We live, and live again. We live many lives each day. Dying is what we do just the once, and that’s not so much fun to tweet about.
Who has time to live once? That sounds like it’d go on for years. Nobody can deal with all that in this world of months, weeks, and days, each more hardassed and unceasing than the last.
The English majors among us know that all you have to do to live another life is to pick up a book or watch a movie or play a video game; that we’re consciousness-stricken animals who can’t help but pluck narrative out of the ether — the old thing about slowing down a vampire, just dump out a sack of rice whereupon its rampage is overridden by a sudden need to count the grains? That’s us. Just give us a TV show about a hardened criminal / family man throwing pizza onto a roof and bam we’re transported.
I live in a nice little neighborhood. Houses small and old but well-kept. The 01920s were the key, here. Before, it was sort of where the mill pond used to be, up the road from the streetcar. Afterwards: a part of a neighborhood, part of a city. Today, in 02014 —
Let’s talk for a moment about what it means to live, however many times, in 02014. This is one year before RoboCop, based on every single cultural input I received as an impressionable child, is scheduled to throw countless 99%ers into toxic goo “back home”. 02014 is the future. We made it. Only five short years remain to turn Los Angeles into an interminable, undifferentiated nightscape (check), kill all the animals (we’re working diligently, here), and build some replicants (instead, we have fast-follower telephones designed by advertising companies and manufactured by shipbuilding conglomerates [this is actually kind of amazing, in a near-future dystopian kind of way]). The very best science fiction novel, Stand on Zanzibar, is set in 02010. Anyways:
Today, in 02014, I have neighbors who know as an incontrovertible fact that they will live again after death. They literally have that old-time religion. It’s a country where a full third of adult humans believe that “humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time”. All this to say, there are a lot of perspectives on the question of how many times a person lives, and many of them are pretty dumb.
To be fair, humans and other living things are no great shakes. We haven’t been here long, and we probably won’t stay long either. We showed up late to the dance, and we’ll be gone before the music stops, give or take six thousand years.
We, as a species, only live once.
We, as individuals, live as many lives as we can stand.
Egypt in the Twelfth Dynasty. It’s the 19th century BCE and a touch on the warm side. Khekheperre-Sonbu wrote:
Would, that I had words that are unknown, utterances and sayings in new language, that hath not yet passed away, and without that which hath been said repeatedly — not an utterance that hath grown stale, what the ancestors have already said.
We’ve been reading the same things we’ve always been reading. It’s been a frighteningly long time since we’ve read a new book. But this last handful of seasons has made all the old books new again. By phonelight, in stolen jags of time, on endless train and bus rides along the same broad northerly scar, we’ve been reading. We’ve been reading Richard Rorty’s Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity:
The world does not speak. Only we do. The world can, once we have programmed ourselves with a language, cause us to hold beliefs. But it cannot propose a language for us to speak. Only other human beings can do that. The realization that the world does not tell us what language games to play should not, however, lead us to say that a decision about which to play is arbitrary, nor to say that it is the expression of something deep within us.
We’ve been reading Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy:
The truth about the world, he said, is that anything is possible. Had you not seen it all from birth and thereby bled it of its strangeness it would appear to you for what it is, a hat trick in a medicine show, a fevered dream, a trance bepopulate with chimeras having neither analogue nor precedent, an itinerant carnival, a migratory tentshow whose ultimate destination after many a pitch in many a mudded field is unspeakable and calamitous beyond reckoning. The universe is no narrow thing and the order within it is not constrained by any latitude in its conception to repeat what exists in one part in any other part.
We’ve been reading the various adventures of Sherlock Holmes:
—“It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.” —“You horrify me!” —“But the reason is very obvious. The pressure of public opinion can do in the town what the law cannot accomplish. There is no lane so vile that the scream of a tortured child, or the thud of a drunkard’s blow, does not beget sympathy and indignation among the neighbours, and then the whole machinery of justice is ever so close that a word of complaint can set it going, and there is but a step between the crime and the dock. But look at these lonely houses, each in its own fields, filled for the most part with poor ignorant folk who know little of the law. Think of the deeds of hellish cruelty, the hidden wickedness which may go on, year in, year out, in such places, and none the wiser.”
We’ve been reading The Ego Tunnel by Thomas Metzinger:
We were never asked if we wanted to exist, and we will never be asked whether we want to die or whether we are ready to do so. In particular, we were never asked if we wanted to live with this combination of genes and this type of body. Finally, we were certainly never asked if we wanted to live with this kind of a brain including this specific type of conscious experience. It should be high time for rebellion. But everything we know points to a conclusion that is simple but hard to come to terms with: Evolution simply happened — foresightless, by chance, without goal. There is nobody to despise or rebel against — not even ourselves. And this is not some bizarre form of neurophilosophical nihilism but rather a point of intellectual honesty and great spiritual depth.
We’ve been reading Clock of the Long Now by Stewart Brand:
Nobody can save the world, but any of us can help set in motion a self-saving world — if we are willing to engage the processes of centuries, because that is where the real power is.
Of course we’ve read Jerry Weinberg’s Secrets of Consulting:
Your ideal form of influence is first to help people see their world more clearly, and then to let them decide what to do next. Your methods of working are always open for display and discussion with your clients. Your primary tool is merely being the person you are, so your most powerful method of helping other people is to help yourself.
When our train arrives and the phone rings and the baby cries, we yield to the day and its concerns. But if you see the gleam in our eye or the tiny little spring in our step, it’s because we’ve been reading.
Alongside the gray road, you will encounter people who speak of work-life balance. You have a hard time taking that topic seriously.
The idea of work-life balance reminds you of people who put milk in their coffee. If the coffee isn’t good, just drink better coffee.
After a few years on the gray road, you’ve learned a few things. Not because you’re so smart, but through blistering repetition.
You’ve learned that most people haven’t had good coffee. They think that’s what coffee is. (You used to think that yourself.) That kind of coffee, of course, you balance out with milk, soy milk, almond milk, rice milk, hemp milk, cream, and sugar.
And work like that, work so bad that people start talking about work-life balance and with standing meetings where everybody sits for half an hour and organizational culture and institutional values and birthday parties?
Sit down. Pull up a chair. Sun’s setting on the last day of the year. It’s not so much a redness as a distant and early haze. Let’s get to it.
This year you moved into a little house on a little street, with a little lawn you don’t mow quite often enough. You moped and flailed and tried to be helpful during a harrowing. Two people entered, and three people left. That’s really all that happened this year, isn’t it? Took all your time and treasure and then some. You looked into your boy’s beautiful tiny eyes and knew it was time to move on from things that’d become ineffective. He gave you courage. You took a breath, and went back to work. When he was two weeks old, you wrote some notes called “Walking with Milo”. Joke is: he’s gonna be actually, literally walking super imminently. You tried to do good work for good people in effective organizations. To use software to help solve problems, as indulgent and arcanely (second-millenium-style) optimistic as that sounds. You tried to be kind to your family, and to not forget your friends. You did alright. There’s room for improvement, so improve.
But first: sun’s almost gone. Go hold your sweet heart and your sweet light and welcome the new year, in darkness but in warmth.
The service was like a public restroom. It was a venue for scrawled graffiti, and scribbles scribbled while doing something else. The service accidentally fostered real communication amidst sloganeering (frodo lives and imagine whirled peas and #yolo) and longing and horrorshows. It was like a public restroom, with one basic innovation: in this room, time and distance have been erased. Why ascribe value to this space? Who looks at those embattled, toxic stalls and sees unsold ad inventory? The service makes a deal. We’ll keep it clean and tidy and safe. Polished tile and scent in the air.
Here is a free magazine about your favorite celebrities.
A reading from The Voice of the Machines, Gerald Stanley Lee’s “Introduction to the Twentieth Century”:
All language is irrelevant, feeble, and absurd. We live in an organically inexpressible world. The language of everything in it is absurd. Judged merely by its outer signs, the universe over our heads — with its cunning little stars in it — is the height of absurdity, as a self-expression. The sky laughs at us. We know it when we look in a telescope. Time and space are God’s jokes. Looked at strictly in its outer language, the whole visible world is a joke. To suppose that God has ever expressed Himself to us in it, or to suppose that He could express Himself in it, or that any one can express anything in it, is not to see the point of the joke.
We cannot even express ourselves to one another. The language of everything we use or touch is absurd. Nearly all of the tools we do our living with — even the things that human beings amuse themselves with — are inexpressive and foolish-looking. Golf and tennis and football have all been accused in turn, by people who do not know them from the inside, of being meaningless. A golf-stick does not convey anything to the uninitiated, but the bare sight of a golf-stick lying on a seat is a feeling to the one to whom it belongs, a play of sense and spirit to him, a subtle thrill in his arms. The same is true of a new fiery-red baby, which, considering the fuss that is made about it, to a comparative outsider like a small boy, has always been from the beginning of the world a ridiculous and inadequate object. A man could not possibly conceive, even if he gave all his time to it, of a more futile, reckless, hapless expression of or pointer to an immortal soul than a week-old baby wailing at time and space. The idea of a baby may be all right, but in its outer form, at first, at least, a baby is a failure, and always has been.
The Voice of the Machines is a small and deeply weird book, one of those that are worth revisiting from time to time. The book doesn’t change (anymore), but maybe you do.