Of Bottles and Babies

I met a remarkable young man the other day. Small guy, really, but with an outsized impact. I happen to be looking at a bottle of Glenfiddich as I write this and he’s about the same size.  Fighting trim at five pounds, ten ounces, he showed up a little early but you can’t blame him. He was ready to go. And when you’re ready to go, you’re ready to go. 

With that tautology I welcome Ian Nuri, my very first nephew, to what’s left of the world. Now, I already have extraordinary nieces so I’m not saying anything particularly except that, you know, me being a father of sons, and an older brother to four other men, I feel that the collective family unit was ready for a new penis. And hey, I know, I know. History and all that stuff. You’re not wrong. And I do happen to know some amazing little girls of great and perplexing power. But little boys are a grave and heroic species, and if you think there’s the slightest exaggeration in me saying that I’ve dedicated my life to the several arts of raising them, permit me to set you straight. My sons are, in every respect, the center of my life. They’re the best and most peculiar young men I know, and the project of helping, in a curious and often not-very-powerful way, to navigate the project of their becoming is my goddamn odyssey. 

And friends, I will fail. Probably already have. I want to talk about that. 

As I’ve said many times before, I am a pessimist. Not merely in disposition, but in philosophy. That means that the only thing I accept as truly knowable about my life in this world is that it will end, as will everyone’s. Anything else is hope and conjecture. There isn’t anything particularly wrong with hope and conjecture, but I try not to take them any more seriously than they deserve, which is not very. But here’s the thing: none of this is bad. You’ve got a span of life, and unpredictable death, and no possibility of not screwing it up. At a certain point, this is okay. It means you can afford to let yourself breathe. 

Pessimistic parenting is counter-intuitive to a lot of people but it shouldn’t be. And I get it – I’m sympathetic. You want to do everything right. Of course you do. This amazing beastie that represents everything possible in the world, and to which you are biologically hardwired by a million years of ruthless natural selection, has dropped into your lap and you’re ready to move mountains for her. You want to move mountains for her, in the desperate (and doomed) hope that she will someday notice and understand. It’s not necessarily a hope that she’ll understand the effort that you put in (that’s your problem), so much as a hope that she’ll understand what that effort says about her. You want to burn the nine worlds for her, not so that she’ll appreciate you, but so that she’ll understand that she was worth every spark of the burning. Believe me, I get that. You want the kid to know about him or herself what you were never able to know about yourself

So you try, and that’s okay. Where it all gets tricky is when you fall into the trap of believing that you can make it all work. You convince yourself that you can get it right, get the kid right, get the world right, and that’s the moment when it all goes to shit. Perfection, as always, as in every other part of your life, remains out of reach. You can’t perfect any of those things, and in so doing you miss what you can do. You often miss what you need to do. And that’s the sin against the Holy Ghost, if you ask me. I don’t pretend to know how to do parenting correctly, but I’ve seen enough to have a pretty good idea of how to do it wrong. Doing it wrong begins with trying to do it all right, blowing it (as blow it you must), so that your kids grow up amidst the broken architecture of failed endeavor. You end up giving them a constant sense of their own childhoods as the place where it all went wrong, leaving them unsure of their own role in what was, in the end, the unraveling of your cunning schemes. This is the domain of the neurotic parent, the faintly-vibrating father, the hollow-eyed mom.  Their reach ever exceeding their grasp, the panic grows and curdles. This is how you end up at a Waldorf school, in debt to your eyeballs, parsing your child’s allergies with the intensity of a Talmudic scholar and waiting, lip quivering, for the next terrifying crisis (a lost shoe, a mysterious bruise) to drop. And drop it does. 

I’m not a perfect parent, by any means. But I do think I’ve brought something important to the game. Me, I knew from the jump that I wasn’t going to be a perfect parent, and I was right. Structurally, economically, I’ve been piss poor, but that didn’t surprise anybody. What I’ve tried to do instead was to chart a course through which, and within which, I could always communicate three things to my kids:

  1. Daddy, like all grownups, is imperfect, but his effort and commitment are not. Not a lot of what happens in your life will depend on anything that you inherently are, but nearly everything will hang on what you do, and how hard you’re willing to do it. 
  2. You, my kids, are human beings. Not objects, accessories, projects, or toys.  What you think will always matter. When what you think is weird, which will happen from time to time, we’ll have that conversation. But you were never meant to be seen and not heard, and I’ll never tell you who you’re supposed to be. I won’t even pretend to know. 
  3. We will have discipline in our house, but that’s not to keep you in line. We don’t do order for the sake of order. We have discipline so that you can maximize your agency as human beings. We’ll learn a certain amount of discipline so that you don’t wind up in thrall to all the things you weren’t disciplined about when it mattered.  And I’ll try not to ask for any discipline from you that I don’t demonstrate myself. 

And that’s about it. Do I do these things flawlessly? I do not. But I orient myself around them and I try. And the beauty of my kids getting older is that the dialog that surrounds the effort gets richer every year. They surprise me. They surprise me even though I never really pretended to know what kind of people they would turn into in the first place. They’re stronger and stranger than I’d imagined, sometimes more thoughtful than I’d expected and sometimes less. And they’re not ideal. They can be real shits, just like me. But they’re authentic, fully autonomous little people, and they have questions. 

So the arrival of little scotch-bottle Ian is a real event, even more-so (for me) than it would have been a few years ago. My sense is clearer now that this is, in fact, the advent of a wholly new individual. That fact feels more immediate, having seen what the decade ahead looks like up close. He’ll be lovely, and he’ll be crazy, and my brother will mess it up a little and I’ll probably help, and through all of that a young man will emerge and go screw things up on his own, and all of that is wonderful. Not because it’s perfect, but because it’s not. Only he’s perfect, and only for now. But for now, he gets to be.

Reading Rainbow

I think I need to do a better job of actually getting things written in the absence of inspiration. I tend to believe that this is important. Even if you see her regularly, you can’t trust the muse to be around every time you need to get something done. And I don’t see her regularly at all. I have ex-wives that I see more often, a fact that frames up my existence rather neatly.

Anyway, in light of that I’m going to push myself to be a little more diligent on the blog than I’ve been, accepting that I’m not going to have anything particularly great to to work though every single time I have an opportunity to write. It’ll be good for me, and the only one who suffers, dear reader, is you. Apologies for that, but we all have our little crosses to bear. Reading this blog, apparently, is yours.

Point being that while I haven’t been writing, these last couple of weeks, I’ve been getting some pretty decent reading done. Travel helps, as I can at least plan on having a few uninterrupted hours crammed into a middle seat, wherein there’s little to do but read. And If i’m Honest I actually don’t like to write on planes. I can’t do much to stop the people sitting behind and to the side of me from reading over my shoulder, which would be okay (it’s public work, after all) except that they’re reading it in draft. It’s the lowest ebb of pointless intellectual vanity to worry about a complete stranger watching me revise an awkwardly-phrased idea, but there you go.

However, one thing that people do actually ask me for, at least occasionally, is a rundown of what I’m reading. Which is flattering, as it’s a question that I tend to ask of people I actually like, and probably the last question I would ever ask of anyone I genuinely can’t stand. So following, and in no particular order, are notes on a few key bits of 2019 spring reading. There’s no coherent project going on here – just me grabbing things that interest me (or being gifted them by perceptive friends) and running with it. Proceed at your own risk.

The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages 400-1000, Chris Wickham

I’m a history guy no matter what, and have always found the overall period of late antiquity to be massively interesting. Besides, anything touching on the decline of empire seems topical nowadays. The actual historical details presented here defy easy historical allegory, but Wickham gives a hell of a survey not just of the decline of the Western Roman empire (though he does that with admirable clarity) but of the long Roman hangover that persisted throughout the Western world for centuries to follow. It’s a good refresher on the idea (again, topical) that empires don’t exactly fall, so much as they’re simultaneously dismantled and rebuilt, often one institution and tradition at a time. This process always looks more coherent in retrospect than it ever does in the moment. In the moment, the Roman empire had fallen long before any but the most keen-eyed observers recognized that it had. We assume that the fall of America is yet to be marked; we shouldn’t be surprised if we’ve already quietly missed it.

The Empire and the Five Kings , Bernard Henri-Levy

The overlap between Henri-Levy and Wickham was coincidental, but they’re marvelously complementary volumes. This one came to me by the unusually fervent recommendation of my step-father, which I trusted enough to order the book while he was still describing it to me. Now, I have to state at the outset that I’m not deeply familiar with BHL or his work, so I went in a bit blind. What I found, doing so, was a wickedly astute geopolitical analysis written in the kind of poetic language that only a prominent French public intellectual would even attempt in print. More, it’s the work of a French public intellectual who rejects rote anti-Americanism, which I didn’t even realize (again, I acknowledge my ignorance) was possible. The gist of the work is Henri-Levy’s lamentation of America’s withdrawal from the geopolitical stage (an event that he rightly associates with Barak Obama first, Trump second), leaving that stage open to the resurgent “kingdoms” of Russia, China, Iran, Turkey, and radical Islam. It’s vividly argued, with kick-in-the-nuts intensity, and I set it down feeling more comfortable in my own innately hawkish political skin than I have in a long time. Anyone prepared to describe Recep Tayyip Erdogan as, “The troll beneath the bridge to hell” is welcome at my table.

Wittgenstein’s Poker , David Edmonds and John Eidinow

This fucking book. This is one of those things so well done and so comprehensively good that you just hate it even as you devour the damn thing and then hate it some more because you can’t stop talking about it. And then you love it because you don’t have any choice. Which makes you hate it more.

Jenn gave this one to me, and for her sins she heard way more about it over the next couple of weeks than she’d ever bargained for. The synopsis doesn’t really tell you much; it’s nominally “about” the first and last meeting between Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper at Cambridge in 1946, a brief encounter that ended with Wittgenstein brandishing a fireplace poker in what might or might not have been a threatening manner. But the event itself is a small, central point around which the rest of the story (and it really works out to be a story, and a compelling one) crystalizes. Riffing on the central theme, the authors weave biography, history, social and cultural commentary, and a remarkably coherent pursuit of several major threads in the analytical tradition of Western philosophy into a stupidly satisfying narrative. I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to reveal that no one really knows, definitively, what happened with the poker incident, but I came away with a far better understanding of the whole philosophical domain that shaped these two rather awful men that I’d had going in. There’s a whole pedagogical implication here that’s worth thinking about, but at the same time, it’s a book you can happily enjoy while drinking. Maybe that is the pedagogical implication.

The Second Mountain , David Brooks

Yeah, yeah, yeah. You know what? I can read what I want, okay? He’s a conservative columnist for the New York Times, after all. That, like, doesn’t even count.

Anyway, America’s most dour moral philosopher is back, and I took the bait. I’m not sure if there happen to be a lot of books out right now by middle aged men either in or emerging from crisis, or if there always have been and I’m just noticing them because I’m a middle aged man emerging from crisis myself. Having been through a divorce (feel you, fam) and a period of messy spiritual awakening (it happens), Brooks has put together a perspective on what it means to fall from the first half of your life, and dig more meaningfully into the second. It’s the kind of book that’s either wide-ranging or all over the place, depending on how much of it you agree with. I’m kind of in the middle on that one.

Nah, seriously, I don’t agree with everything ol’ DLB has ever said but I admire the guy and would crack a bottle of cabernet with him, and everybody’s just going to have to deal with that. I won’t go down the usual route and say that he’s not a “real” conservative. I think he is a real conservative, with a conservative’s reverence for institutions and tradition, and with a deep wariness of transformative change. As a political pessimist, I’m with him on a lot of that. The guys running around Washington nowadays calling themselves conservatives are anything but. Trump and his ilk are wild-eyed radicals with enormous faith in the most deeply flawed of humans – the exact opposite of conservatism. That said, I have my critiques, and where Brooks’ book is weakest is when it strives to break away from the personal and run right up the middle of the whole thousand-points-of-light message of redemptive social change through private initiative, which has aged about as well as everything else from 1992 has.

Put another way, when Brooks is writing about his own experience and those of other people going through the wilderness years of a jack-knifed existence, he’s got a lot to say. His sections on marriage, intimacy and religion were, for me, worthy of both reading and reflection. But his final prescription for it all falls back to age-old political doggerel. It’s not government or the state that can redeem us, but individual initiative at the community level, led by brave folks picking up all the slack that the state has left untended. I’ll probably pick up that argument in more detail in a later post, but it reads as an unsatisfying return, late in an otherwise decent game, to a somewhat tired set of talking points. Actually I will pick it up again. This is worth discussing.

But, enough of all that. I’ll get back to my own unreasoned opinions in the days to come. It was also my birthday this week, bringing me one year closer to death, so look for some further rumination on mortality sooner than later. It had better be sooner, if I’m going to get to it at all.

Blast Radius Redux

So did I tell you the one where I was locked in a closet with a school secretary and a delivery boy during an active shooter drill?

It’s actually not the set up for a really awkward, dystopian romcom, and the fact that I haven’t got it in me to write the setup for a romcom of any kind is probably one of the basic problems of my personality. It’s just a thing that actually happened earlier this year, when I was picking up a kid for a dental appointment and had the bad luck and worse timing to arrive at school in time for a lockdown exercise. And they’re thorough about that kind of thing nowadays, so if you’re there, and not (presumably) armed in any obvious way, you, the delivery boy and the staff are all going in the closet together. To address the only question anybody wanted to ask me at the time, no one ended up making out. But more to the point, nothing about it felt particularly exceptional at all. Nor, I suppose, was it. The banality of social disintegration can’t really be overstated.

Point being that lockdown drills, actual lockdowns, perimeter lockdowns, security alerts, delayed release, actual closures under threat and the whole dire apparatus have become the background noise of my children’s lives and, by extension, my own. Like most parents I have to pick up the phone when a call comes in from the school, but I confess that at this point the little thrill of worry that used to greet every call from a 554 prefix is already fading into a twitch of annoyance. I still pick up, but there are a few seconds’ delay when it’s an automated call (as opposed to the nurse, who is human). At that point I hang on only long enough to know whether one of my kid’s schools has been hit, and whether I have to do anything differently around getting them home. Then I get back to my meeting.

That could be read as exaggeration, me being performatively blasé or macabre for effect. But you have to understand that these calls some in almost every week. And those are just the real events, not all shootings by any means, but all the credible threats and weird characters and whatever the hell else goes on. This is not at all counting the drills and practice runs that the kids go through. Which means that the kids are getting the message loud and clear: hunting children has become the go-to gesture of disaffection for our culture, and the grownups aren’t going to do anything about it.

I touched on similar things a few weeks ago in my Blast Radius post, drawing a parallel between the state of mortal anxiety that my own kids are asked to navigate, and the similar state of mortal anxiety that characterized my own childhood in the late years of the Cold War. So I was interested to read Joe Pinsker’s excellent article in the Atlantic this week drawing a similar comparison. I’d been thinking originally of the global threats that my kids have to contemplate, with a broad media consensus that the world will shortly burn, and they with it. But the school shooting phenomenon sits right alongside the promise of a broiled planet, giving the threat of immanent death a more hands-on, intimate aspect. I imagine that for the kids, it’s all part of a continuum.

I say I imagine, because the kids don’t really talk to me about it. Nor do I remember talking about the nuclear threat with my own parents, now that I think of it. I’m certainly available to talk about it, and the kids know that, but they don’t want to. I’m not sure that I want to. Because you’re supposed to have something to say, and there is nothing to say. Colorado is ground zero for school shootings. As of this year, it’s actually become a tourist destination for the well-armed mentally ill. If you want to shoot children, and an awful lot of people do, this is the place. So I’m supposed to say what, exactly? Offer them what?

I have a philosophy, not merely an attitude, of pessimism, and part of that for me is the willingness to call an intractable problem an intractable problem. We haven’t got a path on this right now. Our culture war has become too important, and children are only one entry in the ledger of collateral damage that we’re collectively willing to accept.

I said “we,” not “they.”

Every issue that bears on schools shootings – guns, mental health access, health care, schools themselves – breaks down along political lines, and nothing on that front is going to move right now. The reason (and I understand how crazy this is going to sound, but try to stick with me for a minute) is that our culture is locked in a moment of irrational optimism. Until we, we give that up, we can’t fix this.

It works like this. I live in a purple state. Politically, I have eclectic views. But because of those things I don’t live in a political bubble. I have friends very much on the right and friends very much on the left, and nearly all of them are lost in a fantasy of transformative change. Specifically, they believe that somehow, by means yet to be discovered, the other half of the country can be gotten rid of, or at the very least neutralized. And when this happens, they believe, they can finally have the society that they want. That’s optimism, wild, corrosive, and lethal. And we’ve hung the entire world on it.

It takes optimism to believe in that kind of transformation, because no act of dour reason will ever get you there. You’ve got to have a mystical belief in the eventual rightness of your cause, and in the power of that rightness to move the engines of history. For that matter, you’ve got to believe that history has engines to be moved. And you’ve got to be so fervent in all these beliefs that you’ll risk everything you are and have in its service.

I’m a conscientious objector to the culture war, partly because I love people on both sides, but mostly because I don’t believe in victory for either. The future of Western culture, if there is one, doesn’t lie in the ascendency of the righteous, whoever the fuck they are. It lies in the grimy and profoundly unsatisfying work of learning, somehow, to live together with someone whose views you find abhorrent, but with whom to have to work. It means lots and lots of dull, quotidian compromises and a few really difficult ones. It means a world in which no one is happy and no one necessarily wins, but out of which a few least-bad options can be hammered out. Understand, I’m not trying to offer up an alternative utopia here. I don’t dream of some harmony of man. I dream of endless acrimony, but it’s an acrimony anchored in healthy despair. The necessary despair of ever winning the war, and of ever getting it right. The future I dream of will basically suck. But it’s a future.

Look, I know how badly all this plays. There’s nothing exciting about the idea that we live in a badly fractured and totally bifurcated culture, and that none of this is going to change and that the only hope is give up our ambitions of anything better and start working with what we have. But that’s what we’ve got, and it’s going to take some pretty aggressive Pol Pot shit to make it any other way. The good news is that I don’t think either side has got the grapes, for now. But the reality is that my vision isn’t going to sell. Pessimism never outsells optimism. Resignation never outsells transformative vision. Despair never outsells even if the most destructive forms of hope. I don’t think you can sell despair at all. You just have to get there organically, on your own. If there’s a thread of hope, it’s that eventually most of us do. Whether there’s time for that is another question.

There are no good things about school shootings, but one of the least-bad things is that by and large they haven’t yet taken on an explicitly political cast. They will. But until then we can live still live in harmony in the supply closet. Until the shooter finds us, anyway.



Not Just No, but Hell No

No. Nope. Absolutely not. I’m not doing it. Piss off.

So I did a terrible thing, and I may as well get the confession out of the way. I printed out a quote – from a business author, no less – and handed it out to my team at work. Seriously, this is the lowest ebb of cringe-worthy corporate bossitude, and I did it. I did it, I liked it, and God help me, I’ll probably do it again.

Behold, I am become Michael Scott.

Look, let me take a step back. I can’t justify this thing I’ve done, but I can at least provide a little context. The quote was from Jim Collins, whose made more money than I’ll ever see in one place in my life by writing business and management tomes like the massively popular Good to Great, all of which I’ve actually managed to avoid reading. I come here neither to praise nor bury the guy – I’m only peripherally familiar with his published work and he’s more successful than I’ll ever be, so as easy as it would be to take some rote swipes at the man, it would be a cheap move with no basis other than him being popular. But, I have read a few of his interviews and think pieces over the years, and they’re not empty of good ideas, one of which I’ve actually adopted as a kind of professional mantra. The quote: “You need a laser-like focus on doing first things first. And that means having a ferocious understanding of what you are not going to do.”

See, I manage product strategy and design for a software company, which means that I have one of the most fundamentally misunderstood jobs out there. In essence, people believe that my team and I sit around all day dreaming up cool shit, which we then get to design and implement. This idea is widely held, to the point that an unusual number of people want to come work for me, a phenomenon that I can’t in any way ascribe to my personality. It’s also totally wrong. In fact, it’s very nearly the opposite. My actual job, or at least ninety percent of it, is trying to get people to stop dreaming up cool shit and, if they do so anyway, to at least, please, for God’s sake, not waste time and resources trying to build it.

Here’s a basic fact of business: the world needs cool shit like I need a hole in my head. Designing good products is absolutely, emphatically not about designing cool shit. It’s not about making things that are exciting. It is one hundred percent not about vision. You can’t swing a dead cat in any tech district in America without hitting a broke visionary, usually working for someone else and wryly lamenting the failure of their great idea (it was never wrong, by the way, just early, which is the same thing as wrong but sounds better). Cool shit, in a word, is not how good shit works.

What you have to do in real life, in real business, is solve actual problems, and solving actual problems is a drab, unsexy trade. This is because real business problems, in the main, are drab, unsexy things. Solving them, besides being drab and unsexy, tends to be difficult and expensive. If they haven’t been solved already, it’s generally because there’s at least one meaningful and substantive barrier to doing so, which has defeated smart people before. To succeed, you’ll need to assemble a rare combination of brains and balls, backed by more money than you’d think it possible to need, and an ungodly willingness to endure labor and suffering. And all of this, it’s important to remember, will usually be done in the service of something wildly unglamorous.

All of which is okay, as long as you know what you’re getting into. But it means that the urge to innovate for innovation’s sake must always be resisted. And this is blasphemy in the technology world, where innovation, vaguely defined, is seen as a sort of virtue unto itself, awkwardly stitched into an endless procession of faux-moral narratives about “transformative change” and whatever the fuck ever. But much of this is simply gesture, songs of self-praise raised skyward by the would-be innovator. Innovation without a problem, preferably a problem measured in concrete suffering, financial loss or, in the best cases (at least for me), an abundance of both, is one of the more exceptionally elaborate forms of masturbation. Which isn’t really an issue one way or the other; I don’t care what people are into. It’s just that it also doesn’t sell.

So when I say no, to what do I refer? I refer to the great idea. The exciting new concept. The value-added feature, the thing no one’s actually asked for but everyone will love. The thing you read the interesting article about. The thing the so-called competition is doubling down on. The thing that one guy, that one time, said would’ve closed the deal that was never going to close anyway. The transformative innovation. The game-changer. The Next Big Thing. And this is why I defend my decision, however dorky, however khaki-trousered, to paste Mr. Collins’ pithy little comment around my much- beleaguered team’s workspace. There are reasons that Mr. Collins is rich and I’m not, and while most of them are probably structural I’m willing to accept that his knack for wedging a message into the booze-fogged brains of corporate leaders is at least one of them. That language above isn’t accidental, and I like it. A “ferocious” understanding of what you’re not going to do is exactly right. Because it’s a fucking battle. People love their children, and they love their ideas. Nor are all the ideas bad. Hell, some of them are cool. I would like to take some of that stuff to market and see what happens. But a core necessity of what I actually do for a living is the willingness to ruthlessly strip things down to that which is fundamentally needed to address a meaningful problem. Do that, get it tested, get it built, see where it falls short (it will; it must) and then improve it where improvement is needed. Everyone will hate this, but it’s how worthwhile things get done. And none of it, ever, is cool.

The sad part is that my little quote solves nothing. I’ve got an uphill fight, not because I work with dumb people (I don’t) or serve dumb customers (furthest thing from it). The intractable problem at the heart of my professional dilemma is that I work with a lot of intelligent people who are excited about what they do, and my job is to funnel their fine ambitions down into the hard and grimy work of solving some very unlovely problems. But like most hard and grimy things, that’s where all the halfway good lessons are. I ask myself (without really knowing the answer) what other dimensions of my life would be far better served by the same discipline, the same emphasis on the importance of “no.” My hunch? Nearly all of them.

Oh, and yeah, about that other thing? No.



Regrets, I’ve Had a Few…

It should surprise no one that I’ve experienced very, very few moments of moral clarity in Irish pubs. I’m not saying none, just not very many. But I’ve also not hung out with many Pentecostal theologians in Irish pubs, nor, prior to the event in question, had I ever ordered a french dip in an Irish pub. And this latter point, among others, brings us to the matter of regret.

I’ve been wanting to dig into this topic for a few weeks, but it’s been a thorny one to get my head around. Important, because regret is a fundamental part of the adult emotional landscape, but also difficult, and relevant. I’m not here to spill out over the side about my personal history – that would bore even me – but as a twice divorced man I don’t think it’s revealing too much to say that my personal library of regrets is rich, varied and extensive. It’s the library of Alexandria. It’s the goddamn library of congress. I can spend hours browsing the stacks, and I do. That part isn’t difficult. What I find much harder in my personal experience is finding the right way to put the library in order. Because what you want, of course (and hold on because I am going to belabor the hell out of this metaphor) is a sort of research library. You want it to be a place you can go to reflect on past missteps and collect data to support your next round of decisions. But it ends up not being quite that easy. The books all move around on the shelves. The card catalog (oh yeah, I’m all-in on this theme) is in disarray. Why?

As an aside, that this is where writing about this stuff gets tricky. That whole library motif is twee as hell, but it worked as far as the idea, or at least I think it did. Still, here I am breaking the fourth wall and layering in the requisite prophylactic, ironic distance, which means that I’m still uneasy with it. And unfortunately for you, I can get away with doing that because it’s a blog, and there’s no editor to make me take paragraphs like this one out. Your patience, dear reader, is appreciated.

Anyway, what is it that so complicates the question of regret, when we try to make use of those regrets in real life? The question interests me, partly because it’s relevant to my own shit, but also because I think it points back to one of the basic tensions in our cultural and intellectual lives. Namely, the friction between our expectation of linear, progressive narratives, and the recursive messiness of actual existence.

A quick thesis: though I’m no expert on Hegel, I’m aware of living in the long shadow cast by his conception of history as a series of necessary actions pointing always in one, progressive direction. And the only difference between me and anyone else is that little detail of being aware of it. Enlightenment notions of progress, of inexorable movement toward a higher state of being, are so woven into the fabric of our culture that nearly everyone subscribes to them without ever needing to have been conscious that they are doing so. We structure our thought that way. We expect the same things from our lives. And we don’t have to think about it that much, so we seldom do.

I have these pet peeves in language and belief, which I’ve discussed here before. One of these is the phrase, “Everything happens for a reason.” It’s yet another of those little markers of intellectual laziness. I interpret it to mean, “I don’t know why anything happens, but I don’t want to think about it, so I’m prepared to assume that there’s some sort of plan that I’d prefer not to have to define.”

Here’s the problem. Made seriously, the assertion that everything – everything – happens for a reason is an astonishing statement of the most profound faith. Something bugs me about so massive a claim being made without any sort of rigor behind it. More to the point, something really bugs me about the idea of a profound and fully invested faith in something that the believer hasn’t bothered to define. This is the spiritual and intellectual equivalent of bungee jumping minus the bungee. And it’s more or less the cultural norm.

I want to be clear here – it’s not the faith part of the equation that bothers me. If it were, drinking with Pentecostal theologians in Irish pubs would be even more awkward than it already is. Faith, thoughtfully arrived at, poses no problem for me. I may be skeptical, I may not share it, but anyone who’s seriously undertaken that kind of journey and gotten somewhere they want to be is fine by me. My friends believe things that I do not, but they got there through hard work (and acculturation and upbringing; all of our intellectual lives are elaborate acts of confirmation bias to some extent). But the far shallower assertion of everything happening for vague and ill-defined reasons, maybe involved with God but perhaps not (in general usage it’s much more likely to be The Universe, which isn’t terribly helpful), has little to do with that kind of faith. It’s just optimism, of which I am no fan at all.

But the idea of all things being orchestrated toward some purpose is precisely the snare that we’re caught in when we try to make sense of our regrets. The implication behind it is that our lives have a linear narrative. We begin and point A, and we move inexorably, my means we don’t always understand in the moment, toward a meaningful point B. For this to work, we’re required to believe that there is a plan for all this which precedes our participation in it, and that this preexisting plan is revealed to us as move along its arc.

We find this, again, woven into the casual language that our culture uses to talk about life. Along the path of our existence, we are expected to find ourselves. We discover our purpose, and our passions. We learn what we were meant to do. And look, if I’m honest, I say all the same shit. It’s how we talk. The narrative of our lives is represented in terms of uncovering, discovery, revelation. All of it consistent with the idea that the narrative was there before we got to it. This is a cultural constant and breaking from it takes some serious thought.

Where it all gets complicated is when that expectation collides with the hot mess of lived experience. The scenarios should be familiar to us all: we break up with so-and-so. We still harbor feelings for that individual, and for a time, perhaps for years, we experience regret. Then we meet someone else. We fall in love. Now the regret is reconfigured, becoming perhaps a lesson, perhaps an error. Our true path now stands revealed, so have to revise. We have to reconsider whatever we thought we had learned, improvise a new narrative and retrofit it to the past. The past itself doesn’t change, but our orientation to it does. We’re now involved in a project of trying to prove to ourselves that the narrative was always true. We simply erred in our understanding of it, which has now been corrected.

And then it all happens again.

In fairness none of this is terribly problematic when the stakes are low. But the stakes for regret aren’t always low, and the big, hairy, serious regrets, the ones that you really do need to be working through in a very meaningful way, can get confusing, particularly when you’re attuned enough to see your relationship to those regrets changing in real time. The big regrets can carry an urgency that doesn’t always diminish over time, and the task of dealing with them can have an impact on the life you’re really living. There may be real project-level work there, long term work, yet you continue to change. The labor of trying to fit it all into a tidy linear path becomes a tax on the work of really pulling that regret into your sense of self and figuring out what the hell to do about it.

But here’s where I was stuck: flipping around the other way is little help. On the one hand it does fit much more cleanly into my a-teleological world view to accept that the path of my life did not, in fact, exist before I created it. Mine is not the march of history. Mine is the march of Paul, and it has been a meandering, Quixotic affair. But at the same time, it’s no help to me (and less help to anyone that I’ve let down along the way) to go full-on deconstructionist and say that, because of this, there are simply no conclusions to be drawn. I want to remedy my assholery where I can, and justify it where I should. Without ground to stand on, that’s difficult to do.

Enter the theologian, the pub, and the regrettable french dip. As my friend has a formidable reputation to protect we’ll simply call him the Doctor. But the thing to know about the Doctor is that he’s an actual philosopher, which I am not. He’s got the credentials, he’s done the work, and he’s an accomplished bareknuckle brawler in the great, academic cage match of philosophical debate. He’s also my friend, and though I imagine that the field of our disagreements is wide, we agree on a great deal. But our exchange at the pub made for a neat summation of the gulf that lies between his learning and mine, because it took him about four seconds to offer a way out of my regret conundrum.

What he suggested, and I quickly wrote down, was that any given regret can be considered through both a metaphysical and ethical lens. Which is to say, it’s one thing to consider what regret is, or the nature of a given regret and whether it’s a regret at all. That’s fine and useful, and yes, the answers will change as you do. But it’s something else entirely to consider the moral nature of a regret. That will change far less. It really shouldn’t be changing any faster than your own ethics do, which is a separate point.

And he’s right. That’s what I was looking for. It allows for method, in that teasing out the ethical component of our regrets for separate consideration is both possible and wise. Given everything discussed above, it may the part of regret that matters most. If our regrets are going to guide us, it sort of has to be.

So the french dip was bad. I mean it was an okay piece of beef, but it was stranded on this dry baguette and accompanied by a sauce that was something, but was definitely not au jus. You will point out, rightly, that this is what I get for ordering a french dip in an Irish pub. You’re right, and I regret this. But there is no ethical component to that regret. There’s an ethical component to the sins of the cook, but they are not my sins. I can take a lesson from the experience not to order nominally French sandwiches in Irish pubs. If I end up by some strange chance doing so again and wind up having a really great french dip in some future pub then I’ll have to reconsider, but that won’t matter very much. That’s exactly as much thought as I’m ever going to give this. I’ve already given it far more thought than it deserves, but I can also know that. The ethical yardstick helps me do so.

God, the sandwich thing’s pretty twee too. Honestly the whole post kind of came out like that. Can I do a post about ethics without twee and facile illustrations? And yet, is forced edginess actually better when I’m getting the thoughts in place without it? Stay tuned.

Hell on a Back Burner

I woke up this morning to find Paradise Lost on the Stove. This isn’t unusual. I sometimes like to read while wandering around the house, and verse of any kind does this to me more than prose. Books wind up all over when this happens, and though Jenn was over last night, it happens even more when I’m alone. When other people are around they tend to want me to sit down, so I do, but on my own I often don’t. I sit in chairs for a living. It seems counterintuitive to me to want to come home from that and sit in more chairs. It seems like if I’m going to be sitting down, I should be getting paid.

Finding Milton anywhere isn’t really a surprise in any case, because I’m kind of a fan, literarily if not theologically (though from what I understand my inability to get my head around John Milton’s theology is a problem not limited to myself). In fact the early origins of that fandom haven’t got that much to do with Milton’s thought at all. It all started with a big, old, fabric-bound volume of Paradise Lost that my father had when I was a kid. I read very little (though I certainly read some), but the thing about this volume was that it had all of the incredible illustrations by Gustave Doré, which I pored over for what seems in my memory to have been hours. Those illustrations were, and are, beautiful and dark, gothic and voluminous with an overload of detail offset against a tremendous sense of space. The characters, mostly male, all had those sort of idealized classical dad-bods. It was all very dramatic, but it was also a remarkably refreshing change of pace from what I had always though of as classical art, because while there were plenty of angels flying around, there was also Satan. And you knew it was Satan right away because unlike the run-of-the-mill angels, Satan had bat wings. Satan was cool.

Which was exactly Milton’s point. Doré, we should remember, as closely associated with Milton as his work has become, wasn’t even close to being Milton’s contemporary. Doré was a product of the high Romantic, and for all the intimations of marble, studied grace and classical form, his was still very much a sexed-up Genesis. He also had a cartoonist’s eye for the telling visual device that establishes scene and character. For Satan, and his minions, the visual device was bat wings. You could tell the wicked characters apart from the good (and, therefore, utterly boring) angels right away. This was also an appropriate character reading, because Milton’s Satan was meant to be exactly that. The most beautiful of the angels, Satan was supposed to catch your eye. Nor, to his eventual downfall, could he avoid catching his own.

An odd bit of context for my early reading was the fact that this was the 1980s, and thus against the backdrop of what’s often now referred to as the “Satanic Panic.” For those fortunate enough to be unfamiliar, that term refers to a period of several years spanning the mid eighties and early nineties during which a credulous public and (in my view) cynical press became caught up in a moral panic over rumors that a phenomenon of Satanic ritual abuse was sweeping the nation. It was ridiculous, and literally every claim that was ever investigated was eventually debunked. But of course it was also exciting  (Geraldo Rivera was all over it), and provided a usefully reductive frame for performative cultural conflict. So it was funny to have at least a basic grounding in Milton’s version, because every side of the panic seemed to be onto something very different from that. Evangelicals and Deeply Concerned Citizens in their large-frame, aviator-style glasses and nervous mustaches seemed clear that whether the arch-fiend was real or not, the scene surrounding him was a salacious distillation of everything they were afraid of, with overtones of desperate and destructive evil. For the heavy metal kids on the other side of the debate (full disclosure: these were my friends in later childhood), the idea was basically the same, only the fear was overridden by fascination, and the several gratifications of making the aforementioned mustaches quiver. Whether you were buying or burning Venom’s Welcome to Hell album, you were basically enthralled with the same horned, gory, fabulous goat lord.

For Milton, of course, Satan represented a completely different idea. I still really dig it, especially now that I understand it a little better. I don’t dig it in the sense of finding Milton’s Satan compelling, but in the sense of finding a huge amount of useful insight into the human condition. Which is a roundabout way of saying that I see a lot of myself in the Lord of Hell. That sounds dramatic, but it isn’t. I see a lot of pretty much everyone I know. And to Milton’s credit, it’s not a great thing to behold.

See, Milton’s Satan isn’t anyone you’d really want to worship, Geraldo Rivera notwithstanding. You might for a minute, caught up in his beauty and force of personality, but as tends to happen, you’d come away disappointed. Not because of his evil, but because somewhere along the line you’d figure out that he’s actually just a fragile asshole.

Look, I’m not going to lie to you. Paradise Lost in its entirety is a pretty heavy lift. Milton was brilliant and insightful, with a clear view into how human beings work, and the thing is full of these rich little vignettes. Unfortunately he was also a devout kind-of-Calvinist, and between those rich vignettes lie mile upon mile of arid and sometimes ponderous iambic verse. Don’t come here for the nimble fluidity of Shakespeare. Milton could hit those notes when he wanted to, but big chunks of his verse lurch and rattle like a city bus on square wheels, and you’re not always going to be caught up in its rhythm and flow. Which is actually good and bad. It’s often heavy sledding, but Milton’s clunking and clanking is arguably a better way of getting you to think about what’s being written. And in contrast to Shakespeare, Milton was writing to be read more than performed. It’s verse intended to transmit ideas more than to be pronounced trippingly on the tongue. But it’s the ideas that I like, in the end, and there are vastly (enormously, titanically) more egregious works to be found out there in prose, if we’re talking ideas.

For these reasons, non-Calvinists could be forgiven for skipping around (I certainly always have), but a great place to skip to is the opening of Book IV. Here, we find Satan, already defeated in his first attempt on the holy throne, on a mission to explore the newly created Earth. Overlooking Eden, he experiences a remarkable moment of very human doubt, coupled with self-recrimination. But it’s not just any doubt, nor any recrimination. The next few sections of verse locate Satan’s misery squarely in the center of his own ego, self-delusion, and resentment. No ravening fiend here; what Milton gives us is a slightly more sympathetic Trump. A malignant narcissist, we get to witness Satan’s last shreds of goodness dissolving in his own resentment and alienation. A single passage, for me, anchors the scene:

O had his powerful Destiny ordain’d
Me some inferior Angel, I had stood
Then happy; no unbounded hope had rais’d

In other words, if only God hadn’t made Satan so incredibly awesome, he might have been able to be happy after all. He could have been a normie, cheerful, dumb and complacent. But no, he was was made exceptional. It wasn’t really even his fault. What can you expect? If God had wanted him mooching around like the inferior angels, God should have made him that way. The resulting lurch into extravagant self-pity is quick and dramatic.

Me miserable! which way shall I fly
Infinite wrath, and infinite despair?
Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell; 
And in the lowest deep a lower deep
Still threat’ning to devour me opens wide

Doré’s accompanying illustration has Satan on a rocky outcropping, hand to forehead in classic Romantic lamentation. This vacillation between self-recrimination and self-praise, wild misery and exultant anger is accurate. I do it all the time. The Doré illustration, through modern eyes, is kind of funny, though I doubt Milton meant it quite that way. But Satan’s suffering is real here. His essential shittyness is too, but what happens next is intriguing. Satan, in his misery, actually considers what it might mean to repent. For a moment, he considers, with apparent seriousness, the possibility of prostrating himself before the Almighty and begging forgiveness. But he catches himself in a moment of remarkable self-awareness. Repentance is quickly taken off the table for two reasons. First, to repent is necessarily to submit.

O then at last relent: is there no place
Left for Repentance, none for Pardon left?
None left but by submission; and that word
Disdain forbids me, and my dread of shame
Among the Spirits beneath, whom I seduc’d
With other promises and other vaunts. 

In other words, Satan here recognizes that he’s caught. Submission is more than his own pride can bear to begin with, but more to the point, it would make him look like an idiot. For better or for worse, he’s got a Hell full of followers. Everyone’s looking at him. He can’t just turn around and submit. There’s no chance.

But he goes further. Pride aside, he perceives that the thought of repentance doesn’t arise from any genuine conviction that he’s wrong. It’s simply a reaction to his suffering, and with the suffering alleviated, he’ll only fuck it up again, “Which would but lead me to a worse relapse, and heavier fall.”

Whatever else you want to say about the guy, he knows himself. He may have vast blind spots, but he’s also got a handle on how he operates. So, he realizes, does God, and thus the eternal enmity is locked in, with what may honestly be the favorite lines of the entire epic:

This knows my punisher; therefore as far
From granting he, as I from begging peace

Who hasn’t had an important relationship break down at precisely this point? This is the broken marriage, the estranged adult child, the friendship bitterly-ended, the angry professional resignation. There’s an important human touch point in the forgiveness that I will never ask you for, in the belief that you will never grant it. It’s the severing of ties, the shutting down of communication. And again, we’ve all done it.

It’s also a perfect clunker of a split line, but to me it works beautifully as a setup for the perfect ten-syllable, emphatic, ba-Dum-ba-DUM rhythm of the second bit. But that’s english course geek stuff and well out of my expertise. I’ll say no more about it. But what Milton does give us here is a very real sense of the devil you know. Or perhaps more usefully, the devil you are. Satan’s up to no good from this point out, and we can see why. He’s painted himself into a corner with his own self-serving logic, narrowed his own options down to the course he was already on. I do that too. So, dear reader, do you.

Now Milton’s Satan as an exemplar of existentialist inauthenticity is a bad undergrad philosophy term paper just waiting to be written by someone, but I’ll spare us all. For now. Maybe. Which way shall I fly?

The Happy Hand Grenade

So I was getting my brain erased in this charming little bistro when it occurred to me that I was happy.

No, not in the usual way (though the Malbec was good). My brain was being erased by a small alien creature, little enough to perch on my lap while the deed was done. The effect was achieved with a sinister instrument of technology (actually a pencil with the eraser pressed to my forehead), and my tormentor giggled when I crossed my eyes and pretended not to remember where I was. The alien creature was six, and we were honestly having an amazing time. Nobody bats an eye when you erase somebody’s brain in a Brooklyn bistro. Or maybe they do and we just didn’t care. I didn’t really notice one way or the other, and anyway my memory was erased.

Now in fairness, given my usual peripatetic lifestyle, the uncertainty of memory isn’t particularly remarkable anyway. But though I was on the road, this wasn’t part of the usual grind. It was, astonishingly, vacation – something I don’t do that often. But in order to forestall the flickering burnout that I’ve discussed here before, I actually managed to block out a few days and travel to New York with Jenn. Mostly the goal was to wander around in full tourist mode, but I also dearly wanted to catch up with some friends, a family that I’d originally met on a cruise (shut up) last year. We’d all bonded over not being elderly, angry and British, for one thing. But they’re also legitimately fascinating people – a cartoonist, writer and comic married to an indie record company owner (oh yeah, that’s still a thing). They have to hustle to make all that work, but they do, in style. And of course, somehow in the midst of that they also take care of the wee alien. And with a few days in New York to play with, catching up with the alien was deeply necessary.

Thus the dinner, and the somewhat welcome erasure of my mind. Afterward we decamped to our host’s home for a chat and a nightcap. As you’d expect, they have that terrific little apartment in Brooklyn: a sort of comfort-riot of bohemian coziness, overrun with books and records, artworks in varying stages of completion, spice jars, markers, difficult-to-identify bits of cultural ephemera, all overlaid with the natural, post-whirlwind detritus of life with any good six-year-old. Her room, as it has to be, is the entropic center of it all, stickered, toy-strewn and bedazzled, the whole thing perpetually turned inside out and sparkling like a Broadway costume closet raided by Huns. Nor could it be otherwise, because I couldn’t imagine little Tug turning into little Tug against any other sort of background. Also her name is Tug.

Tug herself is a diminutive madwoman, a smiley-face hand grenade with the pin pulled, enduringly clever and perfectly wicked. She has an obviously churning, busy little brain, which I’m sure is going to yield a cornucopia of developmental drama in eight or ten years time. But she’s also very much just a good, regular kid, neither more nor less of a pain in the ass than any other. Nonetheless, I’m unabashedly smitten, and have been since we very first met. She’s wildly and demonstrably affectionate, known for a deluge of hugs and impromptu lap climbings, and I don’t imagine for a minute that I’m the only person who gets the same treatment. Doesn’t matter though – she’s got me. She’s got my number and there’s nothing I can do about it. Ever since we met we’ve been sending drawings to one another. From the very start, she spelled my name as “Pull,” so we’ve been Pull and Tug ever since. She understands that this isn’t technically correct but she also gets the poetry of it, so Pull and Tug we shall ever be.

Spending time with Tug and her parents, relaxing in their great little apartment in their great little neighborhood, after a great meal at the great little bistro just downstairs, was one of those experiences that I never quite know how to talk about (obviously). I mean, I’m not known for my hugely sunny disposition, but there are times even for me when it’s possible to find myself in the flow of something purely good and deeply, even profoundly enjoyable. That’s kind of my whole conception of happiness, in a way: an inherently fleeting experience that catches you whenever it happens to catch you. And it can be easy to miss – you need a certain watchfulness. It’s possible to drift along, putting every experience through the standard shitty-ness meter and fail entirely to notice that for a minute, a little while ago, things were kind of okay.

When I do catch happiness in the act, when I manage to notice it, one nice side effect is that I also tend to remember it. That also requires noticing that there aren’t a ton of those moments, that their rarity is part of what makes them memorable, but whatever. I can call up a few of those moments in my mind, and they mean something to me.

Take today. I’m writing this at a table in the front of our favorite coffee shop. I was sitting two tables over one of the last times I caught that happiness, and I remember it. I was sitting across from Jenn just as I am now, facing the window that looks out on 17th Street. Like today, it was gray, she was working, and I was doing a close reading of Foucault’s History of Sexuality (shut up), taking copious notes, working slowly. It was warm in there, it was cozy, I was buzzing intellectually, the coffee shop was murmuring, I was okay, not sick, not hurting, nobody I knew was in any real trouble. And for a minute there, I noticed all that, taking note well enough to write my father about it later. And I have that now. As much of a pessimistic bastard as I am, I find that I can use those little moments. Somewhere among them is a useful cognitive strategy against the abyss, because of course the shitty days do come. The brittle, stretched, gone-too-far days that I always manage to go looking for will come round again – I’ll make sure of that. And the rest of the time, the quotidian shit just goes wrong anyway. Then somebody dies. So having a little card to play, something to help you remember that there’s a different kind of experience possible, isn’t a totally trivial thing. It’ll never be enough to turn things around by itself, but it’s a straw to grasp at. You need those.

But I also like the fact that there isn’t anything about those experiences that you can necessarily just go and create. It’s not like you can will them into being, exactly. You can try and create opportunities for them to happen but it’s not some clear, volitional thing. And there’s no way to live there all the time. I’m not there today, even though the circumstances are more or less the same and there’s nothing wrong with today at all. Which in its way is good; like I said, the whole point of being happy is the fact that you usually aren’t.  I’m perfectly okay with knowing that I can only catch it once in awhile, and that the very next job will be turning around and letting it go.

It occurs to me at the eleventh hour here that I started out with having my memory erased and then moved into a discussion of memory and happiness, which I didn’t consciously plan out. There’s probably some graceful way to turn around and make that look like a conscious motif but I don’t have the energy. Like I said, today is absolutely fine, it’s just not one of those days. But Tug’s day was. I’ll remember having my memory erased, and somewhere along the line here it’ll help me. That’s kind of good enough.