The Narrative Fix

September 7, 2009 — 3 Comments

Another way to get your narrative fix: Riding in the back of a cab or a towncar on the way into Manhattan. You come over the Williamsburg or the Brooklyn Bridge and you see the whole island laid on your right. If you lay back in the seat just perfect and stare out the window, the city, it seems, awaits your arrival.

A few hours earlier you were somewhere else – in another state, on a plane, over the middle of the ocean – but now you’re here and the timing, well, it couldn’t have been any better. You could broke or paid on business and the feeling is the same. That the epicenter of the world is open to you, that you matter there.

What’s important to remember is this sensation is meaningless. Or rather, it projects no new meaning onto you as a person. You should enjoy it. It is, no doubt, a rare and special feeling. Yet it is one of these agnostic narrative events into which you personally figure at such a minuscule percentage that it is essentially exactly the same for everyone else.

So take it for what it is but don’t take it to heart.

The Cycle

September 3, 2009 — 9 Comments

Lucian has a famous dialog called Icaromenippus where the narrator rips the wings off an eagle and a vulture and uses them to fly to the heavens. From the moon, he sees the world as comical, puny and ridiculous. He can hear philosophers inside their homes, doing what they thought no one could see, caring about the things they pontificate about disdaining. His conclusion is that life is a strange, confusing kaleidoscope of tiny dimensions. That people are like ants, fighting over bits of food and pieces of dirt.

While doing some research for a project Robert is working on, I came across a Google News timeline for stories on the topic of fear and the economy. I noticed something strange: every economic crises shows a big spike in stories like “the economics of fear” “fearful investors” “family on the brink.” The same stories for different disasters.

Particularly you see these spikes in 1990, in 2000, 2001 and in 2008 with the meltdown of the financial sector. Like nobody remembered writing the same exact piece ten years ago and bothered to check how it all worked out. You also see a rise in stories about the psychology of fear – how some study has shined new light on the brain’s response to loss and fear and uncertainty. As though the findings are the breakthrough explanation for why people are are feeling the way they are. But we know that since the latency period of an experiment is sometimes two or three years before publication, the only thing that mattered was the coincidental timing of the results.

A more basic example: Every year Southern California is wrecked by fires. Though they are never in Los Angeles and always end more or less with the same result, the news reports on them breathlessly like this is the one. My parents will call – “How about all these fires? Are they close by?” – as though we didn’t have this exact conversation the year before. Then a few weeks later, when the winds die down, it may as well have never even happened.

We just seem to accept this as the way things should be. We never ask: Who cares? Don’t you remember having this conversation last year? Don’t you remember how the fire ended last time? How you spent the next 11 months living peacefully in the city you were half-convinced was burning to the ground? Is it still as riveting when you realize even scientific studies are pandering to the spirit of the day? Or wonder how many equally valid ones passed you by because they didn’t happen to align with any subconscious feelings of current culture? These aren’t rhetorical questions, they deserve answers.

A fire burning a few hours away from your home, an economic crises, scientific discoveries. Without context, these are critical matters. In cycle or from afar, they are regular, meaningless bullshit events. They come, they go, we survive. The only thing that’s optional is the obnoxious chatter and speculation.

It’s not so fun when you think about it that way. In fact, to me, it mostly seems embarrassing whenever I get caught up in it. What Lucian eventually concluded that if we could get it straight from beginning; if we remembered that we’re going to die; that after a brief stay on earth we leave it like a dream and never return; we could live with more wisdom and fewer regrets. And we’d waste less time going around and around in this stupid cycle.

What Matters

August 28, 2009 — 10 Comments

The best part about Law and Order is that you can turn on any episode, at any point in time, and have everything you need. The show just does what it is supposed to do. This is because Dick Wolf designed the concept around the parameters of the syndication market, which had never been very kind to dramas. They’re too difficult to break apart and air out of order across channels. But not Law and Order. In fact, it is so different that were channels so inclined, they could split each episodes into two independent halves when the show switches from the investigation to the prosecution and have twice as many.

If I wrote a book about stoicism, I would have so much to say that I wouldn’t have any room to waste on ‘catching people up to speed.’ I wouldn’t even mention Zeno or Cleanthes or Chrysippus or Panaetius. Just like Law and Order doesn’t waste time on flashbacks and character romances and plot lines that bridge between episodes. The same should be true for any book, especially philosophy. But so many pages are wasted on dates and places and context and all this crap that nobody needs.

I’ll put it this way. Most times when I finish a book, I still have no idea who the author was or how to pronounce the names of the characters and subjects they wrote about. I will often find myself in a conversation about something I’ve known very well for a very long time and realize I have no idea how I am about to pronounce the word that is going to come out of my mouth.

The message from other people is that this is supposed to be embarrassing. Or insufficient or uneducated. In fact, in school you’re punished for doing so. But it seems to me that this is not only the best way but the way the author would want. Because what matters are the ideas and they only matter now, to you.

The rest is filler and masturbation. Or worse, it’s a ruse.

Arguing with Reality

August 19, 2009 — 15 Comments

Right after my girlfriend and I started dating, I got sick and she drove me to the hospital in my car. It was out of gas and when we stopped to fill up, she couldn’t figure out how to open the tank. I don’t know how it happened exactly, but the next thing I knew, we were arguing about whether the lever was on the door or not. Through the fever I remember thinking, how are we even having this discussion? Just because they’re normally on the floor doesn’t mean anything, it happens to be on the door.

John August wrote something in January about a new unlimited DVR service in Canada that might disrupt re-run and syndication rights. Buried in the middle is the same comical kind of thinking: I’d love to use the service they’re making but I don’t think they should be able to. Here is what I’m willing allow.

His readers chime in “yeah my vote is for John’s plan” or whatever. No one stops to point out that this whole issue is happening in another country, is left up to the courts, has no consideration for what individual writers may like or dislike about it, and lastly is part of an inevitable technological trend. They’re much too busy attaching riders like it’s a bill through congress. And that is the perfect metaphor too because what they’re doing is trying to vote on reality. They’re voting on reality

We’ve become so used to preposterous internet speak that we don’t even notice anymore. You have to remind yourself: don’t have time for these meaningless discussion about what should or shouldn’t be. Abolish a word? Are you serious?

Our energy would be so much better spent accepting it and finding a way to change it. Looking for cracks to apply leverage and force, not rhetoric. But it feels better to voice your disapproval like some papal proclamation. Ryan does not agree, the facts are on notice!

Enough. Admit to yourself that this is hollow. It is self-absorbed helplessness. And promise that you’ll try to waste less time arguing about reality, pointing out what the weather was supposed to be like today, and take the world as is, for what it is.


August 11, 2009 — 14 Comments

If we consider that posturing tends to imply some basic deficiency and that social masks often cover for their opposite, what should we think about these business metaphors:

cannibalization, drilling down, war room, open the kimono, where the bodies are buried, twisting the knife, a hail mary, loose cannon, come to jesus meeting, brass balls, getting axed, poison pill, hit the ground running, consigliere, deal junkie, nerves of steel, pulling the trigger

I think it means that deep down we know there isn’t anything all that impressive about what we spend so much of our lives on. And we’re so desperate to make it sound better than it is that we dress it up violent imagery and sports references. You can’t draft off something else’s narrative, you can pretend, but the facts remain.