The frail beauty of curiosities without context

I wish I could regularly walk like I’m lost. I want to look up at the sky, meandering without purpose, instinctively slipping past the other people on the sidewalk – people who walk, like I do in actuality, like they had somewhere to be five minutes ago, especially if they didn’t. Walking like that deflects attention and precludes conversation. It’s practical, it’s easy, and it creates moments that are no sooner experienced than forgotten. Aware of the people around you, the storefront canopies overhead, and the incessant sounds of cars just a few feet away, nothing else registers. The noise is the experience.

With daily life often overflowing with nothing but background noise, I think about how constant awareness is not all it’s cracked up to be. Just be present, the internet told us a couple years ago, and your quality of life will improve. It certainly depends on what you’re present for, but I think in a lot of cases increased presence just means your head is filled with more debris than it would be otherwise. More context for a subject that has yet to reveal itself.

Because of the deafening level of white noise provided by 1) office life and 2) the internet, I’ve become fascinated by the idea of compelling things free of context (even ones designed to be that way). Iceland provided one such curiosity. In the gift shop of Reykjavik’s Harpa concert hall, I came across this beautiful boy, hilariously named “Fred.” There was nothing else – no indication of who Fred was or what intellectual property he was attached to. I knew nothing other than that I loved Fred. I was ready to believe that Fred was a standalone character that just existed to grace the three stickers in that gift shop, and nothing else. And the strange part is that the truth wasn’t that far off. Continue reading “The frail beauty of curiosities without context”

You have to live somewhere

“Semantic satiation” is the idle tendency to repeat one word or phrase over and over until you perceive it only as a collection of meaningless sounds. I do this enough that it stopped feeling foreign a long time ago; the thing I now find odd is how quickly I assign a name to it. As a word disintegrates into its constituent parts, immediately the sounds are replaced by words that still have meaning: semantic satiation.

I’m not sure if there’s a term for when this happens with thoughts, but that process still feels strange to me in a way semantic satiation hasn’t in a while. I recently went to Iceland for my honeymoon, and as my wife (!) and I traveled through disparate landscapes and stopped at one natural wonder after another, a single question kept bubbling to the surface. Why here? Continue reading “You have to live somewhere”

Days when the sky is too big

I visited Oklahoma last week. It was overcast and raining when I landed at the airport, something I was grateful for. A wide blue sky would only have amplified the gnawing homesickness I felt for my immediate surroundings.

Driving under a cloudless sky is particularly oppressive. With that vast blue expanse above, everything down here feels tiny. I’m driving a tiny car to a tiny destination to do some tiny thing, and all the while, an endless blue pool stares down apathetically. A sky wide open makes me feel like one of the rare clouds that dares to puncture the monotony – isolated, small, and fleeting. These feelings are true, in a way. They’re just not great for a return to a place where everything used to feel important. Continue reading “Days when the sky is too big”

Demetri Martin and the obsessively examined life

The pieces of media I wrote about in my last two enthusiasm posts, Owl City’s Ocean Eyes and the movie Hoot, are at least reasonably well-known even if most people are apathetic about them. But when I ask people about the subject of today’s post, Demetri Martin’s stand-up set If I, almost nobody has heard of it. To me, this performance is the pinnacle of the philosophical comedy genre I wrote about a while back in a post about DC Pierson. It’s a comedy show, as Demetri Martin is nominally a comedian, but it provides more introspection than laugher and that’s not a bad thing in this case.

Demetri opens the performance with this gem: “The unexamined life is not worth living. Socrates said that. I would just add one thing – man. The unexamined life is not worth living, man!” This is the tone of the show distilled. It’s obsessive self-analysis and urgent soul-searching, softened by deadpan humor. It rules.

Continue reading “Demetri Martin and the obsessively examined life”

Always Forward

Always Forward

Romans 12:1-12

I was watching Luke Cage on Netflix the other day and something really stuck out to me in those first few episodes. Luke Cage, if you aren’t familiar, is a TV series about a superhero that opens the show trying to live a normal life in Harlem. He didn’t want his powers; they were forced upon him in a failed experiment while he was in prison. So he attempts to live a quiet life, sweeping hair in a barbershop and not making too much noise. The shop is owned by a man known simply as “Pop” who serves as a role model, almost father figure not just to Luke but the whole neighborhood. His shop is a sanctuary away from the constant struggle of life in New York, a place where even the fiercest blood rivals can sit down for a moment of peace. Pop lives by a motto that stayed with me for the entirety of the show and I couldn’t get it out of my head when I sat down to write this. It’s these two simple words: “Always Forward.” He would go on to say it many times, sometimes making sure to add in a reminder to never go backwards but the emphasis is always on forward progress.  Continue reading “Always Forward”

A poem inspired by…well, who am I to tell you what you should think of this?

I was sure, I was certain, I knew what I thought
Until one unlucky day
I decided to stand in another’s spot
And see if my thoughts would stray.

And they did, they fled, flew out of my head
When I tried to abandon me
As somebody else I thought different things,
Just as plain and as clear of debris.
So I figured we all had something had something to give
Something to teach and to tell and decree.

But with all these ideas wanting attention
I wasn’t quite sure which to choose
I was queasy, in tension, needing intervention
Lost in another man’s shoes.

So I retreated, dug in, decided I was foolish
And went back to how I had been
I saw what was different and pointed and laughed
Hid behind teasing grin.

But it felt hollow and dry and too hard to swallow
Because now I knew how it felt
I couldn’t laugh at what I’d just understood
I was changed for good, rearranged.

I couldn’t accept that everybody was right
But I equally doubted the opposite
I guess what I’ve found, puzzling all through the night:
Who’s to say how to think or write?

Monsters University is a good movie for adults

I saw “Monsters University” recently and thought it was great, but at first I wasn’t sure why.  I thought maybe it was just because I got to see one of my favorite movie villains ever, Randall the invisible purple lizard, grace the screen again.  But as I thought about it a little more, I realized I liked the way the movie didn’t pander to its audience.  It would have been easy to do a movie where Mike and Sully went to college, became friends, graduated, and went to work at Monsters, Inc, and lived happily ever after, but that’s not what happened, because the people who made this movie expected as much from their audience as their audience expected from them.  This isn’t as great a movie as previous Pixar offerings “Toy Story 3” and “Wall-E,” but part of what made those movies so good is here in Monsters.  The people in charge thought the most of their audience, and it showed in the dialogue and the nuance of the characters’ emotions.  They weren’t worried anything would go over the audience’s heads.

Seeing “Grown Ups 2” around the same time helped me realize why I liked “Monsters” so much.  “Grown Ups” was hilarious in parts, but I got the impression that the people who made this movie thought their audience were idiots and that every joke had to be spelled out in neon letters and punctuated with exciting noises.  Both movies were entertaining, but only one of them made me feel like I was a intellectually capable human being, and because of that, I was much more invested in the story and the characters.  I think we as audiences project our emotions on characters we like, so if a movie makes us feel worthwhile, it improves our opinion of the characters.

So as I thought about people’s estimations of others, I realized that a lot of the time I’m too much like the people that made “Grown Ups.”  When I say or make or write something, I often feel like I’m doing it for people who aren’t like me and who won’t necessarily understand what I’m doing without a little help.  And maybe sometimes that’s true, but I’d bet most of the time it’s not and it detracts from whatever I’m doing or saying.  I think if we all had a higher opinion of our audiences our messages would come across clearer and be received better.

I saw DC Pierson do comedy, and also, a brief reflection on human nature

If I hadn’t read The Book Thief, I’d probably say that the main theme of Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night is that people are capable of extraordinary kindness and chilling evil, and trying to predict which one to expect from someone at a given time is a fool’s errand.  But because I cherish the idea that there really are Hans Hubermanns in the world, and that good character can consistently produce good actions, Mother Night left a different impression on me.

It made me think about whether society can distinguish between when a person is diseased and when that person has realized his world is.  So that thought has been living in my head this week, right next to a haunting sentiment from the back of a Whataburger cup: “when I am empty please dispose of me properly.”

It was against this backdrop of dark existential amusement that I stayed up all night doing schoolwork.  And it was in a state of acute awareness of my own physical need to sleep that I got to see DC Pierson, author of The Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep and Never Had To, do standup comedy.  I read that book about a year ago, a book about “A kid who dreamed so hard it exploded from his head and into the world, promising everything.” (Page 226).

DC Pierson was hilarious, and like all truly hilarious people, part of his humor came from his seriousness.  A couple of times he used the phrase “apparently, the nature of reality…” and his smirk dared the audience to guess whether or not he was joking.  As far as I can tell, he was, barely.

But as I listened to Pierson’s riotously-funny-slash-borderline-tragic stories, and that line from his book drifted back to me, my squirming insides felt a little bit better about Mother Night’s bleak vision of humanity.  Dreams explode out of people in terrible and wonderful ways, and because of the mark those dreams leave it’s impossible to separate people from the world.

To use an obvious example, society did a bad job realizing that the world was in fact the diseased entity when dreams exploded out of Martin Luther King, Jr.  But King’s dreams flashed so hard and so strong that it eventually it didn’t matter that society initially thought he was crazy.  Just as easily as they can destroy, dreams can be the first step in a remedy.

So I’m glad I got to see DC Pierson, because he was a well-timed reminder that just because something is sad doesn’t mean it’s not also funny.  And he was a reminder of how important sleep is.