Mean Something

All my anecdotes over twenty years of poor writing conclude with overwrought sentences of revelation and/or triumph. Scroll through the archives here and you can witness me try repeatedly to extract a profound conclusion or seismic change from stochastic tribulations. And so, I find my writing style to be annoyingly egocentric, and incompatible with a change in my philosophy, one that bends toward though hasn’t arrived at, nihilism.

Our human brains want, they thirst for, they need these confusing events of our lives to mean something. All of the restrictions, the death, the uncertainty, stress, loss, awfulness of the 2020 pandemic must mean something, right?


Well, no.

This human problem is not new. Here’s David Hume, summarizing Epicurus from, like, 2,300 years ago:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then from whence comes evil?

So let’s sidestep the Epicurean theology and try on a grossly simplified premise: bad things happen for no reason. It’s hard to accept, isn’t it? Part of you rejects it at face value. But you MUST grapple with it before you decide to take it as true or build up a giant, complicated worldview rejecting it.

What’s more, serious trouble arises when we try to make all the bad stuff mean something.
Step 1: something bad happened.
Step 2: let’s make it meaningful!

It can’t always be done.

Cognitive dissonance clouds our thought when we retell the story of ourselves to ourselves by basing it all on a manufactured, post hoc dramatic plot line. Things stop making sense when we constantly fight to force the main character (inevitably, ourselves) to emerge stronger from every vicissitude.

Bad things happen all the time. They happen to good people. They happen for no reason. Then, nobody learns anything or becomes any better whatsoever after they happen.


If I had any kind of advice to myself (is that even a thing?), I guess it would be this:
Imagine the arc of your life takes place on a small boat. Not like dinghy small, but also not a giant ship with its own center of gravity. A bit smaller than one of those fancy yachts where you can distract yourself from the fact you are on the open sea. On this boat, you always know and feel the swells of the ocean. The boat’s passengers are you and those you love. You can turn the screws, tack a bit in one direction, try to catch a current. Maybe you will. You know small changes now create big, unknowable changes later. You also know how small and vulnerable you are out on the open ocean.
You know you could exhaust a lifetime of energy planning and tacking toward a current you hoped to catch.

These days I’m having trouble thinking that tacking and planning are particularly important. My instinct says they are, but my logical brain says they aren’t. Sometimes one wins. Sometimes the other. The thing is, my loved ones are right there on the boat. I drag them with me when I chase currents. I suppose we all do.

So I feel something akin to acceptance of the vastness of the ocean rather than a resignation or succumbing to Fate.
All is big, we are small.
There are costs to trying to do things, and problems thinking we can do everything.
There are problems thinking we can do nothing.

To return to the Greeks: via media, I suppose.

Economic levers

Jason Koebler, writing at Motherboard:

We have been told for decades that the banks and the people who work at Goldman Sachs and Fidelity and hedge funds none of us have ever heard of are smarter than us, that they deserve to be rich, that they should be the ones who pull the levers on the economy, that they should decide which companies are good and which are bad, that they should be the ones who help make financial regulations. All along the way they have gotten fabulously wealthy and we have been stuck with stagnant wages, record consumer debt, and financial advice that tells us to wait until we are old to retire.

Does this overstate the case?

I do not think this overstates the case.

The Inciter-in-Chief

David Remnick at the New Yorker, of course:

Once the Capitol was cleared, the solemn assurances that “this is not who we are” began. The attempt at self-soothing after such a traumatic event is understandable, but it is delusional. Was Charlottesville not who we are? Did more than seventy million people not vote for the Inciter-in-Chief? Surely, these events are part of who we are, part of the American picture. To ignore those parts, those features of our national landscape, is to fail to confront them.


I’m glad this year is almost over.


“There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.”

— Desmond Tutu

Art and Craftsmanship

The Proper People summarize yet another expedition into a crumbling, roughly century-old building:

One reason I love this power plant so much is because there’s no reason it had to be built with all these intricate details and grandiose architecture. It’s just a power plant, after all; all it had to do was create electricity. I think that demonstrates a fundamental change of philosophy in the way we construct the world around us.

To me, the world is feeling more and more disposable. Everything is created as cheaply as possible, and it is simply a means to an end. But, when Port Richmond station was built, the builders thought they were constructing something that would serve future generations for centuries, and when we’re creating something permanent, it’s only natural for us to want to inject art and creativity and craftmanship into it. It’s part of what makes us human — and that’s what lacking from so much of what we build today.


In the style of Glennon Doyle…


There’s a time in your life when you’ll be striving, reaching, seeking. Every new subject, every new interest, every new person will crackle with the possibility of sparking and bringing alive a part of you that you didn’t know existed. It’s the kind of ride you’ll know you’re on when you’re on it. It needs no label. And what’s more: by definition, you’ll enjoy it. It feeds the ego. For most, it occurs in late teens, early twenties. For some, it’s delayed by loss but ignites later in life, when there is time and space. For still others, tragically, it never happens.

You’re going to go go go. You’re going to push push push. You’re going to do things, that, when you look back on them, seem superhuman.

Fire burns hot, but it consumes. You’ll burn days, nights, entire semesters, money, connections, friendships, loved ones, girlfriends, boyfriends, with fire. And you must, because you’re forging your tools, and you are casting the alloy of your Self.

You’ll be burning fuel — how much do you have? How much time, how many friends? Don’t throw everything in; this needn’t continue forever. Because after a fire, you build.

To grow a garden, to go out and pull the same weeds and add the same water each day, trading your time, your boundless possibility, for the kind of hope for gentle weather that a gardener must have — that’s building. To have a child, to change the same diapers and make the same food, trading your time, your boundless possibility for the kind of hope for a gentle universe that a parent must have — that’s building. The plant grows up, the roots grow down, and building requires a commitment to sameness that you must freely choose. Only if you wish.

Know when you’re burning, and know when you’re building.

Principle over Privilege

“I must honestly confess that I go through those moments of disappointment when I have to recognize the fact that there aren’t enough white persons in our country who are willing to cherish democratic principles over privilege.”

— Martin Luther King, Jr., Anaheim, 1968

“We were partially liberated and then reënslaved.” Although black people had been fighting for freedom “for more than a hundred years,” the only thing that was “explicitly certain is that the struggle for it will endure.”

— Martin Luther King, Jr., Carnegie Hall, 1968

“Perhaps even more than the death itself, the manner of his death has forced me into a judgment concerning human life and human beings which I have always been reluctant to make,” [James Baldwin] wrote. “Incontestably, alas, most people are not, in action, worth very much; and yet, every human being is an unprecedented miracle. One tries to treat them as the miracles they are, while trying to protect oneself against the disasters they’ve become.”

All of these, from Eddie S. Glaude, Jr.’s piece The History That James Baldwin Wanted America to See at The New Yorker.


I just said this tonight:

“Essie, I’m going out to vacuum the gutters, and I want you to have your jams on when I come in.”

And I have never sounded more… ADULT… in my life.

Honestly, if you had told me seven years ago I’d be talking about pajamas and gutter vacuuming, I’d have said — whose pajamas, and I don’t have any gutters NOR any interest in gutters. Life moves pretty fast.

Wesley Lowery and James Baldwin

Wesley Lowery writing at The Atlantic:

The power that is American policing has conceded nothing. Black men and women are still dying across the country as police unions continue to codify policies designed solely to shield their officers from accountability—such as rules ensuring that officers who kill can’t even be interviewed by investigators about it until their victims have been dead for days.

In the days since one of their own killed George Floyd, many American police officers have shamelessly brutalized the protesters whose chief demand is that the police stop brutalizing people.

James Baldwin, Down At the Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind:

A child cannot, thank Heaven, know how vast and how merciless is the nature of power, with what unbelievable cruelty people treat each other.

The universe, which is not merely the stars and the moon and the planets, flowers, grass, and trees, but other people, has evolved no terms for your existence, has made no room for you, and if love will not swing wide the gates, no other power will or can. And if one despairs—as who has not?—of human love, God’s love alone is left. But God—and I felt this even then, so long ago, on that tremendous floor, unwillingly—is white. And if His love was so great, and if He loved all His children, why were we, the blacks, cast down so far? Why?

Something very sinister happens to the people of a country when they begin to distrust their own reactions as deeply as they do here, and become as joyless as they have become. It is this individual uncertainty on the part of white American men and women, this inability to renew themselves at the fountain of their own lives, that makes the discussion, let alone elucidation, of any conundrum—that is, any reality—so supremely difficult. The person who distrusts himself has no touchstone for reality—for this touchstone can be only oneself. Such a person interposes between himself and reality nothing less than a labyrinth of attitudes. And these attitudes, furthermore, though the person is usually unaware of it (is unaware of so much!), are historical and public attitudes. They do not relate to the present any more than they relate to the person. Therefore, whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves.

Baldwin, again:

I cannot risk assuming that the humanity of these people is more real to them than their uniforms.

The brutality with which Negroes are treated in this country simply cannot be overstated, however unwilling white men may be to hear it.