The Loud Thing Quiet

Unquiet has crept into the warp and woof of my daily sensibility. Disquiet, perhaps. Restlessness in conscience.

I have settled firmly into middle-age. It began five years ago, on my fortieth birthday, when, just as my elders predicted, my eyes began to shut down. Let me qualify that: I still have perfect vision, 20/20, clear as Burl Ives’s Lipton Tea, up until about four feet in front of me, and at that distance coming in, I emit high-pitched yelps to determine location and motion.

After a period of mourning, I made my way to the local apothecary, made visual contact with the proper aisle from the doorway, then, as I approached the reading glasses section, I slowed down, the weight of middle-age anchoring my every step. Youth stood somewhere outside, waiting for the next gust of wind to carry it away. My hand reached out, fumbling for a pair of reading glasses, any pair that I might hold up to my eyes so that I could read the advertised power of magnification on the various offerings of the entire inventory of reading glasses. I found a pair which suited me practically: very narrow rectangular glasses over which I might peer at recalcitrant students. I scowled in the mirror at the sight: reflected back at me was an adult version of myself. Then, without having to move my feet, I reached over to pick up a bottle of analgesic (heh: he said “anal”), and I began to read it.

For the first time in a considerable number of months, I felt joy, and it was the joy of relief, for I could read once more, and I could read without suffering. The lights in the building suddenly flickered, and as I looked up, I heard a sudden gust of wind, a short, fresh breeze, and then it was gone.

reading glasses rectangle

The preparation of youth to ride on the career arc is a preparation filled with anticipation, a sack of doubts enclosed each by a little plastic egg of knowledge–Knowledge–the ground upon which we tread in order to shuffle around on this groundless mortal coil. Indeed, youth does somehow blossom, as experience teaches us failure and success, more or less, for some more or less than others, the pink blossoming yielding to rich green, perhaps a little money in the bank, a spouse, a house, a bigger apartment on the way to a suburban home in which to continue growing and prospering. The early stages of prosperity is our obsession, and our minds are ever fixed upon it. The first whispers are heard but not heard.

It is all for nothing.

“I am rising in my field of expertise! See, I have established myself! Even failure is a learning experience, a temporary setback, a springboard from which to leap up and forward, wiser, craftier, warier.”

The birds of the air and varmints of the earth find the fruit of your vine to be very sweet indeed, and free. New York State grins, saying, “Thank you very much.” The Treasury Department of the United States scowls, saying, “You should be grateful we leave you anything at all.” You find yourself thinking forbidden conservative thoughts, but you comfort yourself, saying, “‘Tis libertarian, dammit, not conservative.” As soon as you think those thoughts, the institutions which preserve for you a modicum of happiness and comfort approach, hat in one hand, other hand outstretched, eyes low, “Please, sir, your children thus benefit.” And you put money in the outstretched hand, and a little more in the hat.

It seizes you, the loud thing, shouting when you try to sleep, “IT IS ALL ASHES!”

“No, no. It is sweet fruit of my labor. I taste a little bit of it; it tastes of prosperity, of longevity, of fortitude! See? I can see it! I have reading glasses now!”

ASH!

Breath quickens and labors, the fruit of which is open eyes, aching shoulders, crazed twilight fantasies of an arc which is pointed downward. What seemed a gentle grade yielding after a length of time to the end of it all has steepened dramatically, ending in a sucking maw.

“Father. Husband. Vocation. Avocation. Citizen. They’re going to take it all away. All of it.” These are mere offices, at that, without any inherent malice in and of themselves; they represent how we even awaken to the rising sun.

The coil of mortality tightens ever so. It is the loud thing, sending whispers over every single thing you propose to do.

The mediocrity I can live with; the general futility troubles me greatly. I thought I was pursuing him, but it is not so; he has only waited for me, and I am his. I thought I would advance some ideal, even in mediocrity, just pushing the thing forward infinitesimally, along with all my peers, in the right direction, but there is no pushing the thing. It is ephemeral, a cloud, a deception, not even a coherent dream. It is, indeed, an arc which ends in utter meaninglessness. Why do we percolate so?  Why do we puff ourselves up over accomplishment? Why do we think we can see what is right before us?

helenkeller

Helen Keller

Yet we say to ourselves: isn’t life so much better? See these graphs! Poverty is being eradicated the world over! But to what? Toward a sun which will wink out? To alleviate our suffering and the suffering of others to help endure the blink of an eye we appear? We are by far the most prosperous people in the history of the world, yet we are by far the most unhappy, contentious, childish wretches in the same measure. We are decidedly ungrateful, a spoiled lot of undisciplined toddlers, emotionally underdeveloped babies, despite all our self-praise through various international prizes and awards. How do we see ourselves in this way?

It is a malady of the human heart, I think, to know with absolute certainty that we are to make progress to a kind of permanent prosperity, but with equal certainty knowing that such permanence is fleeting. A notion of preserving something “for the children” is a noble one, but it is not anything at all. As Michael Jackson taught us, we are the children. What he never taught us was of whom we are the children. He did not because he could not. Not even he could see the object of our desire.

reading glasses 1

If I may speculate on the crisis which afflicts the middle-aged, we who eschew checking the clock in the middle of the night for the effort of finding one’s reading glasses, it is just this unanswered question: the days of being cared for are long gone; the days of caring for are waning quickly. And what then? I suppose one ceases avoiding the anxiety, standing to, representing in your body a piece of eternity, if there is such a thing, getting on with it because that’s what there is to do: get on with it.

As for me: it’s time for me to drive my kid to hockey practice.

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Nihil Nisi Bonum

Death made an unexpected visitation upon one of our friends, and now he is excluded from our company, unless you happen to be of his faith, and then you are excluded from his company, for the time being, and, really, only by sight. As such, he has unfortunately embodied this website. Brock Cusick, requiescat in pace.

I was thinking about–can’t help but think about–our last conversation. It was…how shall we say…not one I wish was our last, but it stands as our last conversation, and it was unpleasant, so there you go. Until the great test of my faith shall come, it will remain standing as a monument to the ruin wrought by pettiness. How petty? How petty a conversation is it that mars the dignity of a perfectly innocent, genuine, kind, nihil nisi bonum fellow? He was giving me a hard time about my decision for my D&D character to roll initiative at disadvantage, and I was annoyed. That’s how petty.

I’m 45 years old with four children! He was 39 years old with three children! And all the responsibilities thereof, which we commonly consider of adulthood, requiring some measure of gravitas, sobriety, and maturity! It was so petty, so petty, but it was the last conversation I ever had with Brock. He private-messaged me, which annoyed me, but that was Brock. That was his way. And he was adorable that way, a wonderful teddy bear of a man, but I was so annoyed.

There was another important death in my life, one which I may or may not write about all the time, and I know without being told that his wife–the fellow who died importantly, his wife–I know she was in the room screaming at him about something, probably something important, and she walked away–he was standing while they argued, not at all ill, not visibly, accomplishing some chores around the house–she walked away, and when she returned a few moments later, he was dead on the floor.

And so we are excluded from each other. It is true.

Only in part, I think. A marriage of over thirty years, even a rocky one, has probably established some rather deep roots, giving life to life, a grandeur nourished to grow around a knot. Brock was kind to me, and I, to a lesser degree, was kind to him. In addition to the faith we share, we have nourishment in kindness which does not have to be overcome by the rot of pettiness. This petty conversation we had is no horrible disfigurement; it is a knot, character for the grand old living tree.

I was afraid to go to bed on Monday night, the day I learned Brock died. I was afraid in the realization that I could be so reaped by death, and excluded, leaving my wife and children excluded from me and all the roles I fulfill for them, along with friends, students, clients, and family. Unable to sleep, I wandered from room to room in the house, resolving to behave more gently, kindly, and, as it is with teenagers in the house, with long-suffering fortitude. I sincerely hope that I have been properly chastised, on the one hand, to act as fertile soil for the roots necessary for relationships to grow. I sincerely hope that I have been comforted, on the other hand, so that I can forgive myself for being so bloody annoyed at Brock.

I think it is childish and entirely selfish for me to have said, as I have been saying, “I never want to make another friend ever again.” For all the unnecessary hurt we dole out to each other, even by dying, kindness is far more nourishing towards growth, far more than withdrawal.

Philosophy as Genre

As we walked along the paved path in Millerton, NY, my father posed to me this question:

“What is the point of all this reading you’re doing? What are you trying to accomplish?”

My father is hardly the type to suggest one ought to read less, and he is without a doubt where I inherited my habit – some might say compulsion – of regular reading.  Yet his reading is often directed by some overarching questions or project. So what he was asking me was not “why are you reading so much,” but “what’s the goal? What’s driving it?”

If I had to answer, I’d have to say: more questions than I can count. More than I know how to formulate.

I started out on the trajectory that ended up shifting my reading habits from being heavily skewed towards popular nonfiction towards being heavily skewed towards academic philosophy with some specific questions and even a specific project, which has been all but abandoned.

What I came to feel was that philosophy could not provide satisfying answers to those questions. Literature and poetry and art in general are, without a doubt, more fertile grounds of exploration.

Yet after concluding this, I continued to read philosophy. If anything, I read more of it.

Hence my father’s question.

The answer is simple: because I love it.

Richard Rorty said that philosophy is a kind of writing, which is not quite right: it is a genre, and like science fiction it can take forms other than writing. To the tradition of thought we could broadly characterize as rationalist, this is a heresy; to them, philosophy is modeled on science, not literature. To model it on literature is simply a sign of the unseriousness of pragmatists like Rorty and postmodernists like Derrida.

But to say so is to presume that science is serious while literature and art are not. This is precisely what I would dispute, with Rorty. Great literature and art have the potential to broaden our horizons, to teach us about life and the human experience. To show us the way to wisdom.

Philosophy, like other genres, can broaden our horizons as well.

Or perhaps I’m simply an unserious person, putting off the literature and poetry I ought to be reading more of, in favor of philosophy, my favorite guilty pleasure.