crap is—it was like this huge epiphany. I felt so liberated. And today a lot of the arguments I get into are with people who want to take this or that writer to task for some supposed sexism or racism, or for not toeing the line of some brain dead theory.

            But the other part of it is that I still remember being sixteen and realizing that the Catholicism I was brought up with was the purest nonsense, nothing but a set of traditions clung to out of existential desperation and unthinking habit. What made that so horrible for me, again, was that up till then I had taken it so seriously. I wasn’t a bible thumper or anything. But I prayed every night. I really believed. So when it came crashing down—well, I can’t describe how betrayed I felt. I remember wondering why no one tried harder to get at the truth before they all conspired to foist this idiocy on so many children. The next big disillusionment came when my friends and I started watching the Ultimate Fighting Championships. At the time, I’d been taking tae kwon do and karate for over four years in a couple of those strip mall dojos MMA guys talk about with such disdain these days. Watching those fights, guys actually going in there and trying beat the shit out each other, I saw—even though I admit it took me a while to accept it—most of the stuff I’d been learning so assiduously all those years was next to worthless. It was like, oh well, at least you learned some discipline and stayed in shape. Yeah, but I could have been learning muay thai or jujitsu. The thing is, when you go in for this type of nonsense, it’s not just your thing. It affects other people. Religious people teach religion to their kids. They proselytize to anyone who’ll listen. Those charlatan karate teachers, they take people’s money. They give them a false sense of control—not to mention wasting their fucking time.

            Then there were the two years in college when I had my heart set on being a clinical psychologist. At the time, everyone just knew childhood trauma was at the root of almost all mental illness. I listened to that Love Lines show on the radio where Dr. Drew and Adam Corolla interrogated the women who called in until they broke down and admitted they’d been abused as children. Then, the summer before my senior year, I start digging into the actual science. Turns out the sexual abuse everyone is so sure fucks kids up for life—its effects can’t even be distinguished from those of physical abuse or neglect. There’s almost no evidence that those childhood traumas lead to psychological issues later in life. Repressed memories? Total bullshit. If you think you underwent some process of recovering long-forgotten memories of sexual abuse you suffered as a child, what you were really doing was going through a ritual induction into a bizarre, man-hating, life-ruining cult. And I was graduating from college at just about the time in the late 90s when all the false accusations and wrongful imprisonments were coming to light. Oh, and did I mention that the first girl I fell in love with—the woman up ahead of me on the trail right now—I couldn’t touch her for years because I was so worried about the harm it might cause, that lost time of my late teens and into my twenties. My mind so full to capacity with all that ridiculous feminist pseudo-psychology.  Instead of coming on to her, I waited for her to initiate, and she wondered what the hell was wrong with me since all the while I kept insisting I didn’t want to be just friends. Oh, the awakenings I had in store, rude and otherwise, when it came to women and desire.

            Then there was a brief flirtation with new age ideas after I took a course on Religion and Culture where the teacher assigned the fucking Celestine Prophecy as a text book—and she treated all the claims as if they were real. Luckily, Carl Sagan’s Demon-Haunted World was recommended by one of my anthropology teachers, so I read it soon afterward. I wanted to leave a copy in the Religion and Culture teacher’s mailbox. Sagan’s book was what showed me, not what ideas I should believe in, but how I could go about finding out which ideas were most likely to be true. That book changed my perspective on society and conventional wisdom in general. I think most people assume if a bunch of teachers tell you something and if enough people believe it there must be something to it. But some ideas, most ideas, sometimes I think nearly all ideas but a precious few are just plain wrong no matter who or how many people believe them. What I couldn’t have known then is how much that kind of thinking would alienate me.

            He stopped, having arrived at the top of a large rise which dropped off precipitously before him. He chuckled, thinking, yeah, maybe you better not say all that on a first date. Looking across to another, somewhat lower rise, he saw Stacy leveling her iPhone for a picture. Two tall and slender women, attired in form-fitting apparel like Stacy’s, were likewise taking turns getting pictures of each other on the various peaks and mounds. He watched the girls, turned back to the jagged mountains on the distant horizon, like the spine of some scarcely corporeal monster cresting the surface of a sand-crusted sea, the air separating the countless miles as perceptibly invisible as the freshly polished crystal of a priceless timepiece, and he thought about how hospitable all the world has become to us humans. Without the cars and the roads and the ready stores of water, this desert would appear so differently to them. In all likelihood, they would even lose something of their humanity, becoming vicious to adapt to the precariousness and harsh brutality of a less trustworthy denizenry.

            He imagined roving bands of Native Americans, then government-sponsored cavalries, cowboys, thieves, marauders, so many varieties of deadly men, barely human. We’ve had to build up, on such a flimsy foundation, a space for men to be more civilized, more peaceful, less desperate. And somehow what we—or our forebears, also mostly men—created has succeeded to such a stupid degree we take it enough for granted that whole schools of thought have grown up to lament the evils of civilization. The truth is, before civilization came, as civilization was still busy coming, there was probably enough bloodshed in this region that the pink of iron glowing in these seasonally layered bands under our feet may have leeched into the rock after leaking from the endless variety of wounds sustained by human flesh.

            Looking over the rim of the bulging rock, he saw it rolling away severely to reveal a drop of several hundred feet. And he was surprised to realize, for the third time in two days, the instinctual anchor preventing him from taking a step, and another, toward that abrupt curving back and away of the rough surface, it had either vanished or simply never existed. He felt his weight pulling against the spongy grip of the soles of his shoes while his breaths continued slow and his heart beat softly on. It wasn’t until turning back to check once again if he could see Steven from this elevated vantage that he felt an impulse to back away from the downward curve. If he was to let himself fall, he’d only do so eyes forward.

            Self-conscious now, he glanced about for Stacy and the handful of other people milling about the outcroppings, nestled pockets, and rolling protuberances of ancient rock. What are we all looking for in these travels and treks to otherworldly places? We’re looking for inspiration, calling forth moments, invoking the powers of transcendence, pushing ourselves forward into what we hope are those periods of our lives when it seems like we’re finally becoming who in our dreamlife hearts we always believed we would be. Set the world alight with enchantment and endless possibility. And we’ve all had those experiences where we’ve met someone, or undertaken some project, or set off to some faraway destination—and all our lives seemed in flux and we were moving at last toward that state of being when we could relax, be ourselves, but work and strive meaningfully at the same time. Usually, though, we miss them. The quake’s upheaval threatens more than it promises. We can’t appreciate these periods in our lives while we’re living them because we’re still caught up in the time and the transformation that occurred previous to this one. Attachments are like habits that way. You could wait till the end of time and they’d never extinguish on their own. Your only hope is to replace the old ones with new ones. But since no love you have can ever match the poignancy of the loves you’ve lost, no civilization lives up to the golden accomplishments of the one that’s vanished, you live looking back, boats against the current and all that. Or, knowing all this, you wait. And you look out. And you wonder all the while if there’s something more you should be doing to bring about that next period of becoming who you are, worrying that you may have already used up all the ones you had coming.

            He walked down the rounded surface, on the side he’d come up, feeling purged, emptied of some burden of long-accustomed ache, as if it had drained from his blood into the banded stone beneath his soft-soled shoes. Drops in time, echoes like living breathing beings, the absent people in our minds. Exes, old friends, Darwin, roving bands of savage men—they have life, existence independent now from the bodies housing their own autonomous searchings and wanderings. Their echoes forever pull and impact us, scour our flesh and turn us inside out—flaring with the red heat of rage and longing and protectiveness and abandonment and loss. These emotions they call forth with their spectral gestures, their faces, their words, they never cease, even with physical absence. Each prod, each tug, each blow gets recorded and replayed forever, the dynamic of our interactions carrying on even when we’re alone, drowning out all the other beckonings at the doorstep of our hearts.

            “Where the hell is Steven?”

            He looks up from where he’d been searching for footholds to see Stacy startlingly close to where he’d finally landed two-footedly in the sand. “I don’t think he’s coming.” His felt snot wetting his mustache, the unaccountable allergic outflow that had been plaguing them all for the past two days. “He’s really missing out.”


Also read: The Tree Climber

And: Waking Up a Completely Different Person: From "Dr. McAdams' Method"

And Encounters, Inc.

No comments: