shaunterrywriter

These are my writings. Ideally, these are the most honest expressions of myself that I could give.

Covert Power: A Review of Laura Ogden’s Swamplife

Ogden, Laura. Swamplife: People, Gators, and Mangroves Entangled in the Everglades. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2011.

It may seem hard to imagine—or even inappropriate—thinking of whites (particularly white men) as being Orientalized in the United States, to use Edward Said’s term1. Yet, if Orientalization occurs anywhere, then it surely must be possible that white United States men could be Orientalized. And, while the culprits may be familiar—agro-business, real estate development, the scientific and academic community (at-times capital’s techno-scientific arm), legislation, and law enforcement bodies, to name a few—the complicated story of the devastation of the Florida Everglades and the marginalization of those who have lived there draws a clear example of something that we have seen throughout history: power locates a resource that it views as worthy of seizing; power develops a strategy; power meets resistance; power appropriates resistance in order that power further progresses toward its goal; power displaces and disrupts the prevailing local paradigm, intractably arrogating the resource. Still, through Laura Ogden’s telling of the story of the Florida Everglades, she introduces new and unexpected aspects of power, means of power, and products of power. What is at stake in her book, Swamplife: People, Gators, and Mangroves Entangled in the Everglades, is a Deleuzian framing of a Florida Everglades history of power and the dispossessed, acknowledging the erasure and marginalization of Everglades people2.

Ogden’s book attempts something bold: using the structure of Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizome as an organizing logic, she argues for a rhizomic conception of the history of the Everglades. Ogden elucidates the erasure, Orientalization, and exploitation of residents of the Everglades in a way that feels organic and compelling, while weaving in the pseudo-fictional story of the John Ashley gang. Ogden craftily balances dense theoretical concepts with the easily accessible narrative of the complicated lived experiences of marginalized people in the Everglades, doing so in a way that avoids the temptation of moralization. On p. 4, Ogden notes: “Without a more humanized and nuanced politics of nature, we cannot hope to create (or imagine) sustainable futures.” That is, there are problems, but without accounting for all of the forces—or “intensities,” to remain true to the Deleuzian parlance that pervades Ogden’s book—it may be unreasonable to assume the effection of a viable, long-term solution.

Part of the problem in the Everglades, as articulated in Ogden’s book, seems to be of oversimplification and shortsightedness. Ogden’s “gladesmen” represent easy targets for the power regime in the jungles of Ogden’s South Florida: “Simply put, glades families had very few economic alternatives to hunting and so went to great lengths to subvert the law’s territorial claims. The hide market’s global networks of production and distribution supported this oppositional politics.” (P. 126) The Everglades of the 20th century provided economic opportunities, but the people already living there complicated those opportunities. When alligator hunters came to represent possible targets to divert negative attention from big business, it also allowed for the deligitimation of economies that fell outside the normal “legitimate” market economy.

Ogden illustrates how power appropriates the means of resistance to its ecologically destructive capitalist project in the Everglades. In this way, power furthers the very project to which conservationists might be natural enemies. It was not until there was something economic to gain (agricultural products and tourism) that alligators became a point of official consideration and protection. Ogden states, “Explicit in this conservationist approach is the construction of rural folk as reckless criminals incapable of managing local environments for the common good.” (P. 126) Interesting here is how power is able to leverage the expertise of seemingly well-intended—and potentially oppositional—scientists and environmentalists to further capitalists’ economic project that intentionally displaces and vilifies the gladesmen.

To consider Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizome once again, power, like anything else, might adapt by responding to changing intensities and emerging forces. In Ogden’s book, neoliberal, rhizomic power paints poor whites as criminal instead of reorganizing the role of capital, not unlike Slavoj Žižek’s anecdote about the moralization of consumer recycling (instead of greater pressure on the main culprits: capitalists who produce tons of waste and consume vast amounts of resources) or consumer restrictions on water in California (instead of curtailing the use of water by agro-business, which accounts for several times more water use than that used by consumers)3. Basically, instead of being honest about the problem, it presents a kind of Kleinian opportunity to attack a perceived threat while deceptively placating the populace in regard to the actual problem4.

Ogden’s book adds to the literature on political ecology, doing so from the perspective of the displaced: in this case, poor, rural whites. The book’s narrative helps to ground the (mostly Deleuzian) theoretical ideas that permeate the book, while the concepts help to contextualize the complications that appear in the lived experiences of those who make the story.

That said, it is easy to envision another kind of story, entirely: one from the perspective of those in power. That is to say that something that seems lost in Ogden’s story is how the decisions seem to have been made and what might have motivated those in power. If, as Ogden seems to suggest, all sides should be taken into account, how might we understand the motivations of those in power in order that we come to a more useful assessment of the situation?

In the end, I would recommend this book to anyone looking to understand the complicated processes by which ecologies are devastated and transformed, even by some of the most inconspicuous agents (in this case, even conservationists assist in the devastation). Further, anyone interested in complicating, and adding nuance to, environmental justice in the United States might show interest in Ogden’s book.

Ogden’s writing strikes a pleasant balance between clarity, beauty, and theory; she appeals to those interested in being swept up in the poetry of people’s lived experiences, just as she provides substance to those looking to reconcile facts and theory in concrete terms. Indeed, the question of the relationship of Everglades poor, rural whites to big business and state apparatuses is one that might serve as a microcosm of many of the problems that we face today.

  1. Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books. 1978.
  2. Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Félix. A Thousand Plateaus. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press. 1987.
  3. Žižek, Slavoj. “Lessons From the ‘Airpocalypse’: On China’s smog problem and the ecological crisis.” In These Times. Illinois: In These Times and the Institute for Public Affairs. 2016.
  4. Klein, Naomi. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. New York: Picador. 2007.

Impermanence, Elegance

Walls are never walls the way we think of walls.
Illusion-walls
are temporary obstacles signaling shifting safety.

With the sensibility of a post-Soviet cynic,
everything built eventually falls.
Sometimes, foreign forces pull low
the falling things.

La jardinière took care choosing
flora and grooming plants
with patience.

But innocent flowers, trees, ground, air, water,
and un étranger innocent conspired
in treacherous understandings and impulses
(unbeknownst to anything or anyone, including themselves)
and incidental, clandestine movements.

In an ephemeral instant of innocent ruination,
a blaze emancipated le jardin belle—
embers inching upward, lighting up the night.
La jardinière watched with
patience and bewilderment
like the peculiar end
of an Andrei Tarkovsky film.
She knew none intended harm;
she mourned her masterpiece,
imagining a new place for love.

Kubrick as Marx: An Analysis of Ideology and Violence in 2001: A Space Odyssey

kubrick 2001 a space odyssey

Note: in referring to the ape-people and HAL, I may use gender-neutral pronouns such as “they,” “them,” and “their.”

To my knowledge, Stanley Kubrick never called himself a Marxist, a fact perhaps complicated by then-contemporary notions of Communism and Marxism. While Kubrick’s films avoid blunt Eisensteinian montage, he clearly seems to make statements through his work. Having developed what we might think of as post-Eisensteinian projects (not unlike Orson Welles’s careful, value-laden films), perhaps Kubrick is aware of Bazinian concerns. There seems to be a clear reading of 2001: A Space Odyssey by which Kubrick’s messages on violence, technology, and human progress carry, along with obvious Nietzschean undertones, Marxian ones, too.

The monoliths can be associated with violence and dramatic change, but they also seem to have a Marxian sublational quality. As humanity pushes along—creating conflicts, repeatedly finding itself stuck, yearning for answers—the seemingly more detached and perhaps evil monoliths might represent important developments on Marx’s inevitable arc of human progress. We might conclude that conflicts between classes of people result in paradigm shifts that are simultaneously useful and devastating. We can start by analyzing the film’s “The Dawn of Man” scene.

Immediately following the geocentric, perfectly-aligned image of the sun appearing over Earth’s horizon, accompanied by the major resolution of Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra (an unsubtle reference to Nietzsche), “The Dawn of Man” starts with a mostly-dark landscape: a carmine semi-desert steppe, the buzzing of insects and animals. The title of the scene appears in a serif font, reminiscent of characters we might imagine were used to write Ancient Roman classics. The movie title in the previous scene was in a futuristic sans serif font; perhaps the change in font means to signal something temporal, helping to illuminate the importance of the motor of human history. The monoliths seem to at least be markers of human shifts. We can notice that the redness that pervades the scene’s atmosphere suggests one of the film’s central themes: red is a color associated with HAL, who (if we are meant to think of HAL as a who) seems to possess more emotional sensitivity than HAL’s human companions. Perhaps Kubrick means to say that, as a persisting product of brutal Enlightenment preference for logos over pathos, humanity has lost something—a point that historicist Marx would likely agree with.

We leave the montage of broad, blood-toned vistas to attend to ape-people having to divide water and plants (food) with tapirs. Among a bevy of skeletons—anthropic and non-anthropic alike—the ape-people become aggressive toward the tapirs, pushing and slapping them to ensure greater access to necessary food and water. Humanity will persist via dominance.

Here, Kubrick makes an interesting choice in constructing the scene: whereas landscape shots appear realistic, shots with the ape-people are lit by multiple sources and clearly take place on quasi-realistic sets with two-dimensional depictions as backgrounds. In an ironic twist on Bazin’s thinking in “The Evolution of the Cinema,” Kubrick’s use of telephoto lenses in these shots seems to emphasize unrealisticnesses of the visible. Kubrick seems to be playing with the “faith in the image” versus “faith in reality” distinction that Bazin draws. On one hand, Kubrick provides a plausible narrative to explain the genesis of human violence; on the other, Kubrick seems to show self-awareness to say that we oversimplify the origins of aspects of humanity. This works in much the same way that Plato’s “The Allegory of the Cave” means to dissuade us from quickly accepting all that seems to be, which might inform a Marxian historicist reading that might say that, contrary to the prevailing narrative, power asserts itself in the formation of ideology.

The scene takes place in a good deal of darkness even in the most well lit shots, helping to set the tone for the proverbial darkness that humanity is soon to present. The minor inter-species violence over scarce resources is immediately followed by one of the ape-people being attacked and ostensibly killed by a big cat. We are in a brutal, chaotic place, to be sure, but this violence foreshadows the inter-protohuman conflict that Kubrick uses to flesh out his theory of violent human nature. Initially, the ape-peoples’ conflict is carried out by intimidation and threat, since they are limited in their ability to cause damage to one another. But, this changes when the monolith signals a violent progression in the human story.

The monolith seems to force its acknowledgement by waking one of the ape-people. The ape-person responds to the monolith with hysteria—that is, the ape-person does not simply observe the monolith; instead, they react violently, as though in fear (if initially the ape-person’s and their counterparts’ fear is unclear, it is further clarified in the ape-people’s repeated hesitancy to touch the monolith). This helps to clarify Kubrick’s theory on human violence. At least sometimes, when humans encounter new things, rather than soberly inspecting, they fearfully respond, quickly becoming violent. This is exacerbated by the fact that differences in capacity to inflict damage might effect differences in people’s material outcomes, possibly contributing to cycles of violence.

When the camera pulls out to more fully show the ape-people encircling the monolith, the area around the monolith forms a well-lit area in the dark, as though illuminated by a spotlight. Some of the ape-people begin to physically engage with the monolith, and the creepy, discordant music from earlier in the film returns. The ape-people contract around the monolith, all touching it before the camera cuts to look into the sky—the monolith protruding from the bottom of the shot. The sun lines up with the moon as it rises over the center of the horizon formed by the monolith, perhaps suggesting the centrality of the monolith. What we might take from the discordant musical accompaniment to the power represented by the monolith is that dramatic human change comes in the form of seemingly chaotic violence. This violence might be exacerbated by the at-first unfulfilled need for shifting social relations, as Marx might put it, to adapt to advancements in technology; in some sense, we initially spend our time stumbling in the dark. Like Plato’s cave, those latencies might have lingering negative effects.

This introduces a paradox: when the monolith appears, it often helps to form a symmetrical cosmic pattern, but the music is grating and sounds almost intentionally nonsensical and discomforting. On one hand, we have patterned cosmic design; on the other, we have terrifying chaos. The paradox is quickly resolved, though. After the camera cuts away from the monolith, the camera comes to focus on an ape-person playing in dirt and bones. The camera returns, albeit only for an instant, to the monolith-sun-moon alignment. Immediately following this, the ape-person stares at the bones, tilting their head back-and-forth as though they experience an elucidation of potential reality. Also Sprach Zarathustra returns, and the ape-person discovers the bone’s usefulness as a destructive tool. The music reaches a thunderous, ordered resolution as the ape-person swings the bone with both hands over their head to crush the skeletal skull in front of them and obliterate the skeleton. The development of the full force of the technology allows for advancement of power, signaling humanity’s entrance into the next increasingly violent epoch.

We cut to the group of ape-people eating meat seemingly for the first time. The monolith has marked the development of the ape-people’s handy death-tool. Then, we witness the next conflict between the two tribes of ape-people, but our primary subjects come armed. One of the other tribe persists at the watering hole, but the bone quickly subdues them. After having scared off the other tribe, one of our subjective tribe throws a bloodied bone in the air: victory through domination. These are the relatively enlightened übermenschen, or capital class, if you prefer.

The bone turns into a space station and, after Johann Strauss II’s The Blue Danube’s lithe, sophisticated accompaniment to images that would surely inspire George Lucas’s Star Wars and other science-fiction films to follow, we are introduced to Dr. Frank Poole, played by William Sylvester. The interior of the space station looks like a cross between a 1960s university math department and the art-deco imaginings of a 1960s interior designer. Dr. Poole appears as the proposed math professor in a brown tweed suit. Bazin might propose that science-fiction requires a restyling of aesthetics such that the futuristicness of the mise en scène not overwhelm the spectator. More temporal assignation appears in the form of global capitalistic branding. In the expansive space station appear logos for Pan-American Airlines, Hilton, Howard Johnson, Bell Telephone, and Aeroflot. While this notion of (extra-) globalization seems simultaneously prescient and indicative of a mid-20th century trend, Kubrick would have been unable to have predicted the full consequence of late capitalism—HAL later informs us that he was made in Illinois. Today, this might seem so preposterous as to be confusing: not only are computers rarely assembled in the United States, the parts for electronic devices generally come from all over the world. However, to the degree that there may be shortcomings in terms of the film’s predictions of the future, its accuracies are impressive, like in the case of what we might think of as a lo-res Skype call between Dr. Poole and his daughter.

Dr. Poole bumps into some Russian scientists (he starts with the old sexist ritual of telling his female acquaintance—the mononymous Elena, played by Margaret Tyzack—that she looks good, to which she responds obligatorily in kind). This begins a Kubrickian there’s-something-not-quite-right-there-you-should-reconsider-your-role unheeded warning scene (think of Halloran’s warning in The Shining or the repeated warnings in Eyes Wide Shut, as examples), indicating human hubris. After the requisite greetings and smalltalk, Dr. Andrei Smyslov, played by Leonard Rossiter, takes on the inquisition of the evasive Dr. Poole. The two men (the only men among the circle) smile politely at each other while the women remain passive, de-humanized, disempowered objects in the background, blending in with the cold, austere, antiseptic interior design of boxy white panels and magenta (not a human red) blobbish chairs. As the scene unfolds, Dr. Poole’s charming ignorance reveals itself to be a deceptive technique as he repeatedly claims that he is “not at liberty to discuss” the brewing situation (or even the intentionally leaked fabrication-as-coverup). Humans now intentionally create Plato’s cave when it might serve their ambitions.

Perhaps it is telling that Russian Dr. Smyslov’s earnestness and concern are mirrored by American Dr. Poole’s stodgy, polite fakeness. In the height of the Cold War, Kubrick imagines a future by which Russians and Americans freely interact, but in which Russians are warm, reasonable people and Americans are dishonest and destructive. This leads to an interesting conclusion. Kubrick’s depictions of globalization clearly demonstrate his sense of a potentiality of American capitalism, and the rest of the film plays out in a way that supports the notion that late capitalism is a particularly virulent strain of human development, both naïve and devastating in its bumbling adventures toward “progress.” If we take this notion a bit further, it is capitalism that leads to the devolution of humans into brutal robots, while the state communists of Russia do not lose their humanity in the same way and/or to the same degree that Western capitalists do.

When Marx, in his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, thinks of the problems of capitalism, he often thinks of them as having to do with that which makes us essentially human. He sometimes describes “species-being” in a way that suggests a patently capitalist tension between self-service and altruism. Marx suggests that we might be able to take on a new form of “sensuous activity” by which we can live fuller, more harmonious lives. In 2001, Kubrick seems concerned with something similar: a loss of so much potential humanity. The monoliths might mark moments by which people have hastily taken up the promise of technological advancements without attending to the problems that these advancements might present. The latency of policy responses to advancements might lead to ideological shifts that favor the most powerful at the expense of the weakest, except that these paradigm shifts might also take something from all of us. Surely, one would suppose that Marx would agree, but Nietzsche would maybe be less receptive.

References

Bazin, André. “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema.” Critical Visions in Film Theory. Edited by Corrigan, Timothy; White, Patricia; and Mazaj, Meta. Bedford/St. Martin’s. 2011. 314-325.

Nietzsche, Friederich. Thus Spake Zarathustra: A Book for All and None. Charleston, SC: CreateSpace Independent Publishing, 2015.

Marx, Karl. “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts.” Early Writings. Colletti, Lucio; Nairn, Tom. Vintage Books, 1974. 279-400.

Plato. “The Allegory of the Cave.” Critical Visions in Film Theory. Edited by Corrigan, Timothy; White, Patricia; and Mazaj, Meta. Bedford/St. Martin’s. 7-9.

Chasing the Ethereal, Part Five: Gentleness and Emancipation

Part one
Part two
Part three
Part four

When Lexie arrived at the get-together, she sought Edwin. It was his house, after all. Edwin was kind and aware. Lexie liked Edwin, but he had a girlfriend, so she never considered whether she was attracted to him. Edwin was a very good musician and was starting to find work in the music scene. He’d come to Nashville for that reason, and like many Nashvillians, he’d been very Christian. He’d spent nights reading Christian apologetics and arguing on internet forums before coming to Nashville. When he got there, through recognizing some peculiar behaviors of people he’d surrounded himself by, along with what some of his professors had to say to him in lectures and in office hours, he’d realized that the world seemed a lot more complicated than he’d sometimes been led to believe. Some of the more conservative Christians around him began to really frustrate him, but he was always patient, generous, and thoughtful.

There were about 20 or 30 people at the get-together, and everyone seemed to love Justin. Everyone seemed to love Edwin, too, and it was easy to see why. Edwin and Justin had become good friends, in fact. At one point, Justin had been out of work for a few months after he’d suffered an injury from an electrical mishap on a job. After leaving the hospital, he’d gladly come back to the house to have fun with the guys.

Justin had practically lived there, at times, sleeping on couches and in random places and at random times. He’d done so between cans of beer; glasses of Faygo; random, greasy food concoctions; and occasionally drives back up to Hendersonville to change clothes or for a booty call. He’d been irreverent but socially adept. Justin was hilariously clever, but deceptively and simply so.

“Aphoristic,” Alex said.

“He was one of the wisest people I ever met. I’ve never known someone who understood things the way he did. He was really special,” replied Edwin. His girlfriend held him close, wanting to help make Edwin feel better and wanting to be close to someone, herself.

Lexie got to know several of the housemates and they were kind to her. She heard energetic stories of a man they’d all loved, but despite how welcoming everyone was, she soon felt tired and out-of-place. Even Edwin’s girlfriend went out of her way to talk with Lexie a good deal and to say that she admired Lexie’s style. They felt instant rapport and decided that they’d see each other soon, and not just in Lexie’s bar.

She went home that night, got out her planner, her books, her laptop, but she held no illusion that she’d be getting much work done. She lie with the laptop on her queen-size bed. She went to Facebook’s search bar and typed in “Justin Charton.” She clicked on his page. It was littered with people giving romantic depictions of whom Justin had been, what he meant to them, how admirable he was in how many ways, and so on. It seemed that almost everyone had a picture with Justin, and everyone seemed glad to have known him and to have had a special relationship with him, somehow. How’d he have time to be EVERYONE’S best friend? Lexie wondered.

Justin was as people had described. He looked Southern. He was maybe a little short. He was fairly handsome, but he couldn’t have been a model. Lexie scrolled through his photos: an assortment of photos of him with other people, photos taken of him without his knowledge, and funny memes and images that he’d collected.

His admirers seemed to have been other construction workers, family, old school friends, and some of his hip Vanderbilt friends who seemed completely out of place among the working class Tennesseans.

She scrolled down his page.

Justin Charton

anuthr customer canceled guess ill sit on the couch watch yojimbo. gud

Yojimbo? Lexie didn’t know the movie. Maybe she’d look for it. She scrolled some more. Several people were playing mindless internet games with him. Apparently, Justin had earned lots of free coins. She passed music videos from Cinderella, Insane Clown Posse, Pink Floyd, Devin the Dude, and others. There were advertisements that Justin was trying to take advantage of. Someone called him “Jussypoo” when saying happy birthday, while another person called him “Boss Hogg.”

Justin Charton

see yall in the morrow

The morrow? What is he—old Gaelic?

Justin Charton

hot hot pocket

            Jim Gaffigan joke?

Justin Charton

“u cud put sum salsa on my burrito”

I wonder who he’s quoting.

Justin Charton

i luv overhead light

Justin Charton

this morning it was 45 and now its 85. thats the thing about weather I guess. it changes

Justin Charton

beer beer beer beer beer beer beer beer beer beer beer beer beer beer beer beer beer beer beer beer

beer beer beer beer beer beer beer beer beer beer beer beer beer beer beer beer beer beer beer beer

beer beer beer beer beer beer beer beer beer beer beer beer beer beer beer beer beer beer beer beer

Well, at least he wasn’t hiding it.

Justin Charton

that sux

Lexie realized that this post had been a few months ago. Had it been just after his work accident?

Justin Charton

home alone gettin hammered n jammin out 2 the police can it get n e better

This seemed sad to Lexie. Had Justin been sad? Why was he drinking alone? Why hadn’t he gone to Edwin’s house? Lexie felt that it would’ve been nice to have had a beer with Justin. People trusted him. He was kind. He was different, but maybe he was humble. He didn’t seem to judge people too harshly, even though he was hanging out with stupid Vandy kids all the time. Maybe it was Lexie who’d been pretentious. Maybe the easy answers her parents had given her weren’t always the right ones. Maybe it was a bit more complicated. Maybe she should pay more attention to people like Justin. Maybe everyone deserved that we not be so strict with our societal rules.

Lexie curled up like a caterpillar, her long brown hair spread over the quilt that laid on her bed. She began to cry. She wondered why she was crying, but she didn’t care. It began quietly, before growing to a whimper and an all-out bawl. She was like a wailing siren in her modest bedroom, until she realized how loud she was being. She suddenly stopped and picked her head up, as though someone might’ve been watching. Why the fuck am I crying? she thought. She started laughing and sniffling.

I’ve spent the last few days mourning someone I never knew—a 28-year old man who had a crush on me and either didn’t have the guts to hit on me or was so concerned with harming others that he didn’t want me to know that he existed. I can’t tell if he was some dumb hick creep or a sweet humble sage. I guess that he was a little like everyone, maybe he was like me. Who was this man? Why do I care so much? What am I looking for? Did he have it? Did he have what I need? Did I lose someone who would’ve been good for me before I ever even realized he existed? How many times did he come in my bar, look at me, and smile? Maybe he did something nice for me without me having realized it. Maybe I fucked this up. What if I’d been nice to him, too? Would it have changed anything? Fuck.

Lexie crawled across her bed and extended her muscular brown leg until her toes reached the floor. She walked over to the door near the corner of the room, just past a poster of Jake Gyllenhaal, and she entered the bathroom. She stepped on the neat white tiles with their pale pink-and-green floral arrangement and she looked at her ceramic sink. Next to her fluorescent pink-and-green ergonomic toothbrush lay a small, shining sheet of metal with a beveled edge. She grabbed the razor between her manicured fingernails and stared at it with her mouth slightly ajar. She looked at herself in the mirror, her mascara blotted in little constellations on a path toward the bottom of her face. Her head tilted down so that she could see beneath the sink, and she threw the razor into the trashcan below.

Lexie lay on the bed again, face-up. She closed her big, hazel eyes and began to rub her upper arms, feeling the out-of-place bubbly skin that formed the horizontal rows beneath her fingertips. She imagined if Justin had been lying there next to her. Maybe he’d tell her a joke. Maybe he’d say something sweet. Maybe she’d tell him that it was okay for him to be who he was and that he could be honest with her. Her hands moved about her arms, her torso, her hips: back and forth across her body. She imagined Justin kissing her gently on the mouth. She imagined that he might’ve been a sweet and gentle kisser, that he might’ve been attentive to her needs and emotions.

That night, she fell asleep in this position, above her covers, lying on her back, with makeup smeared across her face, having done nothing productive.

Lexie awoke the next morning feeling refreshed and guiltless. She hadn’t felt so good in several days. She grabbed her phone to check the time, and noticed a text message from her mother. It was a lone emoji with a tongue sticking out. Lexie set the phone down and went to the bathroom to pee. She mindlessly grabbed her toothbrush and began stroking it between her fingertips as she looked in the mirror. It was awful to look at. The colors were garishly bright and they endlessly wound around the toothbrush, but the bristles on the head always seemed to look brand new. It didn’t look as though anyone had used the toothbrush at all. This always amazed her. She brushed her teeth and thought about the previous night. She thought about her mother. She realized that she couldn’t do anything about Justin, that she’d never known him, and that she’d eventually stop obsessing over him, even if not soon.

She walked back into her room and grabbed the phone. She typed, “Nice tongue sticky outy face, mom. (winky emoji)” She pressed “Send” and walked through the living room and out the front door to leave the apartment, distracted by happy thoughts of her beloved stranger.

Chasing the Ethereal, Part Four: “Zuzu’s Petals” and Pete

Part one
Part two
Part three

The next afternoon, Jennifer called Lexie. Lexie pulled out her phone. Her eyes shot from one side of her head to the other. She looked up and pressed the green orb on the glass screen. “Hello?”

Jennifer apologized to Lexie for having been unfair. Lexie apologized to Jennifer for having been unfair. Jennifer hadn’t meant to tell her about Justin’s crush. Jennifer was “really stressed” about him passing and about school, and she should’ve thought about it. Lexie wasn’t very considerate, either, and she should’ve been more thoughtful. They thanked each other and hurried off the phone. They each had a lot to do that day.

Lexie drove to the steakhouse that her mother always likes to meet at and looked around for her mother. When Lexie walked up, her mother, Susan, sat at the table, sipping a glass of red wine. Susan showed surprise as she saw Lexie walk up, and she quickly set down her glass, spilling some wine on her mouth. “Oh, baby! How are you?” she asked, as she wiped off her mouth and stood up.

Lexie came around the table and hugged and kissed her mother, before sitting at her side of the table.

“How’s it goin’, baby?”

“I’m okay.”

“You’re ‘okay?’ What’s goin’ on?”

Lexie wanted to avoid talking about what was on her mind, but her mother wouldn’t let her. She knew better.

“Well, everything’s going fine, but apparently, this guy died.”

Susan recognized the “apparently” as s sign that she might not have been very close to him. “Oh, no! I’m so sorry, Lexie! Are you okay?”

“No, no. Mom, I didn’t even know him.”

Susan’s face scrunched up. “Oh. Well, are your friends okay?”

“I think that everyone’s fine, yeah.”

Susan was even more confused. She looked down at her menu. “Hey, so I wanted to ask you something. What does this little face here mean? The one with the drop going down his head.” Susan handed her phone across the table to Lexie.

“Huh? Little face?”

“Yeah. The little smiley guy or emoticon or whatever.”

“The emoji?”

“Yeah—little face, smiley, emoji, whatever.”

“It’s an emoji, mom—not a ‘smiley.’”

“Okay, honey, but what is it? Like, what does it mean?” They stared at each other with dead faces for a moment. “You know it’s supposed to be like a little face, right?”

Lexie’s head tilted to the side. “A face? No, mom; it’s just how you express emotions through texts. It’s not a face.”

“Okay, hon.”

The waiter came to the table, but the two ladies needed another minute. They had a fancy meal and enjoyed each other’s company. Lexie was a little distracted, but she always seemed a little distracted. When Lexie left, Susan sat at the restaurant’s bar. She orders another glass of wine.

“Mister barman, how old are you?”

“Well, normally, I don’t tell, but for a lovely lady like yourself, I’m glad to let you know that I’m 31, and you can call me Pete.”

Pete’s parents and some of his grandparents and great-grandparents had attended Vanderbilt. He’d entered school to study Physics, but he’d grown up in a strict Christian home and when he’d been freed upon the world, alcohol, drugs, sex, experimentation, self-expression, and seemingly unlimited possibilities had determined an alternate path for him.

“You know, my 20-year-old daughter today didn’t know that emojis are little faces?”

“Bullshit. Of course she did.”

“No, I’m serious! I tried to ask her what this one emoji meant, and she got so confused when I referred to it as a little face. I guess I’m just that old. Or she’s that young, I mean. She grew up in a world where emojis don’t really mean faces, anymore. Isn’t that wild?”

The bartender looked at the ceiling for a moment. “No. I still call bullshit, but let me tell you why: people find faces where there are none. In pieces of toast, in loose shapes in constellations, in patterns of cat drool, you name it! People don’t fail to see faces where faces are intended; it’s the other way around. So maybe she’s young—and despite your good looks, she’s not that young—but my point is she still sees faces where there are faces. Ain’t no way she doesn’t know what emojis are supposed to be.”

Susan was a little drunk at this point, but she realized that the bartender seemed to be right. Why wouldn’t Lexie know that emojis were faces? Of course she should’ve known. And Lexie’s smart and pretty honest. Could she have been playing a trick? Lexie didn’t usually do that to her mom. Susan thought about it some more before calling her husband to pick her up.

“Maybe your daughter’s tricking you, and maybe we landed on the moon. This reminds me of this song by this band,” the bartender said.

“What song? What band?”

            “‘Zuzu’s Petals’, but it’s by a local band.”

“‘Zuzu’s Petals?’ Isn’t that from that Movie? Yeah, Jimmy Stewart, right?”

It’s a Wonderful Life. Yeah, the song’s like that. It’s about memory or something.”

“Yeah, right.” Susan smiled at Pete.

Part five

Contingency, Totality, and Individuality: A Response to Christi Fenison’s “Particles and State-of-Being”

As Fenison’s article starts by noting the role of contingency in the expressions of these thoughts, I find it important to articulate just why that might be important. In my view, the problem is multiple. First off, if we are not considering contingency, then we, as individuals, are likely to be led down some treacherous paths. To the point about distinguishing between individuals and society, however, I would like to argue that we, as a society, are already on a very bad path.

The late David Foster Wallace commented on the role that Postmodernism as a style has played on the formation of our entertainment and the cultural fallout from that. I propose that the slow death of religion, the emergence of Postmodernism, and the advent of Internet culture have led to the deterioration of discourse, especially in the West. This is an aspect of culture that I think we are right to criticize at this juncture, as these elements of have led to lack of respect for contingency, deep divisions between people, and increased expressions of hate throughout our culture. I believe that stating things in absolute terms is lazy and delusional, in some senses, but it also has the effect of normalizing such delusions such that we end up taking dogmatic positions on important and controversial issues. I think that there is a great deal of wisdom in saying, “maybe.”

To get to Fenison’s argument, she seems to state that state-of-being is “individually-limited,” which must imply that state-of-being is not made up of everything. Otherwise, the statement would be hollow. There is no need to point out any limitation of everything while pointing out that the individual is limited. If they are one and the same, then simply pointing out the limitations of one is sufficient, but Fenison goes on to declare that we “beings” are not omnipresent, serving to clarify that individual identity and totality must be distinct.

Fenison conceives of identity as not being married to a mind that is produced by the brain, which necessitates a different frame from what might be a more traditional view of the self and of identity as a consequence of the self. By her account, identity is affected by the materiality surrounding the individual, but not through the filter of perception, allowing her conception to circumvent the film reel aspect that I spoke to in my earlier response to her “Identity and Infinity.” Instead, Fenison’s conception requires one of a few options; I see three, although there may be others:

  1. Identity is shared by the universe and there can be no distinction between its constituent parts;
  2. Identity is formed by the material world without our playing any role or even knowing of it;
  3. Identity is formed by the material world and by our minds, but the distinctions between ourselves and the (rest of the) material world are not absolute.

I will handle these three possibilities separately.

1. If Fenison means to suggest that identity is always shared with everything, then simply describing it as totality seems sufficient; that is, there is no distinction being made between identity and totality, so identity is redundant and useless as a term. In fact, Fenison seems to reject this definition when she opens the piece, as alluded to above. If we are “individually-limited,” non-omnipresent beings, then we are not only parts of a greater whole and our identities can be distinguished. I assert that we might agree that we know that we are not one another, exactly, that we conceive of ourselves as being somehow separate from others.

2. If, instead, Fenison meant that our identities are not decided by us, that by itself appears less self-contradictory, but this stands in contradiction to how we often might think of identity, as well as perhaps to other parts of her article. Historical perspectives on identity imply that we decide who we are, or at least that we might play the most significant role in this process. Under Fenison’s paradigm, our identity changes at each moment, while our conceptions of ourselves are highly limited by the slices of time by which we perceive the world. This means that there is an infinitely small proportion of time during which we have an opportunity to know who we are. Put another way, it means that it is basically impossible for us to ever know ourselves, let alone shape who we are. This stands in direct contradiction to those who might assert that we know ourselves better than anyone can, as—for all practical purposes—we do not know ourselves at all when contrasted against the determining effect of the material world around us. We cannot know ourselves and we cannot determine our own fates. But, this is not the only possible problem with this conception.

Fenison relates identity to state-of-mind, which seems to erase the idea that identity is purely about how the material world shapes who we are in the spaces between our perceptions. It seems impossible to have a state-of-mind without having percepts with which to alter our state-of-mind, unless again, Fenison means that what happens outside our brains has greater effect on how we think and feel than does our brain. That seems unlikely but not completely implausible.

3. A possible—and seemingly superior—reading of Fenison is to say our identities are shaped by the world but that our brains play a more significant role in shaping those identities and that the distinctions between ourselves and the material world are not absolute. This would say that we are connected to the material world and that we determine parts of our fates, while also making possible that we might be affected by the most far-flung events in the universe through chains of causalities.

Note: An earlier version said that Fenison stated that state-of-being is individually-limited, but has been corrected to reflect that I could not be sure that was what she was stating.

Today, I Believe in God, Part One: Paris, France

I genuflected at the end of the pew, making the sign of the cross: the Catholic way, not the Orthodox way. I’d only a few days ago learned that Orthodox Christians go from right to left across their chests. At first, I’d thought the guy was doing it wrong. I’d rolled my eyes, but then I felt a little embarrassed when I realized that everyone was doing that.

The Sacré-Cœur is massive and tourists will about, creating a lot of white noise. The cathedral’s bubbling domes seem to call to foreign spectators. I’d tried to go in from the wrong direction, but a cheery secretarial woman had corrected me, somewhat sarcastically, but only playfully so. So, I’d walked around the whole thing in the cold, the vapors leaving my mouth and dissipating in the air.

I was there by myself, kneeling and just meditating. Well, trying to meditate. I thought about saying the Jesus Prayer, but I guess I couldn’t remember how it went. The different colors of light were all dancing around one another, and I thought about the thousands of people who had to build this thing. Only the Catholic Church in its heyday could’ve built these things in every Western city at the time. They must’ve cost lots of lives, and all that exploitation led to these magnificent monuments. There’s something to be said for the kind of power that can create things that will imbue you with faith. I’m not saying it’s good, but I also don’t want to feel guilty for enjoying them.

Just sitting here, I feel belief seeping into me like water through the membrane of a boiled egg. How could one avoid it? Something about its bigness, all the beautiful stained glass, the paintings, the candlelight—the light in the place is all natural, you know. It’s all sunlight and candles, as though we’re being compelled to acknowledge God’s natural glory. I guess that’s part of it.

I knelt there and meditated. I thought about how there’s something about gathering a couple hundred people in a dimly lit space and being quiet. There’s something magical, something sacred about that. Only the Catholic Church could’ve created all these wonders for us to venerate and absorb and believe in. I felt sin washing out from my skin. I felt myself getting clean. I felt my frailty and I wanted to beg for forgiveness. I felt that God was in there, and that God was a woman. She was the mother I’d longed for and forgotten. But, I didn’t feel guilty. I felt content and a bit tired in a way. I kind-of wanted to stay there forever and just fall asleep and melt away from all the pressures, all the conflicts, and from my more Earthly self.

And, I realized that maybe everyone there was feeling basically the same exact thing. All these fat women and bristly men and people who were missing teeth in unfortunate places and little kids who worshipped footballers were all sitting there, wanting to cry like this young man in the twelfth row. Maybe they were crying, too. I hope so. It feels good to cry, I think, but no one seems to notice.

I haven’t really been religious since the eighth grade, but a place like this certainly makes me feel something. It reminds me that we’re all connected and that nothing is certain. It reminds me that we’re all afraid and we’re all just trying our best, even if we’re all failing in various ways. It reminds me that there are bigger things and smaller things, and that it doesn’t really matter. It reminds me that love is what really matters. I’m such a judgmental asshole, sometimes, but I don’t mean to be. I get so caught up in feelings and in what seems right. I just want to be good, but maybe I should just want to be, or maybe to try to be as kind as possible. Maybe it’s better to be kind than to be good.

I’d been feeling a little guilty for being there. I could’ve used that money for something, but I don’t know what. I’d had no plans, and I was fucking tired of being on campus. I hadn’t gone anywhere since I’d gotten to school. Really, I’d never gone anywhere in my whole life, except for when I drove up to Toronto to see my friend. That’s really the only reason I was able to go because, otherwise, I wouldn’t have had a passport. I guess I chose Paris because it’s romantic or something. I mean, I think every friend I ever had was a Francophile at some point or another, and even though I’d never been one, I figured I should go there if I should go anywhere. Maybe I should’ve gone to Mecca, but I wouldn’t have thought of it before having gone to Paris, so here I am.

I don’t really know why I felt guilty. I’d basically saved every extra penny of scholarship money I’d gotten—not just because I’d wanted to save money (which I did, but why I couldn’t tell you), but because I didn’t really have any friends at school. I mean, I had a couple people who you might call friends, but I’ve only really had three friends in my whole life. I don’t know why. I’m just quiet. I have opinions, but I always think I might be wrong and when I hear someone say their own opinions, I just think they might be right. And, teachers hate when you talk in class and students hate when you raise your hand a lot, so I just don’t say much. Even at home, my mom mostly just watches reality TV, and my dad’s been gone for a while now. I really couldn’t tell you how I spend my free time.

My name’s Joey, by the way.

Anyway, it all gets a little tiring.

Chasing the Ethereal, Part Three: Everything in Its Wrong Place

Part one
Part two

Jennifer sent an email in the morning before going to class:

Dear Professor (one of three names she sent the email to),

I am really sorry, but a close friend of mine passed away last night, and I am not sure what I am supposed to do. If all goes according to plan, I am going to come to your class and try to take notes, but I am not sure how well I will do today. I hope that you understand if I am unable to make it or if I get distracted, but I promise I will try my hardest. Sorry.

Sincerely,

Jennifer Hakkinen

Her first class had been Elementary Statistics. She hadn’t learned anything. In the top left-hand corner of the last page with any writing was the day’s date. Nothing more was on the page. From there, she went directly to her second class. She could learn statistics on her own, but her lectures for Introduction to Sociology might contain material that she would be tested on.

She sat in the third row as the projector hummed and projected a solid blue field. Then, fuzzy at first, words came into view: “Emile Durkheim.”

Dr. Gladman asked someone to define Structuralism before she switched to the next slide and all the students’ heads bobbed down toward their desks, with their arms protruding outward and writing utensils dancing in strange patterns above the wooden desktops. Dr. Gladman explained Durkheim’s work pertaining to anomie and his theories about suicide. “It seems that we generally need some order in our lives in order to feel completely comfortable and to be able to reach our full potential. When we see this absence of order—this ah-no-mee—we seem to kind of short-circuit and lack proper ways of going about our lives. For some people, this means that they feel a compulsion to end their lives rather than deal with the chaos that surrounds them.”

Jennifer’s head came up and she looked at the screen. She didn’t read the words, but she could see many of them. They weren’t very different from what Dr. Gladman had been saying.

That morning, when Dr. Gladman had read Jennifer’s email, Dr. Gladman had instructed Jennifer:

Dear Jennifer,

I’m so sorry for your loss. Having to mourn someone is always hard and I can’t imagine how hard that must be for you to have to deal with right now.

The subject matter that we’re dealing with in class today might be hard for you, so I suggest that you allow me to email you the slides and notes for today’s lecture, and you can read them when your friend’s passing isn’t so fresh for you.

I hope that you take care of yourself, first and foremost.

 

Best,

Edith Gladman

Jennifer hadn’t checked her email, though.

In a rush, Jennifer assembled her supplies and dashed out of the room, running just past Lexie’s right. The other students’ heads rotated in Jennifer’s direction, as they tried to understand what the commotion might be about. Lexie watched Jennifer rush out of the room, before Lexie looked at the boy to her right. Her arms made wings on either side of her as she put her weight on her hands, pushing against the desk and quickly walking to leave the room.

“Jennifer!”

Jennifer took two steps before stopping and turning around. Her face was full of color and her makeup ran down her face as though it’d been funneled. “Hey,” she said.

“What’s wrong?” Lexie asked.

Jennifer’s hand moved from one side of her face to the other as she sniffled. “My friend died last night.”

“What? I’m so sorry.”

“I just hung out with him yesterday,” Jennifer said as her sobs became more punctuated and rapid. She seemed to have difficulty breathing. “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. I don’t know how I’m supposed to feel. I’ve never had something like this happen.”

Lexie’s face melted at its edges. “Yeah, I’ve never had to mourn someone other than really old relatives.”

They stood, looking at each other’s shoes in the hallway as people walked inconspicuously by.

Lexie asked, “Do you wanna go talk somewhere?”

Lexie walked with Jennifer to a table in a room far from the entrance and bar areas. Fido’s is usually crowded, but Jennifer quickly got their drinks. Lexie handed Jennifer her drink and lowered herself to the chair.

“I’m so sorry, Jennifer. You should’ve told me.”

“I emailed my teachers this morning. Honestly, they’re the only people I’ve told.”

Lexie sipped her drink. “Were you close to him?”

“No. I kind-of had a crush on him, but we weren’t close. Not that I would’ve dated him. That would’ve been too weird, but there was something about him. He was so unafraid to be him. Everyone who got close to him seemed to love him, even if a lot of people didn’t allow themselves to get close to him. He was so complicated and so simple at the same time.”

“How did you know him?”

“I don’t even know. I mean, I know, but it’s like, it wasn’t on purpose and it wasn’t normal. I didn’t even pay attention to him at first. It was kinda strange, honestly. Like, he was just over at Edwin’s house a lot. At first, I didn’t know why. I probably said ‘Hi’ to him a bunch of times before knowing anything about him.”

“Does he go to school with us”

“Oh, no! He’s old. He’s like 27 or something. Actually, we were just talking about his age yesterday. We were talking about you. 28, maybe? Fuck. This is weird. I’m sorry.”

“About me?”

“Yeah. He had this big crush on you. I mean, not so big, but he’d talk about you and everyone knew he had a crush on you.”

“Wait. How did he know me?”

“He went by the bar, sometimes, but always with people and I don’t think you ever talked.”

“Wait. I know him? Who is he? We never talked? Did he order drinks?”

“Well, yeah, but that was it. I don’t think he ever said anything to you at all. You probably wouldn’t recognize him.”

“I don’t wanna know. I don’t need to know. Why did you tell me? This is so weird.”

“Lexie, this isn’t about you, okay? Fuck, man. My friend just died!”

“I’m sorry, Jen! I don’t know how to deal with this, either, but I definitely don’t know how to deal with a dead person I don’t know having a crush on me. Why would that ever come up? I don’t understand it. Why would anyone have a crush on me? Why would a stranger have a crush on me? Why would a 27-year-old man have a crush on me?”

“I think he was really 28.”

“But now he’s dead, so some weird, creepy, 28-year-old strange man had a crush on me, and now he’s dead, and what am I supposed to do about that?”

“I don’t fucking know, Lexie, but you could be a bit more sensitive about it.”

Lexie looked at Jennifer, realizing that she might’ve made a mistake. She felt justified in her feelings, but felt it inappropriate for either of them to be fighting over the subject. “You’re right. I’m sorry. I wanted to make you feel better. I’m just confused.”

Jennifer put her hand on Lexie’s.

As Lexie drove from the coffee shop, she thought of all the times that her mother had told her to be leery of older men, how strange it had been that an older, strange man had a crush on her, and how much stranger it was that he’d suddenly died in a car accident. Even at school, everyone knew that white, cisgender, straight men were trouble. But now he was dead. How innocent had the crush been? Maybe he’d been at the bar and someone had caught him looking at Lexie in a way such that it was clear that he found her cute. Maybe that’s all it was. What was important was that no one’s completely innocent, and no one wants to die at the age of 28. How must Jennifer feel?

Lexie arrived at work a few minutes early, clocked in, did prep work, and got ready to serve drinks. She wore a black blouse and tight bluejeans with cowgirl boots. Lexie was about 5’5”, thin but curvaceous, with chestnut hair and hazel eyes. She had full facial features, but she wouldn’t necessarily stick out in a crowd. The sleeve on her black blouse revealed a pair of horizontal lines on her upper arm that bubbled up from her skin like the thick film on soup that’s been sitting without having been stirred. She had a similar mark on her upper-thigh. She carried herself with confidence and she didn’t usually speak up unless it seemed necessary. She was dependable and kind but not overly warm.

At the bar were some regulars who lived nearby. They were mostly Vanderbilt students, but she didn’t know them well, other than that they sometimes came into her hip little dive bar, ordered a few drinks, and were often playful with Lexie, but no moreso than most male patrons were. All in a row on the barstools, the young men sat with their shoulders slumped, like defeated big cats. Each occasionally wiggled or lifted an arm. From behind, they might be mistaken for sacks of lumpy potatoes: headless. No one said anything for a while.

Lexie asked the men how they were doing. After an uncomfortably long pause, Edwin spoke up: “It’s a sad day.”

Lexie’s neck elongated. She knew.

“I’m sorry,” she said.

Edwin explained, “It’s odd—almost like some alternate reality.”

“It’s this reality, Edwin,” Alex said.

Edwin stared at his beer for a moment. “Yeah, you’re right, Alex.” He looked at him desperately. “We knew this guy. Knew.” He shook his head and sipped his beer. “He was a construction worker, handyman guy. It’s strange that we became friends at all.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, so he first came over when we first got the house.”

“You? Who?”

“My mom and I got this house.”

“Oh.”

“So it needed some work: some paint here, some wiring there. We called around, and Justin—oh, his name’s Justin—well, we called around and hired this company. Generic name. Something like ‘ABC Construction and Handyman Company’ or something like that. Anyway, he would work there, and while he was working, he’d have a beer or two, but there were always people over—it’s six guys who live there—and so he’d just end up hanging around. At first, it was weird, like, who’s this random construction guy, and why’s he just over here? But he was hilarious and kind and wise and interesting. I don’t mean that in some patronizing way, as though he was interesting because he grew up lower-middle class in a Southern suburb. He was just insightful and goofy and had a lot of interesting perspectives on things.”

Lexie’s torso bent forward at a 45-degree angle, and her forearms laid on the bar.

“Well, he died last night.”

“Oh, man?!” Alex exclaimed. “You have to just say it like that? Damn, Edwin.”

“What?! It’s true. How do you want me to say it? Sorry!”

“Yeah, whatever.”

Edwin looked over at Alex before looking down at the bar, then back up at Lexie and down at his beer. He raised the glass to his mouth and allowed some of the liquid to slide into his mouth. “So he got in this car accident last night. I thought maybe he’d been drunk—although I don’t think he’s ever gotten a DWI before—but it turns out that it wasn’t him. I don’t think he was an alcoholic, but he drank a lot of beer. I mean, he probably was drunk last night, really, but he wasn’t the one driving. That’s what I meant. It just sucks. I don’t think any of us have ever lost a friend before. It’s hard to even accept, really. Like, we’re never gonna hang out with Justin again.”

Alex chimed in: “No ICP, no more potato-sacking that ass, no more dry-humping friends on the couch.”

Another friend, Dmitri, spoke up, “Oh, we can still dry-hump.”

Lexie asked, “Potato sacking?”

Edwin quickly released a lot of air through his nose as he gulped down the beer in his mouth, and laughed aloud. “Haha! Yeah, so he told this story one time.”

“Edwin, you’re terrible at telling that story,” Dmitri said.

Alex: “No! No one tells it better than Edwin. Just let him tell the story.”

Edwin started again, “So we had a few people over at the house, and it started with an innocuous question, like, ‘Hey, Justin. Do you like to hunt?’ Then, he said, ‘No, but I’d punch a deer in the face.’ ‘What the—? Are you kidding?!’” Edwin tried to not laugh. “‘Yeah, there’s lots of deer runnin’ ‘round my neighborhood, but I cain’t shoot ‘em. So when I see a few roamin’ ‘round my yard, I’ll sneak through the woods and just watch ‘em for a while.’ ‘What? How long?’ ‘One time, I just sat there for two hours, just watchin’ ‘em. When one was on his own, I army crawled up behind ‘im through the grass, then slowly stood up.’” Edwin was telling the story through giggles at this point. “‘As soon as he’d turned my direction, I punched right between the eyes as hard as I could, and then…’”

“I potato sacked his ass!” another friend, Ricky, vigorously delivered the punchline.

The men all began laughing, but Lexie just stood up and looked at them, her mouth hanging open. “Wait, what? He potato sacked…? Huh?”

Edwin smiled, subtly, and looked at Lexie. “We don’t really know. I mean, there are theories, but he’s never explained it and no one’s pressed him enough for him to explain. It’s just funny. Like, maybe he put the potato sack over the deer’s head and tickled the deer? I dunno.”

“Fuck! I’m gonna miss Justin.” Alex said.

“Cheers,” Ricky replied.

The men raised their glasses and clinked them on one another.

Alex suggested, “We should get some people together and play some Aaliyah, ICP, Tesla, Pink Floyd—”

“Earth, Wind, and Fire!” Dmitri offered. “I remember, one time, I farted in the kitchen. Justin was asleep on the couch at like two in the afternoon, and he doesn’t open his eyes or roll over or anything. He just says, ‘Did you hear that asshole talking shit behind your back?’” Lexie and several of the guys started laughing hard.

“One time, when I’d first started drinking—maybe the first or second time—I asked Justin how you know when you’re drunk and he said, ‘When you ask that question!’” Alex offered. “There are so many things he did and said that I’d never forget. So we’re gonna have people over tonight? Tomorrow? When, Edwin?”

“Why are you asking me? Any time, really. When do y’all wanna have it?”

“Let’s make an event,” Ricky said. “I don’t wanna keep away any of the people who really loved him.”

“He really loved Lexie,” Alex said.

“Alex!” Edwin admonished.

Lexie replied, “It’s okay. Someone told me earlier today.”

Edwin said, “I think he never said anything because he didn’t wanna creep you out. It’s interesting because Justin had a pretty healthy love-life, but he noticed that girls at Vandy acted weird around him. Maybe it’s his age, maybe it’s where he comes from, maybe his accent. He’s a pretty normal-looking guy, but he said that he thought he creeped out a lot of girls.”

“You know, Justin once said that he wished he didn’t make Vandy girls uncomfortable by simply existing.” Dmitri pointed out.

Lexie smiled an obviously fake smile. Her lips went sideways and nothing around her eyes moved. “It’s okay,” she said.

Edwin’s head tilted to the side and his eyebrows moved toward the middle of his forehead. “Well, if you wanna come, you should come.”

Lexie got Edwin’s address and phone number and told them goodbye when they left. She said that she might come to the get-together. She spent the rest of her shift thinking about this mysterious man whom people seemed to love, despite that he had been such a fish-out-of-water, and that he’d had some sort of crush on her. She thought about how Edwin had been right: she would’ve been creeped out. She was creeped out. But maybe she’d been wrong to have been creeped out. Maybe she really would go to the party.

She went home that night, got out her planner, her books, her laptop. Between reading and math problems, she thought more about whether or not she should go to the party. She thought about this strange man and how she’d reacted to Jennifer. She felt bad for how she’d reacted but didn’t want to stir things up by giving another apology.

She didn’t finish her reading, and it took her a little too long to fall asleep.

Part four
Part five

The Bravery and Virtue in Intentional Interdependency: A Proposed Letter to President Trump from Baruch Spinoza

Note: This is intended to be a letter written in the voice of someone else, expressing their ideas. These aren’t necessarily exactly my thoughts, nor is this exactly my voice.

Dear President Trump,

I believe that there is not sufficient reason for us to worry. While I mean to suggest that I should not worry and my neighbors should not worry, I write this letter to you, so I want to talk with you about worries that you and your supporters have alluded to.

Instead of trying to conform the world to our will, we are likely to be more content by trying to understand the world and behaving harmoniously with it. Seneca knew this well, and compared us to dogs tied to the back of a chariot: the leash may be long enough to give some freedom of movement, but ultimately, the chariot determines where we are to go; resistance only results in our strangulation by unreasonable desires.

I believe that your rise to the presidency represents a perfect, necessary moment in time, just as all history is a matter of nature responding to expressions of nature’s volition. Nature constantly adjusts to changing intensities of material realities. To anyone who is troubled with the present time, consider that life often goes in ways for which we do not wish, so it is up to us to decide on the best response. If we respond with our passions, we may end up like the dog, choking ourselves with frustration and grief. To put this more succinctly, I think that the rise of Strong Man leaders as yourself is a response to growing, and recurring, sentiments in the world: fear and mourning of a better time.

As the world changes, it can bring loss and uncertainty, but I suggest that we will not return to the past. If we consider history, there is no known precedent of return to a previous iteration of our world, regardless of people’s attempts to return to idealized pasts. We can attempt to isolate ourselves from others and from the natura naturata, or knowable empirical truth if you prefer, but isolation is counterproductive. Resisting truth, resisting full education for all, and placing ourselves on the margin of international society is unlikely to result in greater safety or contentedness. However, the future will not have been more dangerous than the past was, unless our fears keep us from doing that which is necessary.

I understand the temptation. We want to survive and we sometimes perceive and react hastily to threats. But, instead of attempting to force our will upon others and trying to reshape the world to our liking, we instead can look inside ourselves and become our most authentic, most perfect selves. That is to say that we seek to distinguish ourselves from one another, but we can best do this by perfectly understanding ourselves. Imagine those times when, instead of impulsively reacting to the seemingly random and brutal world around you, you might have considered your ideal response. The result of this is calm self-assurance and greater awareness. I previously wrote, Blessedness is not the reward of virtue, but virtue itself to say that goodness does not cause positive feelings; rather, they are the same. I suggest that becoming the most essential versions of ourselves increases our power to survive. If we combine this kind of act with a prioritization of education, we can then make optimal decisions. We can all be free by becoming that which we essentially are and by doing our best to understand the world, but we have to accept the consequences of ourselves if we wish to be free from pains of bitter, distorted passions.

We can embrace the inevitable truth that the world is destined to change and we can play an intentional role in that change. We can implement policies that work best for everyone, as we are all inextricably connected. Where there are imbalances, there is likely to be complication, but if we work for the improvement of everyone’s conditions, then together, we might reach a kind of enlightenment, but not before then. This world can be better for us and we can be more joyful and contented. Instead of isolating from one another, concealing information, and making education more difficult for some people, we could embrace one another in an attempt to learn. This would help to improve conditions, but it requires an emphasis on inclusion, tolerance, democracy, and full education for all.

We cannot reach our goals without knowing ourselves, without trying to understand the world, and without others doing so, too. If we wish to feel safe, we can eliminate threats through education, helping to free everyone from the chains of their passions.

Sincerely,

Baruch Spinoza

Chasing the Ethereal, Part Two: Dimming Twilight

Part one

Justin sat on the cobalt blue couch in Edwin’s living room, a spartan space with cheap, kitschy ornaments and hardwood floors. Jennifer, a 22-year-old Vanderbilt student, plopped down beside Justin and smiled, as she pulled out her Apple laptop and sank into the forgiving cushions. Grinning mischievously, Jennifer informed Justin: “I saw Lexie yesterday.”

“Aw, sheeyit,” Justin replied.

“Justin, how old are you?”

“Old enough to know the difference, young enough to do it, anyway. I trust in the wisdom of Aaliyah: ‘Age ain’t nothin’ but a number.’”

“She’s 20.”

“Well, you ain’t gotta tell me. Anyway, my daddy always said ‘If there’s grass.’ I think that makes him a pedophile asshole, but I don’t think he’s really a pedophile. He’s def’nitely a asshole. Anyway, it don’t matter. I ain’t never gonna talk to that girl.”

“I’m gonna see her tomorrow. You could come.”

“Aw, hale nah, girl.” Justin’s big, brown, chafed hand slid back and forth across his knee. “This shit might all be made up, anyhow, you know? We might all be stuck in the Matrix.”

“You love that movie, don’t you? But what’re you talking about? What does that have to do with Lexie?”

“Got shit to do with Lexie. I’m just sayin’. I lost my toothbrush this mornin’.”

Jennifer had hair light enough for a Nordic to envy, a slender, heart-shaped face and a thin frame. She was pretty, but Justin figured that she looked a little too pretty, a little too pure. Not my style, he’d thought. Thin, discrete lines appeared between her generic, symmetrical facial features. “Justin…”

“Okay, I was just thinkin’. You know how, sometimes, when some weird shit happens, you have one of those dumbass thoughts like maybe everything’s fake or somethin’? Like, what if this is all a dream or somethin’, you know? You know what I’m talkin’ ‘bout!”

“Yeah, I used to have dreams like that.”

“Well, I lost my toothbrush this mornin’, and the thing is I ain’t taken a toothbrush outta my bathroom in I-don’t-know-how-long. And don’t nobody go in there, neither. I mean, I ain’t had any lady over in there in a few weeks, anyway, ‘less I gave her the boot, and no one else would be in there. Not even my daddy.”

“So what do you think happened?”

“Girl, that’s what I’m tryin’ to tell you! I got no idea! It don’t make no sense, huh?”

Jennifer smiled and shook her head.

Justin got up from the couch and stood a few feet in front of Jennifer, facing her. The pupils in her smallish light blue eyes doubled in diameter. “What if you’re a robot, Jen? Or a alien? You could be some deadly Kung Fu monster from outer space. How would I know? I’m gettin’ real suspicious, Jen!” Justin’s arms were spread wide as he gesticulated with refreshed vigor.

Jennifer laughed and said, “You’re crazy, Justin!”

“Maybe this is your fault. Maybe it’s you. Maybe I’m part of your imagination and I’m just a puppet here for your entertainment. Maybe that’s how powerful you are, especially since you’re gettin’ all As over there at that good-ass school. When’s the last time you got a B, Jen? Huh?”

“Oh, it’s been years. That’s why I haven’t had any of these crazy dreams: I’ve been too busy getting As.”

Justin laughed loudly before his face settled into a crooked smile. Jennifer thought he was charming for a silly country boy.

 

That night, Justin went downtown with his high school friend, Paul. Paul was quiet and observant. He was taller than Justin, but generally seemed less dynamic. As he looked out at the phenomena around him, Paul’s inner world constantly churned in secret.

The two young men danced to trance and techno music and they drank down as much alcohol as they normally would. As often happened after absorbing the drinks, lights, sound, movements, and energy, they decided to go to Waffle House at the end of the night for greasy food as a final indulgence of the evening.

Paul turned the keys forward in the ignition, before he looked both ways down Woodland Street and compelled his long, fifty-year old car to glide humbly toward the highway. The snappy drums and buzzing melodies of loud Southern hip-hop washed out from Paul’s speakers to envelope Paul’s and Justin’s bodies, like sea foam over turtles on a warm shoreline. Justin’s eyes closed, sending him to the fantasyscape of worlds that were secret even to him. Paul turned his head to observe Justin’s closed, drooping face. Figures. That boy can’t hold his liquor.

Suddenly, Paul heard the thudding of his tires quickly rolling unevenly over the warning strip and then the curb. Paul threw his hands, making a cross above his head as the chrome bumper of his car absorbed a thousand dents and scratches against a tall, sturdy oak. As the steering wheel resisted the corporal encroachment, Paul’s chest collapsed into his torso like a heavy balloon gradually giving back its air. The crown of Justin’s head and left shoulder shot out of the safe, enclosed space of the automobile like cannon fodder and made their way outside to the unabated gold and white light that hung in the street’s atmosphere. The windshield had given partial birth to Justin, and he simply hung in space as though life itself had been paused, although this was not exactly the case for Justin. His brain had bounced back and forth inside his head like a pinball. Blood gently slid over his face and torso. His collarbone and ribs penetrated his lungs, reshaping the pinkish bags and poking holes of various shapes and sizes into the spongy matter.

Paul’s and Justin’s souls seeped from their pores like vapor, rejoining their families, their friends, elephants in Nepal, grub worms in Peru, the edge of the wispy atmosphere that separates Earth from endless vacuum and the greater universe.

The car burst into flames. The two young men had died long before the police had been able to arrive at the scene.

Family was informed. They informed friends. Friends got on social media, texted, and called more friends to relay the bad news. Most people who knew Justin required consolation in those predawn hours.

Part three
Part four
Part five

%d bloggers like this: