Paths

There are many different times nested within the general COVID Time, like some bizarre temporal Russian doll. Days of anxiety and rage and fear and sadness have slowly given way to “I can handle this alright,” which has then given way to sheer and utter burnout. Not much is really grabbing me these days; I can hardly focus on my stack of seemingly interesting books, and never in my life did I think I’d get totally sick of Great Films and Great Albums. Big, Important Things have become too much to handle. We wait between the couch cushions for something new.

But hey, at least it’s spring. The sun is shining, the temperatures are swinging wildly from cold to hot. The season itself is indecisive but knows it must do something, anything, after a long, tough winter. There’s a light on the horizon, but we’re not there yet. It’s a good time to think about what to leave behind and what to carry forward.

How will this time be marked? Discarded masks will litter the gutters for a few years I imagine. Maybe some sort of somber marble monument will be built in D.C. We live across the street from a park with some trails through fields of wildflowers and native grasses, and I’ve noticed odder, more relatable monuments to this past year, which I’ve dubbed “Pandemic Paths.” These are paths that branch off the main trails, created by humans trying to avoid each other’s potentially dangerous breath. They’re medically-recommended desire lines, trampling some beautiful plants but also saying something about the past year: a desire to be alone, together. A desire to get away from death and statistics and money and masks to find something new, to keep walking. They are writing an unintentional story in the dirt.

A few weeks ago, I accidentally rediscovered a guide to Texas wildflowers that I bought on a whim at Half Price Books years ago. Paired with the iNaturalist app, I’ve been traipsing out into the park everyday like it’s the distant wilderness, on the hunt for a new wildflower. The mix of analog (book) and digital (app) is also refreshing, having spent so much of the past year firmly in the digital fever dream. The app gives the sober, clinical view of nature—the facts, the science, the stern, tsk-tsking Latin names—while the book gives the human spark. There are all the various folk names for the same plant: cloth-of-gold is also Fendler bladderpod and it’s also also popweed. Each name represents a different experiential, historical path. You can imagine someone seeing a whole field clothed in gold and deciding on a poetic name. Another person stoops closer to notice the plant’s pods look like bladders. And a curiouser soul (probably a kid) figures out that if you step or pinch those pods, they pop.

Occasionally, the authors’ own absurd humanity peaks through the pages of the guide. In the introduction, they describe waiting for the perfect photo under the merciless Texas sun, a task that requires “all of one’s patience and half one’s religion to maintain equanimity.” The guide was originally published in 1984; if the authors made it to our day, they’d be uniquely prepared for our moment.

With these two guides, I’ve become attuned to the details, like how a lawn of April grass is unbelievably crowded with color and texture and species diversity if you take the time to look. Spotting blue-eyed grass or Engelmann’s daisy or greenthread or the impossibly-small field madder has turned into a simple game, something to focus on as the days inch closer to opening up. There’s a unique, orchestrated rhythm to spring now, the cluster of flowers changing week-to-week: henbit dead-nettle is pale and dying, now come the spiderworts and primrose, then it’s prairie verbena and Texas vervain’s turn. I’ve lived in Texas my entire life and I’m finally seeing the way spring moves, ebbing and flowing at my feet, in front of my eyes, under my nose.

This is a time for questioning and treading lightly. This is also a time for noticing, for witnessing. This is how things rebuild.

More Precious Time

I’ve noticed a strange paradox hidden in these past 10+ months of the pandemic: with more time on my hands, I feel time to be even more precious to me. I’ve dropped a lot of old habits, reassessing what I pay attention to or care about. A lot of these old habits and interests seem like leftovers from college or childhood that I somehow kept dragging around without noticing. Others were unwillingly but subtly dumped on to me by my surroundings or society. I slowly realized I don’t care about sports anymore. I don’t care about keeping up with the hottest television shows or podcasts anymore. There’s nothing wrong with those interests, they’re just not for me.

There’s incredible freedom in that negative self-definition. There are only so many hours in a day, and I’m keenly aware of that now. Maybe it’s a sense of mortality, but I think it’s more like a truer sense of time: how it can lull you into a state where time just happens to you, rather than you deciding what to do with the time that is given. It doesn’t help that most of society is optimized to capture your attention, which is another way of saying stealing your time without your consent or awareness.

In his newsletter The Art Of Noticing, Rob Walker recently proposed a tidy equation: pay attention to what you care about, and care about what you pay attention to. He elaborates:

This thing I am paying attention to, do I actually care about it? Did I notice it for reasons of my own, or was I forced to notice it?

This other thing I really do care about — am I giving it the attention I should? (Does it, perhaps, need mending?) Am I noticing what I want to notice?

It’s increasingly easy to mislead yourself into liking or caring about something that you don’t actually have an interest in. News and social media organizations are incredibly adept at this, keeping your attention in an endless loop of related content and new updates. Your attention is turned into money, but your time is permanently gone. It’s worth paying attention to what you pay attention to, as writer Amy Krouse Rosenthal once put it.

Today my wife shared with me this interesting interview with Ruth Chang on decision-making. I love her emphasis on commitment: no matter what you decide, by committing to your decision, you are creating “value for yourself in your life instead of being a passive recipient.” Your commitment makes the decision the “right” choice because you give it extra value (and you start to see it with that added value). And I think there’s such a thing as negative commitment: by choosing not to do something, you can create value too. This morning, I recorded a piece of music, and after spending time away from it, I realized the initial idea behind the music wasn’t that good. Instead of spending hours, days, weeks trying to improve that so-so idea–which I’ve been so guilty of for years–I’ve committed to throwing that idea into the trash and starting with another idea. I think there’s also an interesting relationship between acceptance and commitment–the former is couched in passive terms, but I think it’s a required step towards commitment. In the Yamabushi culture of Japan, there’s the concept of uketamō: radical, full-body acceptance. It’s a much more active idea than simple acceptance, less fatalistic and more total commitment. Acceptance leads to commitment, which maybe feeds back into acceptance and starts the cycle over again.

But the eternal question: what, in this moment, should I commit myself to? For time-consuming artistic projects, I just came across this great decision matrix used by Brian Eno:

Will it be fun?

Will I learn anything from it?

Will it make the world a better place?

Will it earn enough money to pay for the first three?

Maybe not the most helpful when deciding between another glass of wine or writing a blog post, but both of these things are certainly worth my time and attention.

Broken Words, In Four Parts

‘The Tower Of Babel,’ Pieter Bruegel the Elder

“He discovers that words do not necessarily work, that it is possible for them to obscure the things they are trying to say.” Paul Auster, Ghosts

The dark joke at the heart of the Harry Potter series is the fact that an eleven-year-old boy is more willing and able to name evil than the adults that are sworn to protect him from it. He’s routinely castigated for daring to utter the name “Voldemort,” and the grown-up placeholders for Voldemort are comically murky: He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, You-Know-Who. Even when Voldemort unequivocally returns and kills a Hogwarts student in front of Harry, he is not believed. He is ignored, even silenced by adults (specifically by the politicians—author J.K. Rowling makes a magical world that nonetheless functions much like our own).

The Harry Potter series subtly echoes “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” In Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, swindlers dress the emperor in imaginary, unseeable clothes, and his subjects ignore this fact even though they can see the “clothes” are false. Finally, a child speaks up, pointing out to a crowd that the emperor is wearing nothing at all. That’s where I remembered the story ending, illustrating the bravery and intelligence of children. But the original text ends on a sadder note: after being called out, the emperor walks “more proudly than ever” in his invisible clothes.

At the end of the Harry Potter series, Professor Dumbledore reminds Harry that “words are… our most inexhaustible source of magic, capable of both inflicting injury and remedying it.” Spells, after all, are conjured through words, and across the books, misspoken spells have a habit of inflicting harm on the speaker themselves. But broken words—words used to misinform, obscure, or degrade meaning—are still incredibly powerful. Over time, they erode tongues, minds, and hearts. They can fracture societies. The once-sturdy foundation sinks into quicksand, into a routine of recrimination, half-truths, and lies.

It is staggering how normalized this kind of spellbound discourse has become in American life. You feel crazy for seeing so much craziness in everyday communication, and speaking out against so much craziness starts to feel even crazier. You get to a point where you can’t even trust your own words anymore.


“To what extent would people tolerate blasphemies if they gave them amusement? The answer is obvious, isn’t it? To any extent.” Paul Auster, City Of Glass

In his poem “Big Grab,” Tony Hoagland points to the way the meanings of words are subtly eroded over time, not just through common speech but through advertising, commerce, and politics. A corn chip bag intentionally contains a few less chips than before but it’s still called ‘The Big Grab.’ An absurd billboard sells “a beautiful girl / covered with melted cheese.” It feels like such an American poem, until Hoagland zooms out:

Confucius said this would happen:
that language would be hijacked and twisted
by a couple of tricksters from the Business Department
 
and from then on words would get crookeder and crookeder
until no one would know how to build a staircase,
or to look at the teeth of a horse,
or when it is best to shut up.

Does Hoagland include himself as a “trickster”? Does making art give artists cover to deny their involvement in this crooked situation? Are advertisers, businessmen, and politicians the ultimate artists, toying with language until it breaks apart? Imagination is not a benign thing.


still from La Antena

“The present is no less dark than the past, and its mystery is equal to anything the future might hold.” Paul Auster, Ghosts

In La Antena, an Argentinian silent film, the voices of an entire city’s people are stolen by a malignant media mogul named Mr. TV. The people can still talk, but their words are spelled out above their heads, like text messages. Mr. TV doesn’t stop at stealing voices. In the final act of the film, he steals the words themselves as the people are lulled into a kind of hypnotized stupor by his television broadcasts. Random words flood the screen, floating into the air like let-go balloons.

La Antena was released in 2007, just before Twitter debuted, but it nonetheless feels like an early glimpse of social media’s cancerous growth on society. Social media advertises itself as giving “voice” to everyone, but it is a new Tower of Babel where context collapses under the weight of so many voices: a cat meme, followed by a police brutality video, followed by a photo of your friend’s delicious brunch, followed by an advertisement, followed by a political half-truth, followed by a link to an Article You Have To Read Right Now, ad infinitum. In this world, so many voices and words are rendered meaningless, which is the same as stealing voices and words.


City Of Glass, Paul Auster’s first story in his New York Trilogy, is nominally a detective novel, but one interested in the mystery of language. His characters are trapped by words and definitions, every dawning truth leading to another room in an endless, onion-like maze. At one point, Peter Stillman, the foil to the writer-turned-detective Daniel Quinn, declares that “unless we can begin to embody the notion of change in the words we use, we will continue to be lost.” He asks, can a broken umbrella still be named an “umbrella,” or does it need a new name to describe it? Stillman, by the way, is also an insane, religious quasi-criminal, hell-bent on tearing down the Tower of Babel that invisibly surrounds all of our speech and spirituality. He later commits suicide, but it’s offscreen, and you’re not sure if you can trust that information.

How do we repair broken words? Is an umbrella still called an umbrella if it lets in the rain? Auster repeatedly points to the Old Testament command to name all the animals and plants in the world; the very act of naming gives them life. It appears that it is up to us to rename the world.