Throwing shapes

This happens all the time: Someone asks for something (“Can you toss me the remote?”) and you gently, swiftly, accurately throw it across the room to him or her. More often than not, the item lands precisely in the other person’s hand, right?

It works the other way around: You tend to catch, with ease, any sort of small object that another person throws toward you.

Those things happen even when neither person possesses any natural throwing/catching skills. This isn’t a pair of professional infielders here. This is you and another person we’re talking about.

Now, maybe it sounds like I’m making a lot out of a little, but the point is that this natural no-thought action is a helpful way of looking at the things you’re actually skilled enough to spend time doing. If you sweated over the physics of throwing that remote across the room (beneath the ceiling fan, hitting just the right angle), well, you’d probably fuck it up and break a window. If you don’t think at all and rely solely on the present moment’s will, I bet you’ll hit the target and move on readily with the next thing the day has in store for you.

“Perfectionism” gets you nowhere. Executing a sense of self-trust and self-confidence, however, will deliver you exactly where you want to be.

Symbols

In what is mostly a melody-driven tune fingerpicked by Oliver Wood on a 1930s Stella parlor guitar, the listener of “Little Bit Sweet” is rewarded with Jano Rix’s cymbal work on the bridge (2:52 – 3:01, with Oliver singing “Then she blinks / the moment’s gone”). That’s the release, the point at which the song lifts off the precipice and floats wingsuitedly toward denouement. The point is that the cymbals make the song.

The cymbals can be anything in your story.

Playing games

It’s not difficult to see that much of the modern experience of life, at least in Western societies, has been gamified to some extent. With the rise of self-conscious digital avatars and social media platforms, most of life’s duties are now filtered through some sort of “account,” one which often involves numbers and an audience. The better your performance (whatever the game may be), the higher your number (friends, U.S. dollars, deadlift weight, etc.), and the greater your audience’s level of engagement.

These are status games, similar to any other competitive game like chess or baseball. The goal is to win, somehow, and the game must be played within a set of constraints. In these games, human freedom is not a meaningful attribute. Justin E.H. Smith writes about this, distinguishing these games from the more abstract and creative sorts of games like peek-a-book or charades.

What games are you playing today?

It’s worth thinking about. Smith writes/warns that machines are only capable of playing the competitive status game, the game with prescribed rules and guardrails. That makes sense on face value, and it’s something to keep in mind as “machine learning,” that vast and vague term, seems to accelerate. As machine learning accelerates, my guess is that competitive status games will proliferate further. Trends we’re seeing with digital avatars and social media platforms will ramp up: Soon, life will be dominated by those games (as if it doesn’t yet feel that way).

But the other type of game is deeply important. James Carse calls them “infinite games,” as opposed to the “finite games” of competition and status. Infinite games are not meant to be won; they are meant to be played forever, meant “for the purpose of continuing the play.”

The complicated experience of life is an infinite game, even in the shadow of death. A machine, I think, cannot understand this. But what do I know?

“Finite players play within boundaries; infinite players play with boundaries,” Carse writes. I read this as two ways of conducting yourself across that apparently finite/infinite experience of life. “Because infinite players prepare themselves to be surprised by the future, they play in complete openness. It is not an openness as in candor, but an openness as in vulnerability. It is not a matter of exposing one’s unchanging identity, the true self that has always been, but a way of exposing one’s ceaseless growth, the dynamic self that has yet to be.”

I don’t think that the two ways of conducting oneself are incompatible; finite and infinite players can get along, and probably must in the course of a workday or in line at the bank. But these are very different visions of an unspooling reality. It’s worth thinking about the distinction of these many games before we get too far along in this century. Finite games may swarm across the land, but infinite players can still find ways of playing their game: The game, after all, is everything.

“Only that which can change can continue: this is the principle by which infinite players live,” Carse writes.

In traffic

I like taking stock of the things in motion around me. In traffic, this is good and vital. In the rest of life, this amounts to frequent “reality checks” (am I awake? am I dreaming?) and an awareness of the new stuff generated by my ongoing interests. If all that glurge about life being a journey rather than a destination is at all true, then this is one example of the engine propelling me forward on the journey.

What does that mean?

Today, I’m spending the morning catching up on last night’s Phish show in Mansfield, Mass. I’m also watching the third round of the Open. I didn’t watch last night’s Guardians game (and probably won’t rewatch it or anything today), but I’m reading up on highlights from the 6-5 win over the Tigers. They play again at 4:10 p.m., so maybe I’ll catch the first few innings and see how Cal Quantrill is looking. Those are just three examples from the past 24 hours.

On the surface, those things (and more) are very important to me. Phish, golf, Cleveland sports. Sure. But what I’m trying to say is that it’s helpful to use objects in motion as a way of staying grounded in the present. As Phish tour rolls on this summer, I can follow along and stay rooted to the moment. It’s July 16; there’s a show in Bangor, Maine, tonight, and there’s last night’s show to check out. Separately, of course, there are decades of Phish shows to experience, but it’s the present moment that interests me most.

The Open, one of four majors in professional golf, is not only fascinating this year but places me in a richer summertime context. I feel part of something.

And it’s baseball season. The passage of the Guardians from one game to the next is just an echo of my own day-tight compartment transformation. Following the narrative keeps me tagged playfully to my own story.

That story including, naturally, the first six weeks of Louisa’s life. Having a child, I’m finding, is the ultimate story and a perfect illustration of what I think I’m saying here. Each day is different, even if the journey is a singular object in motion.

Notes

I’m setting up a new Macbook Air (always a joy, this process, though I’ve only been through the “new laptop” phase a few times) and transferring bits of data from one computer to the next. Along the way, I’m logging into old apps or sifting through old folders, stumbling over all sorts of long-lost files of writing. Lots of this stuff is just note-taking, pure ephemera, and while I have no problem quickly deleting the whole of it and moving on, it’s fun to pause for a minute and read through clips of my voice ca. 2013 or so.

What’s striking is how little the form of this work has changed. I tend to think the writing itself has only gotten better, and this much I can tell from the snippets of poetry or odd novelistic sentences that I’m finding. There’s a sense in this old business of mine that I was reaching for something beyond my grasp, reaching for a voice that hadn’t yet been chiseled into life. It’s nice to read what I wrote years ago, the forgotten words of a restless younger writer. It’s nice to know, too, that I’ve improved (maybe).

The bulk of this writing, however, is the classic list-making that I still do, and that’s where the similarities really shine. What I was tracking and noting and reminding myself back in 2013 is, in many ways, the same sort of thing I’m observing in myself now. These are largely my stray thoughts on meditation, alcohol, diet, music, travel, journalism, etc.: goals, on some level, but also merely fleeting notions about how to approach certain parts of my day-to-day existence.

Even now, in 2022, I’m dialing in my approach to casual note-taking. I use a hardcover 5×8.25 Moleskine (dotted) for most of my needs, although I’m switching to an A5 LEUCHTTURM1917 with this next notebook (also dotted). The LEUCHTTURM is a bit larger, but the paper stock seems commensurately stronger. It came recommended by none other than Neil Giaman.

For day-tight compartments, I like a simple legal pad. The day’s list of tasks comes and goes. Better to keep it to a throwaway-type medium.

I use digital stuff, too, mostly the Notes app on my iPhone or emails to myself. The email thing is clunky but efficient for more immediate reminders. The Notes app is nice for tracking certain trends over a longer period (books I’m reading in a given year, repeatable grocery lists, etc.). I suppose that’s largely what this website is, too.

Of course, this is all subject to change. I found some of my old notes in Evernote, which I may bring back into my routine now that I’m in set-up-the-new-laptop mode.

June and then some

I’ve had “write roe v wade blog post” in my notebook for the past few, what, days or weeks at this point, and I just haven’t found a spare moment to get it done. Partly that’s because we’re four weeks into little Louisa Shea Sandy’s life and she is quite a handful (more on that in a moment). Partly, too, that’s because I’m routinely distracted by more engaging, more immediate, more joy-propelling topics. Maybe that sounds self-centered, and I suppose it is. But writing about the U.S. Supreme Court’s enactment of theocratic and fascist goals is… not my favorite idea in the world right now. I’ve been writing about the American turn toward this movement for the past five years or so. A lot of what I’ve written about has come to pass. I don’t think that makes me much of a seer. It’s just so painfully obvious that this country is sliding in one damnable direction.

At any rate, Jia Tolentino has that angle covered well.

What I figured I might do is take a page from Andrew Samtoy’s notes and write a “June” post. (It’s “July” now, but so be it.) Plenty of wonderful events took place last month, and this simple frame is just the thing I need to get a few thoughts down on paper.

First things first: Louisa was born at 12:20 a.m. ET on June 5. She’s now about five weeks old and having a grand old time. Our days are mostly structured around her gentle approach to life, her nascent yearnings, her attempts at understanding what, precisely, the hell is going on here. “Where am I?” she asks with her eyes before giving up a subtle, perhaps involuntary smile and acceding the point. She’s right where she’s supposed to be, and aren’t we all?

What is life like with Lou? She moves between the waking world and the dreaming world with ease. Thankfully, she’s sleeping much better than we could have hoped. We’re getting a good eight hours of sleep most nights, typically split into two segments by a 3 a.m. wake-up. And we’re all sleeping in the living room together still, kind of camped out on couches around the basinet, giving each night a fun, communal feeling. That phase will probably come to an end soon, and we’ll move Lou into the crib, and already I can sense that parenthood is as much about endings as it is about beginnings.

I felt for a long time like my life was leading up to this (first to college, then to my career, then to marriage, then, finally, to this experience of being a parent, all while knowing that there’s no such thing as a plateau in life). Now that I’m here, each moment and each day feels amorphous. We move from one interaction to the next, like waves on the surface of the sea. In that way, everything I feel and know and see and touch is beginning and ending at once. There is no way to capture the present moment. You are the present moment. A child somehow knows this, I think, although I also believe that part of a parent’s job is to then teach that lesson back to their child (after their child has first taught it to the parent).

Just now, we had her on the colorful alphabet mat for “tummy time,” and she gave it her all: lifting herself off the little rainbow pillow as “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” played overhead, building her neck muscles and taking stock of the living room (and the overbearing hounds roaming around her). It’s astounding to watch her do something that she hasn’t done before, to see her smile in new ways or react to something in her line of sight. These are the early days, and the engagement level is overall pretty low, but it’s exciting beyond belief. She is making herself up as she goes. Even just the feeling that there’s another human living in our home is a depth of awareness that’s startling in its novelty and meaning. I find it rejuvenating just to look over her, or to come up from a few hours of work and hold her.

In other news, I read three books in June, and then went on to finish two more in early July. It’s been a good run of books lately, as I find time in between spells with Little Lou (or, thanks to the convenience of a dust-collecting Kindle, while I’m holding her) to plow through a few chapters. Here’s what I’ve read so far:

The Shipping News by Annie Proulx.

The Sentence by Louise Erdrich.

The Sportswriter by Richard Ford.

On Writing by Stephen King.

Independence Day by Richard Ford, the second Frank Bascombe novel that follows The Sportswriter, and a Pulitzer Prize winner.

Naturally, as of this morning, I’m about 50 pages into The Lay of the Land by Richard Ford, the third book in that series. There’s a fourth Bascombe book, and a fifth one in progress, allegedly, and I kind of enjoy getting caught up in this multi-generational series.

I could see how an avid reader might leap at comparisons to John Updike’s Rabbit series, although Ford is quick to point out in interviews that his wide-lens profile view of America is written in first-person, but nonetheless I see this as a distinct masterpiece in its own class entirely. And it’s fucking terrific writing! This first book covers the question of “dreaminess” and “living within one’s own self.” I’m sure I’ve read other books that navigate such matters, but nothing so clear as this one.

Independence Day covers what Bascombe calls the “Existence Period” of his life, a phase defined by a willed acceptance of life’s curveballs. At a certain point in life (and, here, Bascombe is in his mid-40s, though it could arrive at anytime), the younger man’s dreaminess no longer holds any meaningful value. It is no longer helpful to wish for what-life-might-be or for what life might seem like. We have good days and bad days, and they hold about equal weight in the long run. One must exist actively through them, come what may. In doing so, life transforms the individual completely. The individual gives himself entirely over to the hazards of life. Consider this, in Bascombe’s telling, the divorced man’s Stoicism. After everything else has come to an end, what else is there to do but live?

As a happily married man with a one-month-old daughter, Bascombe isn’t super relatable, per se. But the way he sees the world meshes quite well with how I’ve looked at my past, present and future, to say nothing of everyone else out there. Bascombe is a good, somewhat unreliable narrator (though he’s at least upfront about it), with a knack for cultural critique and sardonic observations about the human condition. To anyone wiling away the summer in need of good fiction, I recommend Ford’s stuff.

Echoes of a voice

Prior to his tragic exit from this plane, Matt Kuhns set a few pieces of writing to publish after his death. One is an extensive catalogue of citations, each one underscoring the responsibility of certain “climate wreckers” in the vast public understanding of our planetary crisis. This is not a short list of links; rather, it is a damning indictment, and it should be read as such. “A little over 16 years ago,” he wrote. “I started keeping a list of people and organizations to blame for the ruin of a favorable climate, and all the pain and misery which will accompany that.” It’s a fascinating piece, one that could only come together through sheer commitment to craft.

Matt was a staunch supporter (and ardent, whip-smart critic) of independent journalism. In his writing, I saw a fellow traveler. He wrote about American delusion and about the merits of working together for a better future. Over at his blog, he frequently linked back to my own writing on those subjects, and we traded ideas about societal collapse via Twitter. He had a keen ability to communicate his ideas on several levels at once: the immediate, the long-term, the internal, the external. This is rare in digital media, especially in the small-pond feedback loop of local leftist political voices, such as he swam here in the Cleveland area. My sense is that Matt was mostly well known for his local political activism and his astute commentary on, e.g., the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party’s rhythmic missteps. I tended to see in his work a set of deeper, more global concerns.

I first met Matt when I was a beat reporter in Lakewood, covering City Hall and the school board. His coverage ran circles around my own, and he struck me as a fine example of how one might approach political reporting. When I worked at Scene, he provided regular comments on my work and my colleagues’ work. He was honest in his assessments, especially when we missed the mark, and he always held up the paper as a beacon of truth in Northeast Ohio. That meant a lot to me.

Really, though, I’m writing this to highlight the writing he did at mattkuhns.com. I saw tendencies that reflected my own stuff here at ericsandy.com. (I don’t mean to purport to speak for him, but) I saw a drive to get thoughts down in writing, to commit lofty ideals to paper, if only for his own sake. He was a good writer. I admired that drive. He was curious about how the world worked, and how his own life intersected with those strange machinations. As I dug into his own writing, I felt the tug of a voice further down the rabbit hole of hope and eudaimonic aspiration.

The last piece I wrote here, a few months back (!), was about discipline. From what I could tell, Matt brought that to his writing. His voice should remain an inspiration to anyone toiling away on the difficult struggle of ideas and words and the grand sweep of history.

And to anyone feeling the burdensome weight of that struggle: please drop me a line. Know that you are not alone, however small of a consolation that seems. I’d like to assure you (and myself) in my own fringe way that, yes, joy is present.

Discipline

Curt Gardner curated some great lines from Don DeLillo on writing, and I wanted to share this exchange between two titans:

In a June 11, 2007 New Yorker “Final Destination” article on the Ransom Center Archives, author D.T. Max investigates the DeLillo archives, and finds this exchange between David Foster Wallace and DeLillo on writing:

In October, 1995, David Foster Wallace wrote to him, “Because I tend both to think I’m uniquely afflicted and to idealize people I admire, I tend to imagine you never having had to struggle with any of this narcissism or indulgence stuff. . . . Maybe I want a pep-talk, because I have to tell you I don’t enjoy this war one bit.”

DeLillo responded in November. “I was a semiconscious writer in the beginning,” he writes. “Just sat and wrote something, or read the newspaper, or went to the movies. Over time I began to understand, one, that I was lucky to be doing this work, and, two, that the only way I’d get better at it was to be more serious, to understand the rigors of novel-writing and to make it central to my life, not a variation on some related career choice, like sportswriting or playwriting. The novel is different. . . . We die indoors, and alone, and I don’t mean to sound overdramatic but you know what I’m talking about. Anyway, all of this happened over time, until eventually discipline no longer seemed something outside me that urged the reluctant body into the room. At this point discipline is inseparable from what I do. It’s not even definable as discipline. It has no name. I never think about it. But there’s no trick of meditation or self-mastery that brought it about. I got older, that’s all. I was not a born novelist (if anyone is). I had to grow into novelhood.

This is the good stuff. You don’t need to be an aspiring novelist to take away the wisdom in DeLillo’s response. Anything worth doing is worth doing with a stern, unspoken degree of discipline. What does that mean? Well, I’m sure it’s different for everyone, but it’s something that will need to be understood before the work can provide any meaningful transformation to the artist.

I’ve struggled with this. I’ve struggled to quiet my mind and settle into the groove of discipline, like what DeLillo is writing about here. But I think it’s important. Maybe it is just getting older. Something you grow into, if you’re paying attention.

Enter Watson

Easy for us to say, in mid-March 2022, as a genuinely fascinating Cavs team makes a run at the playoffs and as the newly christened Guardians notch a win in Arizona, that we’ll stomp our feet this fall and refuse to watch any more Browns games. But I wonder: at what point does a fan walk away from a team? There’s plenty of hand-wringing material with the Deshaun Watson trade, but, setting aside the obvious headlines, what does it mean to be a fan of a team?

What I dislike most is that this isn’t even the patented Browns front office incompetence on display. It’s not clumsy or even mildly delusional. It’s not kitschy or hallucinatory. It’s cynical, which, despite all the classist profiteering that forms the foundation of professional sports leagues, is still a slap in the face of even the most jaded and booze-addled fans. It’s an empty gesture, a story without a moral. That’s a problem in sports. It’s a sickening desperation, a brazen display of private wealth and, let’s be real, the sort of cash-waving outburst that makes a man appear shockingly small when you encounter this behavior in your day-to-day life. You tend to pity this acting-out bullshit, which you often find in long lines at an airport gate three minutes after a flight cancellation. If you’re anything like me, you feel embarrassed when you see it. You feel immediately the disconnect between cause and effect. You understand, on an undeniable level, that something is deeply fucked up with this person huffing and puffing at the counter.

That sense of pity doesn’t jibe with the many emotional valences of a sports fan. It’s maybe the one line that the relationship cannot cross.

Like I said, it’s easy to rant tonight in Cleveland. But we’ve got other things to tend to in this city right now—as sports fans. It’s just a hell of a thing to have to wrestle with that fandom. It’s not like you can jump ship to another team. Sure, of course, it’s just a hobby, who cares? Walk away. But where’s the fun in being flippant about it? You’re part of the story, too. You’re in it. My belief is that you’re tied to your fandom in some cosmic dust-to-dust sense. That sounds heavier than I think it is, but the point remains: You’re either a fan or you’re not. The Cleveland Browns never fail to fucking amaze me.

A pattern language

When your favorite guitarist cites an obscure 1,100-page book about architecture as a major influence on his band’s creative output, you check it out. According to Trey Anastasio, the work of Christopher Alexander informed much of the early Phish festival designs — the sorts of immersive, idiosyncratic events that would spawn Bonnaroo, Coachella, etc. The book, “A Pattern Language,” is essentially a handbook for how people develop systems and intentionally interact with one another inside of a complex society. Real breezy stuff, sure, but it’s actually very meditative.

This 1996 presentation is about as dense as it gets, but if you listen closely you’ll find that all he’s talking about is freedom. One of the phrases he returns to is “unfolding wholeness.” This is an incredibly psychedelic concept, and it’s vital for anyone doing creative work (which is to say anyone leading an individual life). It’s also very helpful for remembering how to get by with others in an increasingly atomized and overtly hostile American culture.

“No pattern is an isolated entity. When you build a thing you cannot merely build that thing in isolation, but must also repair the world around it.”

Because it’s still on my mind, this is a great angle into understanding the total clusterfuck within the Browns organization right now.

Anyway, I could go on and on about that. RIP Christopher Alexander, a true giant.