I lived on this earth. I was a product of my time. I couldn’t have been born into any other time, and honestly made a go at it. A generation before me still got drafted to into fighting wars. I don’t think I could have handled it. That generation learned math on a slide rule and communicated with each other via typed and written letters and land lines. They delayed their gratification of human response, but only by so much. I probably couldn’t have handled it.
these were commonplaces: going to the library to research a topic of curiosity, or looking it up in a decades old family encyclopedia, watching three or four channels on TV, bigotry and intolerance, making fun of others who were somehow different.
I don’t think I could have handled living in the generations that followed mine, either. They were born into households that had computers. The generation past the one after mine was born into households that had the Internet, and most of them only knew communication via mobile phones. Most of them rarely touched cash. Almost any question could be answered with the push of a button after asking it into the device. The gratification for them was too instant, everything was too easy.
I came of age in a world where being useful in a physical, masculine way was rapidly becoming obsolete. You didn’t go seeking that kind of work unless you wanted to make minimum wage for the rest of your life. I sort of learned how to operate saws and mowers and drills and tools, but hardly enough to do more than make very basic repairs. I changed the oil on my car when I was 16-18, but then I discovered the beauty and economy of the Quick Lube, and never looked back. The last time I changed a flat I might as well have been replacing the engine for the effort I expended.
Yes, I’m old and soft, and I got that way quickly. I was raised in the 1980s, when the expectation was that if you joined the military, you were doing it to pay for college or have work after high school. There wasn’t an expectation that you’d fight in a war. Even after the first Gulf War, there was still this sense that the U.S. was going to be the number one superpower for centuries to come–so, the most conflict you might see would be to airlift some people out of an embassy in Rwanda or Sudan or Guatemala. The expectation was that you’d graduate from high school acting like Ferris Bueller, but hopefully not end up like Ethan Hawke’s character in Reality Bites–hopefully, you’d make the obvious transition from petty high school troublemaker to solid fraternity brother and keg stand champion, to a financial institution intern, to a captain of industry–all in ten short years–so that you’d be easily making six figures in whatever economy came your way by the time you were 30.
The idea that someone would actually want to emulate Ferris Bueller after a month in High School, or ever be like that Ethan Hawke character was pretty absurd.
You probably don’t understand this, if you happen to be reading this from the vantage point of living in a calmer, cleaner world that is more sane and has stopped trying to destroy itself. If you live in a time where advertising is forbidden to be plastered everywhere, and entities aren’t tracking your every move so that they can sell you more stuff, then a lot of what I write about may not make much sense. But, you have to try to imagine a world so full of distractions, that a person could easily get lost in any number of them and never realize their true human potential.
You see, I lived in a generation that had mostly declared God to be dead, and even those who claimed they hadn’t seemed more inclined to obsess over a new menu item at their favorite chain restaurant, a new roller coaster ride, or a new celebrity sensation. There were any number of gadgets, shows, movies, music products, food products, etc. for someone to become obsessed about. Food was a rather peculiar obsession of my generation. The fact that people in one part of the world could cheaply partake of just about any kind of food known to the history of man, and the fact that they obsessed over the places that served these foods and shows about these places–it was a strange fact, indeed. I mean, I would expect a generation that had very recently came out of poverty and hunger to obsess over food, because they’d never seen so much of it before. But, my generation and the ones that followed it were at least twice removed from some of the worst hunger and poverty our people had experienced.
I suppose partly this could be explained by the infinite ways that food can be prepared, and by the fact that my generation had seen a lot of the drugs that were available and widely used by previous generations taken away.
Running parallel to this obsession with food was an obsession with the body itself. People were oddly focused on trying to make themselves as close to a perfect human specimen as possible. This was a little bit more easy to understand–since most of us had given up hope of finding jobs that were highly physical in nature, we tended to overcompensate by participating in any number of grueling physical activities when we weren’t working. However, the purpose of all this physical activity wasn’t to survive in the wilderness–at least it wasn’t an immediate need, thought there were some who prided themselves in having many survivalist skills. The purpose was primarily to show off how capable you were at maintaining a physique that was better suited to a Neolithic age, and attract attention from members of whatever gender you hoped to attract.
It’s hard for me to speak for other people, because so much of the time, I don’t feel like I share their obsessions. They seem to quickly become obsessed with things that create only a mild curiosity in me. I would hazard a guess that a lot of people are motivated by the attention other human beings pay to them. It’s a flavor of power lust, in my opinion. You have successfully manipulated someone so that they put their own thought-creation mechanism on hold in order to passively receive what you are delivering them. All of us have been tempted by it. Those who conquer the more infantile forms of it when they are quite young are usually able to become much more advanced manipulators of others, and these are often your proverbial sociopath captains of industry.
When I entered my late 30s, I became mostly obsessed with finding a thing to do that I could brand as my calling or purpose here on earth. I felt that my writing, while consistently employed over the years, was never going to sufficiently advance to become something people would call great literature or philosophy. Most of it was cathartic, and most of it was ignored. Naturally, I wanted to do something that other people would see me doing, and say “he is a great man.” If I couldn’t be a sociopath towards others without at least some irony, my other option was to be a serial volunteer, always trying to help some of the least of these in my community. However, I think that a lot of my attempts at such activities were misguided, and too heavily influenced by what I decided God or Man said was noble, rather than what really fit my core self.
I then tended toward charting my own course in pursuing what some have called simply happiness, the Sublime, or the High. All attempts to define it have either been too simplistic or too complicated, in my opinion. I can only make an effort to describe what have been and continue to be my brushes with it.
The way to experience it seems to be tangled up in my sense of Time itself. For example, I have too many Sundays where I achingly long to return to NYC and walk its streets and step inside its museums. I don’t even care much to be an authentic New Yorker when I go about my business, seeking out restaurants and cafes frequented mostly by the locals. I would be delighted to be dropped into the city and experience all of the most touristy things, over and over again. During my two visits to NYC, I can also barely form memories of particular moments of sheer frustration with the large numbers of people who always seem to be pushing to get somewhere as quickly as possible. The romantic view comes from sitting unhurried in even the most crass franchise restaurant watching a street corner, while the completely negative view comes from being thrown into it and forced to keep moving with the crowd or become relentlessly buffeted by the passerby.
A similar kind of analogy can be made with the discovery of new books, and the process of turning them over and reading select passages in them, versus sitting down and forcing myself to read the book cover to cover. There are parts of even the most cherished novels that are rough going–either the writer becomes incredibly dull, or the subject matter becomes too painful or dull to hold in the brain for very long.
I suppose it can be applied to most anything–the sublimity comes from the anticipation of the moment, a handful of crystal clear seconds within the moment itself, and an endless reliving of the moment. But, for the most part, the moment itself offers little in the way of sublimity.
If I were to carefully build a T-chart of pros and cons from my previous NYC trip, I may very well become certain that there were more cons that I’d rapidly suppressed. There were plenty of them. The cost, for one thing. The cost to spend a week in that city in a place that is in a crime-free part of Manhattan–including travel, room and board, food and entertainment, etc. easily runs into the 1000s of dollars. However, the cost may be worth it, if the memories generated are enough to compensate for it. But, are there enough memories generated? On the cons side of the chart, you have all of the terrible things associated with travel: the unfriendly airline desk attendants, the FHA security people on power trips, the constant fear of missing or getting bumped from the flight, the fear that your reservations for the shuttle or the hotel were lost, the myriad of unanticipated expenses, taxes and fees that are added on to everything, the rudeness of so many other random people you bump into when you’re simply trying to get somewhere. And, all of that is just to get you to a room you know you won’t be kicked out of or robbed from through the duration of your stay. Plus, you have to multiply all of the above cons by 2, because you know you will experience them coming back.
But, being in the city itself is magical. There’s no other way to put it. Being around people from almost every nationality, seeing humanity at its mostly best, and getting to see some of the best art and city planning ever created, all while knowing this is at its core somehow deeply American and not European or Asian or Latin–this makes it powerfully magical. You feel like in some way you are a part of really being an American for the first time. This is the heart and soul of where so many first generation Americans began their new lives. The city is filled with more happy ghosts than sad ghosts–ghosts that believe in the good of humanity, and that humanity has a future that is peaceful and prosperous. Of course, the living mostly seem to feel this way as well. How could you not live on a tiny island, crammed in among millions of strangers, and not possess a thread of optimism for the future of humanity? To be for sure, you have your cynicism and your fatalism, and your constant sense that an apocalyptic disaster may strike. But if you weren’t more convinced than not that the future of humanity is good, you wouldn’t bother living there, would you? Why would you even bother to visit, if you thought it could all go to hell at any minute?
I’ve attempted to recreate experiences of interactions with art, architecture and crowds of people by way of vicarious media. I’ll hop on Google Earth, and attempt to let my Pegman navigate the streets of a city and go into museums where he’s allowed. There is such a lag in load time, even in this age of high speed connections, and the images around me are often rendered poorly or intentionally blurred out. On the tablet, Pegman doesn’t have a 360 view. To the point: there is something missing in this, as there is in looking at books full of art or watching a movie about people living in Manhattan. The sublime is usually felt prior to having the vicarious media experience, when I am anticipating it–standing in the bookstore or library perusing a book of photographs of paintings, or thinking about how I’m going to devote an hour on a Saturday to letting my virtual self go where he will.
What is missing? The smells, the sounds, the sheer physicality of having so many people and large buildings in your proximity. Certainly. But, there is more missing than that. Those are all byproducts or symptoms of being alive in the moment. You know you aren’t having a dream or watching a webcam because of these things, but the more important thing is that you are having a feeling of being alive in that moment. And, I am trying to get at something more profound than simply existence as medical science would declare it to be. It’s more like: “my heart and soul were there, I ached and groaned with the city, and it reciprocated.”
This doesn’t happen in every city. It certainly doesn’t happen everywhere I’ve lived. It’s not happening right now. I am not aching and groaning with my laptop inside my modest 1950s house which is located in a safe, quiet neighborhood that’s been mostly untouched by the more violent social upheavals since it arose in the 1950s and 60s. People of color have quietly moved in, and nobody bothers them, as far as I can tell. Everyone keeps to themselves, because nobody really wants the kind of drama that comes from living in a noisy neighborhood. The town I live in is mostly safe and quiet. It has its dangerous neighborhoods, like everywhere else, but it is too far away from any major metropolitan area to see very many excitable people who crave bigger cities stay here long.
I have a mostly hate relationship with where I live. I hate the fact that it is probably where I’m meant to be, due to the fact that I am too scared to make a go of it in a really big city. I hate the fact that this town does seem to kind of stagnate, and invite the most close-minded of the conservative set to come and take root. I have tried many times to convince myself that it will be good for our son–he can live out the first years of his life in a non-threatening environment, and find his voice among quieter peers before we move him somewhere that requires him to be more challenged. But, I’m also full of fear that this will end up being like where my dad settled us in Missouri: a small town full of bigots and backwoods people near KCMO. I don’t think his intention was ever to stay there long. My dad is a confirmed Texan, and he’d previously lived in SF and Denver. How could you live in those places, and then live in a nowhere town in Missouri, and expect to be content? But, I think the years just kind of crept up on us.
It was comfortable. Once my oldest brother had left in a rage, and my second oldest brother joined the Marines, our family quieted down a lot. I would occasionally flare up with rebellion because I hated the fact that my parents had expectations that I would be better behaved than my older, adopted brothers who came from a broken home. I wanted to show them that they were no different than me, in my misguided youth’s mind. But, I wasn’t in trouble as much, and I tended to stick with things like Scouts and Band and Weightlifting and Track once I started them. I also had a dog that I took care of, and he kept me calm and grounded and responsible during years when I probably should have been put into a school for kids with behavior problems.
But, the point is that things got comfortable, and we accumulated stuff, and time went by more quickly than my parents thought it would. Before we knew it, we’d lived there for fifteen years, and my little brother was in the middle of high school, and it seemed natural to for my parents to stay until he graduated. I am terrified of something similar happening with the family I’m starting. Fifteen years will go by like nothing, and we will still be here in this no man’s land between Austin and Dallas, just getting by. Not ever getting rich or doing anything noteworthy, but not losing our shirts and ending up in the poorhouse, either. For a lot of people, the response would be “and what’s so wrong with that? You’re still doing better than 90% of the world?”
But, then there is the sense of there being something grander and more important to be accomplished in life. I don’t know yet exactly what that is. It isn’t necessarily about money or fame–those are just manifestations that often accompany being a part of something grander and doing something grander with one’s life. I don’t think I have any particular urge to die with a single dime to my name, and I don’t necessarily feel like my name has to be remembered by anyone at all. But, I know that feeling of the epic, the grand, the sublime that comes only a few times in life. I had the feeling more when I was just out of college–like anything was possible–hey, now that I’m done serving my obligations to the old folks, it’s time to get on the road and DO SOMETHING.
Of course, what that something exactly was, I never bothered to articulate, and therefore it never manifested itself as a clear goal to which I could draw a precise line of action items from where I was to where I wanted to be. In fact, every time I try to go about doing such a thing, I get to feeling boxed in, defeated and rebellious. I even use the excuse that I don’t think I’m doing the Lord’s will. I have to wonder, though, if it’s simply the same part of me that pursued booze and the nightlife for several years coming back to life and rearing its ugly head. A self destructive side, for sure. A side that flinches at the idea of accomplishing anything noble.
To be blunt and unpoetic, I lost something, and I’m going to get it back. I’d rather burn brightly into the night of my life than quietly hold my hand over the candle in grim anticipation of its snuffing.
What is great?
Zen poetry is great. Abstract art is great. Renaissance art is great. Romantic poetry is great. A zeal to insert myself inside the great places of the world–that’s a great thing, indeed. Was I happier standing inside the Sistine Chapel, or standing inside the parish we unintentionally happened to poke our heads into? Let me try to find it on the map. Maybe it was the Santa Maria in Trastevere, I’m not sure now. I had a moment standing in the bowels of the church, looking at the archaeological dig that was taking place before my eyes. A sublime moment. I felt like I was as close to anything Disney might have created for me to see when I stood inside the Sistine Chapel. We were pushed like a cattle call through room after room of art in throngs of people and constantly reprimanded to be silent when we arrived at the Chapel. Was there anything sublime about that? I am not sure.
I tried to explain sublimity to a kid in my class once. I was aching to be back on vacation, flying to Florida, where we went every summer. I was reliving the moment of being on the plane in anticipation of the fun to come in my mind, and thought it was so exceptional that surely some kid with half a brain would understand this. I told him “this time two months ago I was having a happy moment.” He teased me mercilessly about it for days and weeks afterward. Today on Facebook, I can see that he is the pastor of a flock somewhere there in the old hometown. He writes profound thoughts about God on his wall, and most of them are pretty good. I don’t know why I couldn’t make the connection to be his friend, but that is for another subject of speculation.
Sublimity for me is very much inside the excitement of anticipating a thing, and this is an insight I’ve found very hard to swallow. I can’t hold happiness inside my heart if I’m actually placing all of my bets upon an event to come. The true happiness lies in my manufacturing of it, except it is extremely difficult to completely remove the thing I’m anticipating and continue to create the same level of happiness wrought by the anticipation. The happiness of one’s life dwindles, because Time comes along and snatches each anticipated moment one by one from you, until you are left getting excited about having a beer on a Friday night and relaxing with a little television.
Happiness also dwindles because you let other people snatch it away from you as quickly as you make it. Nothing is more precious for others to try to take or kill than your happiness. Think of all the times you meditated into a great, happy state only to walk into the workplace and have someone chide you on grinning like you are up to no good or just had sex. People come to expect you to walk around with a frown on your face all the time, and are actually more vocal about their uneasiness with you when they see you smiling too much, no matter how much they might protest otherwise, and say that you need to smile more.
You get this feeling of happiness and excitement in you, this sense of the Sublime, and you want to share it with others, and others feel like you are making fun of them or lording something over them that they can never have. They don’t for a minute stop to think that what you have is unlimited, and they could have it too, and that you are just giving this stuff away because you can’t imagine why someone would want to walk around feeling miserable when they could feel great. But, you’ve gotten to know a lot of people who are insistent that they are keeping it real by keeping their memories of miserable events of the past close to their hearts. Keeping it real? They aren’t keeping it real any more than you are. Their negative events are in the past, and so are your positive events. Both of you are making your own beds. Why let them remove you from your quest to make a happy bed to lie in, and put you into the role of being yet another miserable SOB on this planet–as if we don’t have enough of them already?
The sense of the sublime is not equal to happiness, though. Happiness is a byproduct feeling of the sense of the sublime, or the epic, or the grander, larger scheme of the Universe. When you are able to contemplate a Universe in which you are tapped into the intricate web of ideas and events, and you are actively playing a role and not just being a passive consumer and vicariously having someone else’s fun–that’s when you start to get a sense of the sublime.
This is why I write as much as I do. Because at first, it feels fake and forced and it feels like I’m moving down the exact same path that I did before. And, I probably am, because it’s like leaving the same street every day to go out into the world. But, if I give myself enough time to get going, and I start to let things flow, I began to feel as if I am writing something that is going to at least in a tiny way be part of something bigger and grander than my own tiny life.