Like Robert Pirsig, I think a lot about Quality In Experience — or, as he called it, the metaphysics of quality. David Imus’ award-winning U.S. map distills everything that’s important and overlooked about quality these days.
“This is an example of heartfelt, artisanal cartography coming from a pro at the top of his game.
“Yet, barring a miracle, this opus will barely be seen. Specialty map shops are disappearing. Bookstore chains tend to carry only the major map brands. And even if they were somehow made aware of Imus’ marvelous creation, most school systems can’t afford or can’t be bothered to update their classroom maps. A map is a map, right? That circa 1982 Rand McNally wall blob does the job just fine, the thinking goes.”
Somehow – and don’t blame me – Scripture came up in a conversation tonight. In passing, mind you. The Bible is a weird thing and certainly has its flaws, but I’m not antagonistic enough to blow past the rather fundamental lessons of humanity contained within. (It’s the dogma and the farce that I won’t tolerate in my life.) I think if we all lived like Jesus Christ, the world would be a lot cooler. He was an alright cat.
Anyway, ever the prepared Boy Scout that I am, I did indeed have a verse to pass on in the discussion. Matthew 6:5. A refutation of all that is wrong with society in 2016. This is from the King James joint: “And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.”
Too many people do things and go places to be seen doing those things and going to those places. The very act of living a life has become a 24-hour show — not for anyone’s entertainment, really, which would be at least somewhat enjoyable, but for the very sake of having something to broadcast, something to shout into the void.
The ancient Greeks had a word for this: thymos. At its etymological root, the word means “spiritedness” or “a desire for recognition.” And that’s a very human trait. It’s in the core of our collective mind. But, in my opinion, the big lunkhead Internet came along and perverted that shit. I play my role, sure (follow me on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and don’t forget to call every now and then), but I remain troubled by how socially mandatory it’s become to be seen engaging with this beautiful thing we call life. Troubled!
I have a mantra (many mantras), and it is this: Climb a mountain. Tell no one.
I try. I really do. And I appreciate the kind and tasteful friends of mine who do the same.
“You see this goblet?” asks Achaan Chaa, the Thai meditation master. “For me this glass is already broken. I enjoy it; I drink out of it. It holds my water admirably, sometimes even reflecting the sun in beautiful patterns. If I should tap it, it has a lovely ring to it. But when I put this glass on the shelf and the wind knocks it over or my elbow brushes it off the table and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, ‘Of course.’ When I understand that the glass is already broken, every moment with it is precious.”
In less than 24 hours, David Wallace-Wells wrote a vivid account of “The Terrifying, Already Forgotten JFK Shooting That Wasn’t.” It’s sort of an unwieldy title, but here’s the gist: On Sunday night, applause for Usain Bolt’s 100-meter dash win — airing on televisions in Terminal 8 — was mistaken by someone, and then many people, for gunfire. Fear settled in immediately, and then rampant confusion spread out among stampeding airport travelers and security personnel en masse. Wallace-Wells describes a horrifying setting, an interminable and brutally post-modern nightmare. To reiterate, yes, this happened on Aug. 14 in New York City, in America.
It’s hard for me to find words for the feelings this story conjures. The writer does a great job of it, and he was actually there.
I think there are a lot of lessons to be drawn from this event, and I hope we continue to talk about it. If nothing else, I suppose, it’s one of the most chilling examples of gazing into the abyss — and sensing the abyss gaze back — that I’ve ever encountered.
This morning, I connected with a college student out in Claremont, Calif., and we talked about ideas relating to what one should do after school. (A mutual friend set up an email between us, noting our similar inclinations toward, as the mutual friend put it, “life mastery.”) I described following my dream of being a writer and how, despite the lackluster pay, I feel fulfilled as a late-20s professional. To wit, I’ve never held a job in my life that I haven’t loved and that hasn’t transcended the term “job.” I enjoy my work.
But the point here is that, among other things, this cat was asking me about how to redevelop the student press at his school. I told him what I’ve told many others: The story, as a tool, is one of the most powerful pieces of technology ever conceived by humans. It’s one of the great things that separates us from the rest of the planet (one of the good things, mind you, as I tend to err on the side that believes our species’ distinguished skills are hindrances in the great development of Earth). But, hey, stories matter. That’s at least one reason why you’re reading this now, scouring the blogosphere for a morsel of narrative.
I write this to say that I was thinking about that conversation all day. The power of stories, of encoding and decoding cultural messages. No one really talks about this shit. It’s important. We’re a society that “likes” memetic story arcs without actually taking a moment to engage with them. And, OK, that’s fine, but when the bell tolls you’ll find me on the sidelines of this contemporary muck, trading stories and laughs and insights with the people who truly get it — the fringe characters who’ve always been gripping the great wheel of American morality.
One final note: I haven’t read a novel in months. Today, I picked up Don DeLillo’s White Noise, and even just the first 50 pages or so have reminded me again of the power of great storytelling. This is a chilling, remarkably realistic book about the recent history of the American family writ large, the cognitive dissonance inherent in trying to carve a path through the bullshit of our culture. So far, it’s excellent.
Here are the other books stacked upon my coffee table:
- A Whale Hunt by Robert Sullivan (finished, excellent)
- River of Shadows by Rebecca Solnit (almost finished, excellent)
- Our Band Could Be Your Life by Michael Azerrad (halfway through, insightful insofar as I enjoy the bands he’s writing about [e.g. Dinosaur Jr, Fugazi, etc.])
- After the Tall Timber by Renata Adler (working my way through, very cognizant of the genius within… She’s a journalistic icon)
- Deep Work by Cal Newport (just a few chapters in… This is something I need to, uh, deeply work on… Really insightful so far)
- Stories I Tell Myself by Juan Thomson (almost done, this is the memoir of Hunter Thompson’s son… It’s angry and sad and reflective and optimistic at times, but it’s not my favorite piece of HST reading by any stretch)
- The Meadowlands by Robert Sullivan (see A Whale Hunt above… Sullivan is my new writerly interest; he’s incredible)