January 15th: On Pillows
Pillows are superfluous. But at this moment it is late, and I am tired, and the smaller cushions atop the larger cushion at my side have attained a homey sort of divinity. Charles Simic once wrote that the prose poem collided language with a large and immovable object. I think he was also talking about death. I think he was in many ways right. I think he was also in fewer ways wrong. It occurs to me that pillows are proxies for bodies. Couches are comfiest with minimal additions. And still we insist upon complicating them. The worst and best I have ever slept was next to another. Earlier tonight, I confessed to my sister that I was emotionally starved. She told me the world was emotionally starved. Society’s glue is humanity’s tendency to yearn. All I wish for is to shape my body to another’s body and promptly miss the climax of a drama. The end of episode. To be caught up the next day. To put pillows back in their proper spots.
January 16th: On Gravity Falls
It is not new news (say that ten times fast) that the best media targeted at children is enjoyable also for adults. Or even more so. The first time I watched an episode of Gravity Falls, I was a teenager, and nearing the end of high school. While I enjoyed the setting and characters and writing well enough, I remember dismissing (if only subconsciously) the show as a source of Truth, capital t. High school is a hard four years for someone who does not want to be who they are. That I was in many ways a slightly older Dipper Pines—naive, self-conscious, diagnosably short, romantically illiterate, a nerd in hopeless denial of his nerdiness—went ignored. My mysteries were of a different sort. I wanted to attend parties, to kiss a girl, to put on muscle, to shed my status as the dude who took all APs and never got below a 98 and read two Stephen King books a week. If I watched Gravity Falls, it was not because I wanted to watch two twins overcome gnomes and time-travelers and the much more frightening pressures of growing up. (It was because my sister, two years younger, had it on, and the animation and art style pleased me, and I was bored.) No: I was seventeen. I had other, more sordid concerns.
Toward the end of 2020, I revisited Gravity Falls for the first time in something like seven years. Of the show, I remembered its vibe, its characters, its humor, and little else. I returned to it for the same reason I went back to many of the stories I went back to in 2020. Our world provides a surplus of excuses for cynicism, and few excuses to be gentle. Gravity Falls’ Truths, capital t, were Truths I needed to remember. So I went back, and I watched the antics of Mabel and Dipper Pines and their Grunkle Stan, and I enjoyed every moment of it. Both for the humor and for the story. Season One ends with the Pines siblings defeating Gideon Gleeful, a villain whose childish narcissism now strikes me as perhaps Gravity Falls’ most realistic element. Mabel and Dipper and Soos and Stan had returned order to the town of Gravity Falls. Laughter and ease were again permitted. Mabel and Dipper’s coming-of-age could resume.
My sister (not my twin, but close enough) sent me a video a week ago that persuaded me to finally finish Gravity Falls, and in doing so to realize why it is that the show has been called one of the greatest animated series of all time. The creator of the video discussed multiple aspects of Gravity Falls—its uniqueness as a serialized cartoon, the writing process that gave rise to its episodes, the inspiration behind the characters of Mabel and Dipper Pines. What stuck with me, though, was what Alex Hirsch (the creator of Gravity Falls) had to say about the final edits that went into each episode. In these revisions, it wasn’t one-off jokes or set-pieces that made an episode make the cut, but the character development at that episode’s heart. And as the series went on, Hirsch explained, the character-driven thrust of Gravity Falls became increasingly clear. Episodes succeeded or failed depending upon the degree to which they built up or resolved the series’ central question, which was this: how does one become an adult? Do they forget the things that once made them them, or do they reconcile these things with their updated identity? Gravity Falls answers this question by siding firmly with the latter of these answers, and I agree. The series ends with Mabel and Dipper turning thirteen. It also ends on a note of hope. High school will change them. But they will still be them.
There is a melancholy to going back to a story that is no longer yours, to art that might have otherwise helped you avoid mistakes you’ve already made. But there is also a powerful joy. I am no longer Dipper, but Dipper remains a part of me. When he cringes at his sister’s unashamed enthusiasm, I cringe alongside him—but I also cringe at his cringe. There are worse things than whimsy. Cruelty, arrogance, selfishness, despair. Other, more tragic adaptations. If adulthood has taught me anything, it is that cynicism is not wisdom. As far as whimsy is concerned, I can think of few things more valuable amidst the scheduled chaos that is today. Watch Gravity Falls. And then watch it again.
January 17th: On Descartes
“I think,” Descartes wrote, “therefore I am.” Cogito, ergo sum. This was in 1641, around the same time he described the square roots of negative numbers as imaginary in reference to their utter absence of applicability within the Real World. He thought, he thought, and therefore he was. And while, to him, this answer proved sufficient, the four centuries between now and then have rendered the solution, to me, lacking. A better one: one thinks; therefore, perhaps. I do not know if any of this matters. I do not know if our world is a simulation within another simulation. But I also do not care: I am here, wherever here is; I am now, whenever now is. And I am trying my best to make it matter. It matters. It does.
Maybe there is an evil demon bending its will to deceiving us. This is a clean answer to the question that would consume Kierkegaard and Sartre so many years later. More likely, this world is messy, and its inhabitants are kind, and its inhabitants are cruel, and when it ends it ends. Reality is not reality. It is not, and we are not. I am not watching Safety Not Guaranteed with my sister on a Saturday night in January. I am watching Safety Not Guaranteed with my sister on a Saturday night in January. Safety Not Guaranteed is not a movie about wanting your reality to be different than it is. Safety Not Guaranteed is a movie about this and only this. I am not looking forward to the future. I anticipate it more than I can say. I am not content. I am content.
To doubt reality is to desire it otherwise. To believe in reality is to yearn. I do not know this, but I imagine Descartes was lonely. Reality is not reality. Or it is nothing but. Either way, we must make of it what we will.
January 18th: On Stephen King’s On Writing
I first decided I wanted to be a writer when I was nine years old. After devouring Christopher Paolini’s Eragon, I began my own novel: a bildungsroman whose protagonist, Array, was a one-to-one stand-in for myself, and whose arc was epic, and which petered out after perhaps forty pages. Over the next ten years, I would recommit myself to writing once every eighteen months or so, each time aping whatever work had inspired me anew. I wrote sixty pages of a Harry Potter knockoff; I penned ninety pages of a post-apocalyptic fantasy I still believe holds potential. I read and rehashed Lord of the Rings, recognizing as I did so both what Paolini had done and how far I still had to go. And then I was a senior, and I had fallen in hopeless, headlong love with the works of Stephen King. And then one day toward the end of my senior year, I read On Writing for the first time, and everything changed.
The most startling thing about On Writing is not that Stephen King has valuable insights to share about the craft and the practice of writing. Anyone who has read King with an open mind (and, more importantly, an open heart) knows that prolificness does not rule out quality. He knows how to turn a phrase as well as anyone; he knows what makes a character or a plot fall flat. This is not to say he always takes his own advice, as both his critics and a fair chunk of his work (particularly that of the late ‘90s and early ‘00s) are so eager to prove. Time and again, though—as in such horror classics as The Stand, The Shining, Misery, and It; or in such now-canonical tales as Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile—King has demonstrated his ability to write. What he does in On Writing is say a little bit about how he does it. He talks about where his stories come from. He talks about how he gets it done (his daily 2K word count has long been [in]famous). Better writers than me have written more and more eloquently about the quality of King’s advice. But this wisdom was not my main takeaway when I read On Writing my senior year. Nor was it my main takeaway three years later, when I picked up an English major and quit an actuarial internship and decided to be a writer for the final time. Nor is it the thing I hold on to now, with just eight months to go until I begin my MFA and witness my world (whether temporarily or permanently) change. No—the thing I seized, and seize, and will seize upon is why King writes. Because it’s not about money, and it’s not about fame. As he puts it: “It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy.”
He reaches this conclusion at the end of a section in which he talks about the car accident that nearly killed him. He talks about the healing power of writing during the long days and months of his recovery. Putting words on a page, one after the other, imagining letter by letter a story, a world—this is what saved him. Yes, the drugs and the doctors played a part. Yes, his wife played a far larger role. But it was also the words that did it. The simple act of stitching.
I have a tattoo on my right shoulder of the Ka symbol from King’s The Dark Tower series. Ka, in the universe of the eight-book series, means fate. Accompanying this tattoo is a quote from this series’ first book, The Gunslinger: “Go, then. There are other worlds than these.” I got it during my junior year of college, shortly after deciding to be a writer for the final time. Although I’d read On Writing twice by then, I didn’t know what the quote meant. Not yet. But I sensed the power of words to save.
Now I have another tattoo. This one’s on my left wrist, for reasons better left implied. In typewriter font, it reads: No one can imagine nothing.
I am older, now, and the ink of both inkings has faded. I no longer think I will ever be great at my art. I am coming to terms with the fact that I will devote my life to an act that will largely go unremarked. Four novels, five, written in the in-betweens of a job and a life. Fifty years in which I get up, and get over, and get up, and get over, over and over again. And get happy.
Get happy, okay? Get happy.
January 19th: On Rango
Last night, almost a decade after the film’s release, I watched Rango for the first time. Despite winning an Oscar, and despite starring Johnny Depp as its titular thespian chameleon, Rango managed to surprise me. For some reason (its Nickelodeon genetics, maybe?), I had conflated the film with a number of other twenty-teens animated romps (Rio, namely) whose narratives I now suspect of likewise concealing unexpected depth. Because Rango does the same thing Gravity Falls (see January 16th) does, and which all honest children’s media strives to do. Through slapstick and puns and well-choreographed action and ingenious animation, it holds the attention of its audience’s youngest members for 90% of its 100-minute span. It is with the existential anxiety at its heart, though, that Rango lingers in the minds of its adult viewers for far longer. Because Rango is the story of a hero—yes. But it’s also a story about the fear of not being a hero. Of being no one at all. It’s the story of finding at the peak of one’s life an emptiness as high and arid as Rango’s searing Mojave sky. And then making of this emptiness what one will.
I have never seen Chinatown. Nor have I watched Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I have likewise neglected to consume Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Western “Dollars” trilogy, in which Clint Eastwood plays the iconic Man with No Name. The reason I know of these films at all (ignoring a more general cultural osmosis) is instead that I have read Syd Field’s The Foundations of Screenwriting, in which he waxes poetic about the structural integrity of these stories. Particularly Chinatown, whose mystery revolves around a plot to divert water from lands with the aim of buying them up for next to nothing at all. Rango’s homages to these films—from the mystery at its center (spoiler: Chinatown’s, except the villain is a turtle) to the appearance of the Man with No Name at the film’s climax—are more than in-jokes for the writer’s room and movie aficionados who happen to have five-to-twelve-year-old kids. The story has a bone to pick, I think, with the three-act structure and the narrative beats it follows so exactly. By the time Rango is dying beneath a cloudless sky, crossing at last the highway on which he began his journey, surrendering himself to the traffic’s will, we are meant to question the worth of the life Rango, at the beginning of his arc, so desperately wants to lead.
Shakespeare is great. The greatest. Westerns endure for a reason. The three-act structure is here to stay. Without these stories, Rango does not exist. But the claim Rango makes, the reason it’s lodged in my heart to the extent it has, is that these are not the stories that still need to be told. It’s not about the hero anymore—it’s about realizing that one shouldn’t want to be a hero. That the story of the self-assured savior has run its course. There are other, quieter lives to lead. If an inciting incident strikes, if one is called—then one must act. Always. But this should be the last thing in the world one seeks.
January 20th: On Teleology and Deontology
A year and a day ago, one of my best friends married another friend of mine in Los Angeles. I remember a lot from the trip. I remember our (my and my college roommates’) Uber being delayed. I remember showing up late to the wedding, and sneaking in through one of the chapel’s side entrances. I remember wandering USC’s campus once the ceremony was over, killing time before the reception, admiring the trappings of a coming-of-age that was not our own. I remember blacking out at the reception, and texting a girl I’d met through Hinge whose name I’ve forgotten. I do not remember abandoning a friend in a time of need. I remember the shame I felt on the flight home.
Another thing I remember: discussing teleology and deontology with my friend’s friends, all lawyers-to-be studying at USC. They were surprised at my knowledge, and not without noticeable rudeness. I remember doing the thing I always do whenever I feel slighted: demonstrating my intelligence, and doing so in as blatant and pugilistic a fashion as possible. (Once, after being denied entrance to one of Villanova’s college bars, I complained to the bouncer, explaining that I was being “quite cogent.”) I knew that teleology was an ends-oriented ethics, just as deontology determined an action’s worth based upon a system of rules. An act was meaningful in and of itself, regardless of its outcome. I remember identifying as a deontologist, citing as I did so some philosopher I’d read only once, Bentham or Mills, Descartes or Kant. Even then, I knew this was not how I wanted to act, just as I knew that the satisfaction I’d obtain from acting in such a way was brief. After the wedding, a better version of myself would have stayed sober, stayed present, respected the presence of the people he loved. At our best, I think we would all like to consider ourselves deontologists.
This morning, I wrote fifteen hundred words of a novel I have worked on for the last eight months. After five hours of unsteady progress, I updated the title of the Google Doc that contains this work. Now it reads (yes, in all caps): FOUR SECTIONS TO GO: 7500 WORDS LEFT. This title is at once a message to myself to keep going and a reminder of how I value these words. Like any steps at the end of any project, they have become a means to an end, a way from point A to point B to a peak—from which I may at last look back upon all I have built and evaluate its worth. They are meaningful insofar as their sum is meaningful. I am not valuing my work based upon how I feel in the moment, or even upon a pre-defined system of rules. I am looking toward an end. I am thinking teleologically, not deontologically, and I am therefore far less happy than I think I should be.
What else did I do today? I wasted at least two hours (by the end of tonight, I will have wasted more) playing the video game Hades. I say “waste” because I have nothing now to show for it but the memory of happiness. I went for a seven-mile run. I did this because I am twenty-five and already desperately afraid of death. I sent a song called “Thank You” to a girl I think about almost constantly. I did this because I am desperately afraid of being alone. I ignored the inauguration out of fear of what might occur, the hate to which I might bear witness. (I have listened to and read Gorman’s poem only in the last hour. I am ashamed to lack her courage. I am more ashamed to lack her grace.) There are days when the meaning of life is defined by its end, when all else succumbs to teleology. Today was one of those days.
But writing—to paraphrase King—is magic. Writing transmutes. Writing redefines. And so, to reframe what I even now view as a mostly lost day: I slogged through fifteen hundred works of prosaic resistance. (I value perseverance.) I maintained the only body I will ever be given. (I value health.) I maintained a relationship despite the distance and anxiety that defines today. (I value love.) I kept myself sane and calm in the face of continuing uncertainty. In the face of the realization that I will never move through my life with an eye only on the present, the people I love, the activities in which I find meaning. In spite of my certain death, in spite of everything else, I kept myself alive.
Deontology is a difficult thing. If not in concept than in practice. But I think it is worth it. I think it has to be, if any of us are to find peace.
January 21st: On Needles
I was prepared to feel afraid, or at the very least to feel pain. Our culture has a history with needles. Used syringes summon up the specter of AIDS; hypodermic needles call to mind monsters like Harold Shipman, H.H. Holmes. When, on Thursday of last week, I received the news that I was able to schedule my first COVID vaccination, I was therefore wary. Not one of my colleagues had received an email, and I am among the youngest teachers at my school. Me being me, I imagined a tattered cardboard square reading vaCcinEs tHiS WAY, a blood-brown arrow beneath these words pointing me (helpfully) into a dingy alleyway. Horror fiction had taught me to expect ritual and alchemy, allusions to Frankenstein, scene-dressing from Saw.
What I found instead was a community center that had been converted into a vaccination site by the Cape May County Department of Health. I rolled up my sleeves for a soft-spoken nurse named Mary. The puncture was slight, and lasted for not even a second. She asked me what I did, and I told her I taught high school math—Calculus, Algebra II—and she asked if I was a prodigy or something. I told her I was twenty-five. She smiled, and I smiled back. Then I went on my way.
The ethos of a needle, I think, is to defy expectations. The design itself—of a hypodermic needle, I mean—suggests an ancient origin: Hippocrates bending over a painted patient on a Grecian urn, injecting the vaccine for chickenpox into an olive-toned arm. But while syringes were employed as far back as ancient Egypt (where hollow reeds were used to anoint the body with oil), hypodermic needles are a more recent invention, attributed to the Scottish physician Alexander Wood in 1851. And while the Platonic ideal of a needle instills in us an understandable aversion (sharp! Pointy! Atropos and Clotho and Lachesis, working away at their Fateful thread!), statistics show that they are nothing to be feared. The risks of vaccines are an unfortunate, Facebook-perpetuated myth; only around one in one hundred thousand patients die from an improper dosage of anesthesia a year. And yet we fear them; we turn away. As, perhaps, we were always meant to do: hypo means under; derm means skin. Needles, etymologically and functionally, were fated to get under our skin.
But I also think our mistrust of needles traces to a broader fallacy. That is: the worth of reward is proportional to the sacrifice one makes to attain said end. Put more simply: you get out what you put in. A disease cannot be prevented by two inches of painless steel. A world cannot be returned to normal by so many milligrams of repurposed RNA. Life does not improve through such a simple and unwitnessed act as staying put. Salvation does require sacrifice—yes. Often, though, this sacrifice is of a quieter sort. And like the lack of pain that accompanies the use of a hypodermic needle, this truth, I fear, will likewise soon be forgotten.