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.
They call it the law of personal mobility, or the law of two feet: that you are responsible for your own learning and engagement. This law, stated in various ways (another example: “when your mind wanders, let your body follow”), is the cornerstone of a participant’s experience during an open space technology meeting. Everyone’s job is to act according to this law, and the facilitator’s job is to create a venue (or to open a space) where it’s effortless to do so.
The Thelemites’d say: howdy & welcome to the Æeon of Horus, where do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law. (And these guys were cribbing Augustine’s love, and do what you will.)
I’d like you to meet Bruce, my father-in-law:
Now, he’s been known to say that whatever you do is right, and what he says is true. Once he figures out what you’re going to do, he makes it alright. Even as Bruce leads by action (in a more relaxed style than the phrase suggests), sometimes he has to say something, so that’s what he says.
You aren’t what you say, but what you do. Still, you have to say something. That’s our curse. These aphorisms pile up like logs in tide and time, and bang their big ideas against the bulkhead at night:
Nobody but you can take responsibility for your engagement with your environment. Authorities and charlatans such as employers, politicians, or religious figures will attempt to collect rent — financial or otherwise — by claiming this duty, but their claim isn’t a responsibility.
Nobody else can tell if you are learning anything today. People only learn when they are ready to learn. People only do anything when they are ready, except die. If you aren’t learning today, you should be. Fix this problem. Turns out it’s pretty easy for people to tell if you learned anything yesterday.
If you aren’t engaged in what you’re doing, everybody can tell (but they probably don’t care). Recall the last time you waited out a meeting you were invited to, but didn’t have any purpose at or contribution to. You were wasting your time, and you knew it. From the organization’s perspective it might have been waste, or slack, or just the way we do it here. Great, but remember whose candle is being burned.
Living in open space
During an open space meeting, you discover an environment where it’s easy and delightful to make effective use of your time. You’ll do what’s necessary to do in order to learn, and to teach, and to find and solve the problems that have brought everybody together.
Maybe you need to start a conversation, or introduce two people who aren’t friends yet. Maybe you need to leave early. The space has been carefully laid out and opened up to make these actions easier than the alternatives. If you’re bored, it’s OK to walk away. If you’re hungry, it’s OK to eat. If there’s a break in the rain, nobody’ll mind if you go outside. The organizers work to make the meeting effective by making the participants effective. By making you effective.
The next day or so, the meeting is over, and you’re back into your life and all of the things from it. However, that fruit cannot be uneaten. The next time your mind wanders, you’ll want to get up and follow. When you’re not learning, you’ll notice. If you’re not engaged, you’ll want to actually disengage rather than sit there and look good. This is probably when you’ll realize that, inside an open space, the law of personal mobility can be followed without any real consequences. And you’re way outside the open space, in the cold dark wolf-ridden world, where actions do have consequences.
This is honestly really tough. Because you are still responsible for your own learning and engagement, in a way that is completely evident and easy to understand — but now every weird action you take has its cost. You are, to put it gently, ruined for life. For example: if you have a job, you can use this law to improve your performance. It’s likely that you’ll do so by leaving that job. You’ll understand that the only person who might possibly assume this huge responsibility — for your own learning and engagement — is you. Therefore, when you’re getting bored or feeling somebody else’s slack or pressure, you’ll ask:
is this what I really need to be doing with my hour/day/life?
how bad would it be to walk away (versus the cost of staying here, and wasting my hour/day/life)?
and much of the time, you’ll decide to stay put, because you just can’t or just won’t accept the alternative and its risk, cost, or damage.
But it’ll be your decision, not inertia or fate. The ongoing cadence of asking these questions (and, maybe, the content of any answers you come up with) will convene an open space for you to live in. A world where whatever you do is right.
The gods taught the woman how to make things, and showed her how to hunt; they gave her gifts of beauty, diligence, and grace. Then they made her smart. One of them gave her speech. This gift of language let her call a threshold a gods-damned threshold — let her find the doorways in the world and walk through them.
Pandora’s crafty words were how she made the world she lived in, and it’s her world we live in still.
And then there was that jar. Brimmed full of toil and sickness and death and diseases stripped of their voices but not their powers (as this woman learned how to speak, so did we all — you might think that if diseases could still speak maybe they wouldn’t be in such a hurry to kill; but consider how well that works out for us).
Skip the stuff about Epimetheus (that ass), and his brother, and the baleful doling out of traits and stolen fire and so forth.
Here’s what’s important about all this crap the woman had, or carried, and brought to us: you can call it a gift or a curse — and either way, it’s yours. It’s the resource, a mountain to be worshipped or mined out or climbed upon or coldly regarded. It’s what we have.
To navigate the city, you have to unsee as much as you see.
If you actually encountered the city for what it was, you’d be unable to use it for anything, much less live in it. Great myths and human tragedies on every corner, unfurled histories along each broken-down street and sidewalk — almost all of which you have learned to ignore, nearly subconsciously, in order to walk to the grocery store or the bar.
China Miéville’s book is a carefully observed novelistic treatment of the minute-by-minute, step-by-step experience of living in a city: of the discipline, decision-making, and rejection of empathy required for an individual to treat a city as an environment. Its detective mystery plot, antifantasy trappings, and weird kinship to 1984 rocket the book from start to finish. But the vocabulary it generates for making sense of the visible and the invisible city will stick with you for a very long time.
It is, finally, the night of his birth. We’re listing the things we’ll do with Milo. Take him to the beach. The tides and the forest. The names of birds and animals. Mushrooms and crabs and jellyfish and nettles and overhead a shovel of stars for keeps. The kingfisher calling its shots. An eagle. He’ll understand his world in terms of vertical gradients. An unflat world, where the earth and the water and the sky are all in continuous motion. Look over there, child. The sound’s as deep as the mountains are high. An auspicious geography: he will be born halfway between the Mountain and the beach. Now, the beach is a confluence of features, as fragile as life. Height, motion, and gravity. These ladies have taken their appointed places around the operating room. One to measure, one to spin, and another to cut. On a wall clock, the minutes tick past. Nine. Ten. Midnight. I’m looking only at Liana. Green of her eyes rather than the blue and white of that theater, and the other colors beyond its little curtains and drapes. When human beings moved inland, that was, maybe, our first big mistake.
Twelve hours later, the doctor said: “He only sees a blur.” This child and I are alike. Embroiled in waves and radiation, a mindless tide of spectra and vibrations from which the two of us, gasping, can only perceive the tiniest slivers — so what if he gets a little bit less than I do? and so what if I have a self to drown out the infinite and take credit for this colossal ignorance, and he doesn’t (yet)? — we will both live our days, think our thoughts, make our decisions, and walk down our long miles based on essentially no information.
Twelve days later, Liana and Milo and I have been going for walks. Short walks, around the neighborhood. I love walking with this child. I’d walk with him to the end of the earth, if we weren’t already more or less there. Sure, it’s work to take care of him. But my rewards are those moments when some little fire is burning in him; moments when something is changing in his environment and he aspirates with tiny breaths, he waiting as much as any other observer to discover how he’ll react; moments of some protean, synaptic fury that prefigure the deeper aspirations, hopes, and disappointments he’ll have. The blood-sucking relentless call-and-response of the human body. The long walk he’s taking to get from whatever unknowable godless unities he is experiencing today to something we’d recognize as object permanence, or hope, or love. Even though we’re all with him, he’ll be alone on that walk.
Onwards, upwards, & older
Worthy items are marked with a delicious cup of coffee: ♨.