A place in my mind where I have all the time in the world to think and write about the things I want to, without interruption. I’m also going to the wonderful Woodstock Writer’s Festival in early April. To be with my tribe.
The Goldfinch. I might be the only other man I know on the planet who is reading this book. It comes with a lot of hype. Maybe too much. I’m on page 567 right now. I’m all in. I’ll reserve judgment until I’m done. I loved Donna Tartt’s first novel, The Secret History. I haven’t read her second, The Little Friend, even though I have a signed copy, obtained when I met her at a book show in Chicago almost ten years ago. I remember her haircut, still the same after all these years, and making her smile.
To the new Beck album, Morning Phase, out today. Billed as a “sequel” to his “masterpiece” Sea Change, it sounds more like a long-lost friend rather than a coda. We have to be careful where, when, and how we listen to a new piece of music for the first time. I listened to the first four songs of Morning Phase after dropping my daughter off at school, and while driving to work, crossing the frozen New Meadows River with the pink sun blazing the ice. But now I’m at work, in my concrete bunker, and it’s not the time to keep going. With its echoes of Rumors-era, sunny California seventies soft-rock, this album doesn’t belong in a basement. It belongs in a car, on an open road, on the way to the beach. Or from, at sunset. I’ll save the rest for later.
Syracuse University basketball games. My daughter is quickly becoming a rabid fan. Speaking as a lifelong Orange supporter, I warned her she’s in for a lot of heartbreak. Wearing her newly-minted Ice Man t-shirt, she seems OK with that.
As much Chobani yogurt as I can stuff into my fat face. As a born-again vegetarian, I need my protein. My favorite is the plain, drizzled with some fresh Maine honey. Take that, Putin.
Red Rose English Breakfast tea, out of my new $8 Plain White Pottery Barn cup-and-saucer set I bought at the mall. I’m one-quarter English on my dad’s side, and smitten with Downton Abbey. I may start walking with a cane, like Mr. Bates, just for fun.
My standard all-black livery: black pants, black socks, black shoes, black crew-neck sweater, with a touch of color at the neck and wrists. Almost everything was bought at Brooks Brothers at a deep discount. As Morrissey sang, I wear black on the outside because black is how I feel on the inside. Plus it’s slimming.
How about you? What are you up to right now?
I went to a small, Jesuit liberal arts college in upstate New York. Although there weren’t many Jesuits teaching there, the school still had a religious feel. Crucifixes hung on the front wall of every classroom, statues of saints stood watch in the gardens, and the whole campus smelled like church.
One of the best professors I had while I was there was a man by the name of Ellerman. That’s how he introduced himself. Not Dr. or Mister, or even Karl, which was his first name. Just Ellerman. At the beginning of the first class, he gave a small summary of what we were going to study (Ethics) and then he simply said. “My name is Ellerman.”
As we got to know him, he confided in us that he hoped someday to write a new, improved version of Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground. He was intense, wore a pencil-thin mustache, and rarely smiled. He was also an avowed atheist. Quite rationally, he explained that since he could discern no proof of God, he simply couldn’t believe. This non-belief, frequently expressed, came as quite a shock to my classmates, most of whom came from Catholic high schools. To them, God was a given, the claims of the Bible waterproof tight. The priests and nuns told them so. And so it must be true.
Ellerman was the first pure contrarian I ever met, pushing everyone’s accepted beliefs to the limit, and I worshipped him for it.
Then one day, he was gone. Working at a college as I do, now I understand the intricacies and high drama of the tenure process. I’m sure he was told he wasn’t on track to get tenure anytime soon, so he moved on. But back then I wanted to believe he had lost his position because he was a confessed atheist at a Jesuit school. He stuck it to the man, wouldn’t compromise his beliefs, chose reason over magic, and paid the ultimate professional price. Even if none of it was true, believing it made his sacrifice seem even greater in my eyes.
One of the ethical problems we discussed was whether or not someone had the right to challenge another person’s long-held belief in God, even on their deathbed. Was it ethical to try and make the dying person see reason, or to let them die happily with their belief in the afterlife and eternal salvation? The question applies not only to religion, but to other philosophical positions as well. Politics or personal ethics, for instance. How far are we permitted to go in order to make someone else agree with our position? Is any discussion of long-held beliefs worthy, or do most people, by the time they reach a certain age, simply believe what they believe and either can’t or won’t believe otherwise, rendering any dialogue moot?
Buddha is quoted as saying that when words are both kind and true, they can change our world. But sometimes true words can’t be kind. And kind words are certainly not always true.
I’ve just finished Morrissey’s Autobiography, and have decided, once again, to recommit myself to the vegetarian lifestyle. This puts me in a somewhat uncomfortable position at times. In a representative quote from the book, Morrissey says, “Suddenly, you come to a certain situation and you are unable to live with it, and the only protest you can make on behalf of the butchered animal is to depart the scene. Whether this be considered irritating or rude by the gluttonous carnivore is of no interest to me. Nobody can possibly be so hungry that they need to take a life in order to feel satisfied – they don’t after all, take a human life, so why take the life of an animal? Both are conscious beings with the same determination to survive. It is habit, and laziness, and nothing else.” Later in the book, Morrissey tells us how he fired an agent for simply ordering frogs’ legs in a fancy Beverly Hills restaurant.
Vegetarians, like recovering alcoholics, must always be ready, it seems, to defend their beliefs. Carnivores and drinkers never do.
If I followed Morrissey’s lead, and simply started walking out of places, like the recent Super Bowl party I attended where a friend brought a bowl of chicken wings (wings I had, on many previous occasions, eaten with unchecked abandon), I wouldn’t have many friends left at all. How far am I willing to go, as Ellerman taught us, to challenge my friend’s long-held beliefs by reminding him that he is eating dead, burned flesh? Should I launch into graphic descriptions of animal torture and slaughter, and how sometimes the flesh is peeled back from the skull of a still-live cow in cases where that poor cow hasn’t been fully anesthetized by the slaughterman’s stun gun? Or how the beaks of chickens are cut off to prevent them from pecking each other to death in the unconscionable close quarters they are kept in? Should we talk of veal, or fois gras? And what about that poetic misnomer, “ethical meat,” that is bandied about by the foodies in the pages of the New York Times? What can be ethical about killing an innocent, sentient creature, with thoughts and feelings, who wants to feel pleasure and avoid pain, just like humans do, as long as the creature was “free range” or had a “name instead of a number” before it was led to the abattoir? Lucky Bessie! She had a good life, but then we had to chop her head off and eat the flesh from her roasted bones. A life destroyed for a moment on the lips.
You see what I mean about the problem of challenging deathbed beliefs. How graphic should I get? What happens in a slaughterhouse doesn’t need to be ginned-up to convey its sheer horror. Animals are skinned alive for our food. That’s what happens.
The whole scheme only works if you believe two (in my opinion) false assumptions. First, that animals are less worthy than people, thereby making their suffering less important, and second, that we need meat to live. If you’ve ever had a dog or cat or goldfish or hamster, and you examine your feeling towards these “domestic” animals, you will probably find that their lives are just as important as yours. I realize that humankind, at some point in our development, may have needed meat to evolve. But with 50 varieties of hummus and 30 kinds of peanut butter in every supermarket, no one can make the argument that meat is now necessary for human life to continue.
Yet meat is everywhere and is consumed, as Morrissey said, out of habit and laziness. Alongside the ubiquitous beef jerky, dried pieces of turkey flesh can now be bought in little baggies in nearly every checkout line of every Wal-Mart in America. Because turkey, the experts tell us, is healthier than beef. Healthier, perhaps, for everyone but the turkey.
Remember how shocked the world was to learn that there was horse meat in the meatballs that were sold in Ikea cafeterias? The horror! But is a horse any more noble than a cow, simply because it’s capable of running at Churchill Downs? If a cow could curl up on your bed at night, or even speak, would it still be so easy to kill?
But what if, as Thoreau believed, that as mankind evolves further, he will naturally leave off the eating of flesh food? However you slice it, meat is dead, decaying flesh. The forms that it takes disguise the fact. A plate of sushi, which is sliced fish bodies, is made to look like candy. Animals are the prefect industrial workers because they can’t complain in any meaningful fashion, nor can they unionize. It’s so easy to kill animals because we are stronger than them, and they trust us. But imagine leading your dog to the guillotine?
Yes, of course people love the way meats tastes, but is a few minutes of pleasure worth the pain? Is it necessary that both a pig and a cow be slaughtered so we can enjoy applewood-smoked bacon on our drive-through cheeseburger?
You may read all this and still say yes, it is.
I know in my lifetime I’ve consumed thousands upon thousands of once-living, self-aware beings. I’ve been vegetarian and even vegan at other times in my life, but have always returned to meat-eating eventually. I’m sure that if I had to hunt to keep my family from starvation, I would have to do it. Or if I was driving my car and had to swerve to avoid hitting either a child or a cow, I would avoid the child. Of course a few extreme situations can be imagined where animal life must be taken to ensure the survival of human life. But these situations, in the modern world in which we live, are negligible almost to the point of non-existence.
There’s a difference between ignorance, and knowing but still choosing. As we move from ignorance to knowledge, maybe we can leave off killing animals for food. Maybe we won’t need a deathbed conversion.
Maybe, as Gandhi suggested, the way we treat our animals will someday be an intimation of the way we treat each other. Maybe we can be kind. And true.
The place I work sends out a little electronic newsletter every day to its employees. Included in these e-missives is news about my employer, but also little snippets of “wisdom” culled from popular media outlets currently in favor. Self-help stories that warn you about the dangers of sitting all day, about the benefits of using a stand-up desk, or the stress-busting effects of taking a short nap or brisk walk at lunchtime. While in actuality you are expected to sit all day at your old-fashioned, stroke-inducing desk, scarf down lunch while continuing to work, and where any noontime exercise is viewed as lack of commitment.
Recently, a story in Forbes magazine told us about the three surprising reasons we should stay at a job we hate. Of course we should, because if most of us don’t stay at jobs we hate, the folks at Forbes, and the millionaires and billionaires they coddle, will have nothing to write or read about. The miserable of the world create and sustain the wealth of the ruling class. We mustn’t quit, but instead accept our misery as a path to self-realization. How wonderful!
The world today, more than any other time in history it seems, is overstuffed with barbarism. Young girls are being raped and set on fire. Schoolchildren are daily butchered by firearms in classrooms and shopping malls. A scum of plastic offal the size of Texas is floating in our oceans. Polar ice is melting but countries are rejoicing because now new shipping lanes will be opened up so that more needless plastic shit can be sent around the world and consumed even faster. Faced with this, how should we act?
My own sensibility veers towards a rejection of the world. Most days, I would love to turn the other cheek forever. Not from my friends and family, whom I love, but from almost everything else.
Corporate optimists love to say we are making progress towards a more equitable, sustainable world, but instead, everywhere we look the cup of the rich gets fuller and larger in order to hold more and more wealth, as the bowls of the poor remain parched. There is no trickling-down, and there never will be. Who would voluntarily give up wealth? Resources will diminish, the wealthy will build their gated Elysiums and their floating mega-yachts, as the poor are left to battle it out amongst themselves for stale crumbs and squirrel-meat. We’re all kidding each other if we think it will be any different.
As artists, we write about our despair not because we want people to feel sorry for us or give us money. When Melville wrote about the white whale, he wasn’t asking us to take up a harpoon. All we want is for people to know that there are other ways of being in the world. Hear my story, take it into yourself, keep as much or as little as you like, and keep going.
There has to be a third way, a middle way between despair for the future of our fragile, rocky, rainy earth, and the corporatist advice of Forbes magazine and TED talks. As if some savant in fancy jeans and an untucked $350 shirt, walking around with a Bluetooth headset on a cushy blue carpet could solve our problems. Like if we listened hard enough, the secret key would finally be discovered to the hidden tomb of reason.
There must be a poetry of sanity. There must be an ethic of individuality, of listening to the voice of your own reason, and rejecting the advice of so-called experts.
One way might be to simply live within our own habits. When I look around at my own life, I don’t have a lot of distractions, and I consider this a blessing. My work habits are efficient and organized. I suppose it helps that my idea of a good day at work is leaving with fewer than five emails in my inbox. It seems that if I always shoot for this goal, I win. I focus on results and not processes. I prepare today’s rice for tomorrow’s gruel. I fold my workout clothes into a pile and set them atop my running shoes for tomorrow morning’s trip to the gym. I don’t have a lot of clothes. My entire wardrobe neatly arranged would reach a height of about eighteen inches. I like tea, books, music, walking, swimming. I can go away for the weekend with a small backpack and the clothes on my back. I’m never bored because I always have a book with me. I enjoy technology but really don’t care if my cellphone dies, even though it never does. I’m lucky not to have any tricky dietary restrictions, and am in good health for a middle-aged husband and father of two. I’m usually broke, but I expect to be. A twenty-dollar bill is as good as striking the lottery. I like being alone, but also feel most alive when engaging in deep talk with dear friends; not about what we do, but about what we love.
A radical Buddhist idea, and one I believe, is that if we change ourselves, the world will follow. Current corporatist wisdom holds the opposite to be true; that governments and organizations must be changed and disrupted for the world to be saved from self-destruction. That we need specialized leaders with futurist visions to take us there. That if only we all go green, Eden will magically appear.
But as artists of our lives, we hold that our own individual responses to the world are the only ones that should, and really can, matter. No TED talk has ever changed the world yet, and I doubt one ever will. Me taking the time to find my quiet writing space, to exercise my inborn creativity, however imperfect and unschooled it may be, or to mindfully boil water for my cup of tea, are far more lethal weapons against both the overwhelming problems of our time and the fake advice foisted upon us to solve them. Folding your clothes for your trip to the gym, or painting a picture, writing a poem or singing a song, making your tea, soaking your beans for the soup tomorrow, is the only valid response to death.
Our energies are constantly pulled in opposing directions and dissipated. I’m advocating a return to quiet, to natural wisdom, to protecting your energies for the things that really matter in your life. Making art, like life, requires all we have. To live fully, to burn up your life so that there are not even ashes left over requires great skill. We need to know when to fight and when to rest. When to shout and when to shut up. Find your natural habits and stick to them. Just because something exists doesn’t mean it must be accepted or used. Don’t fear your own voice. Be contrarian.
Create your art and your life new every day. Even if you need to retreat to an imaginary coal-fire with your pot of tea and your cat, do it. The Woolfian room of one’s own can be anywhere. I’m lucky that mine is a space close to home, quiet and well-lit, with a sink, access to fresh water and a pretty good tea stash.
No one will hand you the space or the time or the materials to create the work of art that is your life. You have to fight for your art, and your life, every day. It helps to have a sanctuary, but mostly all you need are your energies and a sharp axe. Time and materials. Because if you want firewood, or just a pencil, first you need to chop down the tree.