Tag Archives: humanity

An essay on disquiet

I’ve received some excellent submissions for guest posts this past week from several authors. However, the time crunch from the New York trip barred me from properly editing any of them for use tonight. Look for a post from @DMSolis next week and perhaps Mani Afsari after that. (all others TBA)

In the meantime, here’s a response to those who say that they can’t focus on reading a book these days. Submit your writing to this week’s Theme Thursday (the pitch is nice and easy this week!), and contact me if you’re interested in writing for NQOKD! On with the show!

**

Obvious errors exist in popular thought. The problem with general opinion therefore is not that errors are hard to spot but rather that they are hard to fix. The reasons an observer wouldn’t see the flaws are obvious: either the person is not looking, or the person is caught in the illusion of perspective. However, the internet amplifies the multifaceted voices of complaint in our society by providing easily accessible communities; errors are seen and noted. The reasons a person doesn’t fix the flaws (beyond simply not seeing them) are also obvious: enmeshed as an observer is in the populace, the effort to affect popular opinion is either cloaked by the myriad other flaws or seems sisyphean, impossible and hellish.

My Google reader (which I love) often asks me, “Where do Arianna Huffington and Thomas Friedman go to get different perspectives on the news?” But if you follow that rabbit hole, you will quickly discover that the difference between you and Thomas Friedman is not the information at your disposal but what is done with the information that exists. If any disparity in material exists at all, chock it up to experience, which can only be an accidental difference, remedied by effort and fortune.

The difference between genius and banality is not new with our electronic age. The only newness is the democratization of education, which impacts the ability of genius to make itself known, not the existence of genius itself. That is, education does not make a genius, but a genius does with education what others do not; a genius does something novel with the information at his disposal. The happy happenstance of his education is just as accidental as Euripides and Homer imply war is to the brave or as I’ve said trial is to the lover.

The definition of brilliance applies when discussing an article @namenick linked the other day that discusses an author finding reading more difficult as he ages. The first half reads like a Bing.com commercial, discussing how our hyperconnected culture has drawn and quartered our attention spans, the second half like an English major’s journal who has bumped up against philosophy by the mere chance of his course of study rather than steeped himself in its purging scald.

Objects of mystic adoration across cultures and history all share an ability to focus. Meditation is as central to Christianity as to Buddhism, tied necessarily to all forms of prayer across primitive and advanced religions. Heroes of the Chinese tradition share their remembered aura of stillness with the monks of the West, and the diverse pool of flawed folk heroes from Monkey to Agamemnon and even as far back as Gilgamesh share an inability to reach stasis, to stay still even for a moment.

I, for one, share this inability. I remember distinctly as a sophomore in high school cursing my brain for moving as quickly as it did along connections only sensible to me, for never shutting up even for a moment. I remember loud music and screamed lyrics drowning out finicky thoughts and rumors and wonder. I remember many addled nights where my disquiet hindered oncoming sleep, nights I apologized to various lovers because I just had to get out of bed and write down what was on my mind. I remember nights before I kept a journal where I just lay in bed and stared at the dark ceiling, attempting to will my mind into stillness; I also remember failing at many, most, or even all confrontations.

But the community with which I share this trait keeps me company on the seemingly lonely and interminable road: humanity in general suffers a deep and resounding disquiet. The phenomenon itself may even be pandemonium, but more often than not the noise is as null as good or evil, as gray as white or black. The strength of discovering it lies not in assigning it any value but in recognizing its universality.

Popular opinion would have us blame an external force for the disquiet in our minds, but educated readers should notice that generation after generation toils under the same mental noise. Technology does not tempt us further into disquiet than we would naturally go but rather empowers several methods of engaging in noisiness that would not exist otherwise. Humans found means of distracting themselves before technology, and even with it, many of the age-old tricks to manufacture distractions exist. To take a lesson from several sources, we must turn inward and silence ourselves to find peace rather than impose quietude on others hoping to one day silence all the world; we must because one of these paths is attainable, but the other is not.

Reading, however, does not require a mystic silence. While Proust searches for lost time, his reader dreams along through a lifetime of adulterated memories, watching lesbians fondle each other through an open window or hanging on the edge of a suspended love. While I could make some quip about how you quote an author quoting an author talking about dreams and how far distanced from reality your reader is by the time all those disconnects are added together, I will merely say that the inclusiveness of the writing experience heightens the entertainment value of reading and obscures exactly that which one is meant to learn from the narrative.

Reading only requires that during our endless hours of sedentary time we pick up a book rather than any type of computer, or maybe even open an ebook rather than a web browser. We make choices about how to spend our time, and surprise surprise, we tend to focus on entertainment rather than sustenance. So the next time you, Mr. Ulin, sit down to read, ask yourself about your priorities. If you fail to pick up a book, ask yourself whether engagement is as high on your list as entertainment, realize that it is not, and keep your grumbling to yourself that you’re not who you wish you were.

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Author: Greg Freed

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Filed under Criticism, Humanistic, Philosophy/Theology

Starbucks: The third place

Dear readers, commentators, and friends,

I cannot begin to express my surprise and gratitude at the readership surge in this blog. I passed several important new-blog milestones Friday night, a claim followed by boring stats that you can skip past if not inerested: having more than a hundred visitors in one day and breaking a thousand views to the site total. Further, breaking one hundred in a day was itself a caveat: the highest day before had only seen ninety-seven viewers, and the day afterwards [sic] had seen just over sixty. Friday, though, I have one-hundred and sixteen views, followed by a Saturday of exactly one-hundred and sixteen views. Even on Sunday, with no new post for days and very little advertising from me, I reached what only a week ago would’ve been stupendous. Thank you, seriously, for supporting the effort.

I have spent so much more time developing this site than I thought I would, and I have so many plans now for the future, long before I ever thought that I would need them. Soon, though, you’ll see the first item on my to-do list, a Featured Fan story about Kate Barkhurst, an old friend from highschool and faithful Facebook friend. Thank you, everyone, and look forward to more stories from me, more guest posts, featured fans articles, and more… you know… as I get around to doing it.

My best,
Greg

**

They don’t understand, they haven’t listened to me. They called me arrogant. They’ve had all semester to see who I am, to see how I resent that label, and yet they called me arrogant. Not only said it, but spit it in my face, an accusation that seemed to say, “You can never succeed as a writer.” They read it, and they missed the point. All of them.

No, not all. There was Jenny. Jenny understood the torment of miscommunication; of course she knew what it was like to speak and yet not be heard. So sweet and so deep, she writes about moving from China to Boston as an experience of change, a flowing river of time and philosophy that soaks and bathes her mind. But writers as audience largely gloss over grammatical mistakes (as they should), and ink-on-paper doesn’t communicate in accents.

I think, and the other students notice it, too, that her writing is permeated by beauty over frustration. She writes so well, one might assume because of passion and integrity. But I have passion and integrity, too, and where does that get me? Labeled as arrogant is all, and alone. I suppose it’s about as lonely and isolating as not speaking the language of the land you’re in, but you hope in that other circumstance there remains the mysticism of discovery, or at least the obvious route of escape. For me there’s only years of letdowns, my adolescence into my waking life, of conversational successes mired by literary failures.

The cold wind of Boston winters blows through the Public Gardens and against my wool coat. I can feel its malevolence despite scientific objectivity having drowned out the world; the wind wants to bite my skin, wants to punish me for protecting myself from its harshness. Nature wants, like all life, love, to receive love as it exists, to receive without bending. My coat speaks for me my refusal of the unspoken request. My hands hide inside my pockets’ cashmere lining, helping the buttons to hold the coat in place. I had felt so sexy the day I bought this coat, had looked at myself in mirrors to memorize the way it weight and thickness complemented my girth rather than hid it, the day I thought there might be something to expensive designer labels after all. I remember the deflation upon coming home, of Sarah meh-ing her apathetic approval.

The wind cuts through my khakis instead since they’re exposed underneath the three-quarters coat. I’ve worn my Starbucks uniform to class for the last few weeks, thin-material long-sleeved block polo with dark khaki pants. Since money from Fidelity finally ran out and Sarah started asking me to pay her back for mostly legitimate expenses—to which I did not contributing but neither, really, did she—I had to get the job, and now I’m at class and at work, never at home. Sarah misses me, comes to Starbucks sometimes to sit with me, but I’ve had years to resent her attention, loath her presence. The absence of both in preference to her laptop drove me into romantic despair. World of Warcraft didn’t help on that topic, though it did relieve some of the years’ boredom.

The reading of my colleagues has broken my heart. I take criticism well—I write and people talk about the writing, and I love them for pointing out errors and paths I haven’t noticed—but like lay readers, my fellows decided to psychoanalyze me. They had done it before, when I wrote about my relationship with Sarah, talking about how sad I must be instead of the impact of the piece on the abstract reader and how that impact could be improved. The saying goes that these days everyone’s a critic, but that’s not quite the case in my experience; everyone is a psychologist, everyone thinks that they understand you by slapping their archetypes onto you, especially the ones who tell you (not ask you) not to judge. Not “Please don’t judge me until I’ve told you the whole story, or perhaps until you’ve researched it yourself,” but, “Don’t judge me, you don’t know me!” Of course, the latter ones are right; I don’t know them and never will.

I walk under the monument to ether, the world’s first anesthetic, used first at Massachusetts General Hospital in 1846. “We have conquered pain,” it reads. If only the words spoke truth. The wind blows again, cuts again at my shins savagely like a rusted and knocked razor.

I want to speak with someone about the disappointment. No one thought the writing was poor; the professor spoke its praises in that regard. The students merely wanted to ask me who the fuck I thought I was, in the nicest phrasing possible. But on that ground, I thought the piece stated rather clearly exactly who I claim to be.

I can’t talk to Sarah about this. She’d listen, but she’s cold, lacking in empathy. Or she has empathy and doesn’t show it. In four years, or in six if I count our friendship, I haven’t figured out which is the case.

I could go to Starbucks. It’s almost on the way home, less than a block from Sarah’s Back Bay condo, but I opened this morning and sat at a table once I got off shift until I had to leave for school at five. I literally sat there all day, and now I’d go back to do what, to stew? After all, who would I talk to? I’ve been there three months, but I’m not really friends with anyone. I go to work, I do homework, I play World of Warcraft; that’s me condensed. And when I got home, what? Sarah will already have gone to bed, not that I’ve joined her in months, and I’d stay up all night—til four, maybe five, maybe six—playing World of Warcraft, trying not to talk on the microphone so that I can relish in secret human contact in my home.

The churches at Berkeley Street, the Lutheran one with the homeless person (gender unidentifiable; I default to male) in the wool coat that I pass every night as I sing along to my iPod, so separate from his condition and just as vague a character to him as he is to me—but I’m not listening to music tonight, fuming instead; tonight, for the first time, he watches me, but I don’t mind—and the other one with the largely ignored cement hole. Clarendon, the rundown yard with the painted-black metal staircase and the door to the garden. The Newbury Street sidewalks, bricks that speak of old money, the townhomes broken into condos that lament the money’s loss. The plasma screens, shining vibrant blues and greens off beige walls, reflected off faux crystal chandeliers except that one home with the library, the dusty old tomes and the ladder on the right side; their crystal shines legit, reflecting white light off white walls.

But I have a friend at Starbucks, Ashley. But not quite a friend. She’s attracted to me, she told me so. Why would I call her? For an ego fest, so I can gain some pride off of how attractive she finds me? I don’t think so. I told her that rainy day that she walked me to Emerson that I wouldn’t turn her into a ’50s cliché, some girl hanging onto a man who says he’ll leave his wife (girlfriend) but never will, and I won’t. We had sat on the steps outside the piano shop, and she had told me that she couldn’t play the piano—not well, anyway. She had looked at me and told me she liked me, confessionally. She waited, seeing what I would do with it. I watched the automatic piano play a tune, and then I rubbed my hand down her cheek and told her that I wouldn’t abuse her. There she is; she is there.

She won’t be, though: she told me that the schedule marked her off at eight and it’s almost ten. She’ll have gone home, have left for the day, and I’ll be just as alone and just as forlorn as I feel now.

Call Mani instead. Call Steve. Call Justin and Mom and Dad. Consider calling Allison, and really feel like an asshole. Resent the way Murphy’s law applies to people answering their phones when you actually need human connection.

“Hello?” she asks.

“Hi, Ashley. I’ve got a strange question for you.”

“Yes?”

“You wouldn’t happen to still be at Starbucks, would you? I mean, I know you’ve probably left for the day.”

“No, actually. I’m here.” A thrill hits my spine between the shoulders and shivers its way down, the thrill of success; necessity or fortune falling into place I can’t tell, but it doesn’t matter and this is what I wanted, what I needed, to cut short the onslaught of despair. “Someone didn’t show up for their shift, and I stayed late to cover.”

Pause. Blink. Consider.

“I need—” But do I really want to do this to her, to rely on her when I don’t know how things are going to go with Sarah, when I can’t even pin down my feelings for a girl I just met at work, not to mention the girl I’ve loved for four years? Do I really want to be that asshole?

“I need someone to talk to.”

“I’m here.” She laughs, and weight falls away.

“Do you have anywhere you need to be? Do you need to go home?”

“No, I’m here, and I can stay. You should come. I want to listen.”

I turned left and walked down Dartmouth to Boylston, along the broad brick pathway of the private school, across the tree-lined Commonwealth Mall, and passed they dying Newbury Street. If I had gone to Exeter, Sarah might have seen me and asked where I was going. No, I turned left, kicking a pebble in the process.

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Author: Greg Freed

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St. Patty’s Day train ride

Thanks for the feedback on the last entry, those who posted and those who messaged me. When I ask for feedback, I’m asking for what Brooke offered by telling me what the piece was lacking and where she thought I could move forward; I’m not asking to hear how awesome I am. 🙂 Constructive criticism is win, so give me some.

**

You’re on the red line subway in Boston, Charles/MGH stop heading south. Green surrounds you, sparkly from hats or shiny on pins or soft on jersey-knit shirts or fluffy on toy leprechauns. It’s St. Patty’s day. For some reason, Irish pride shoves this Joyce line in your head: Ireland, they say, has the honor of being the only country which never persecuted the Jews. Do you know why? Because she never let them in!

The train lurches ahead going slower than normal, but that’s to be expected today. You’re going to the parade, and they say that even the real Irish come over to Boston for this. To be honest, you really expected the train to be a little more full.

You pull into Park Street unaware. Really, you should’ve known. This is like a Red Sox night; the Green line bears most of the burden. You look up from your thoughts. You’re submerged in a sea of green people.

Crack a joke about Tokyo, little Japanese karate masters with white gloves politely cramming you like sardines into the train. You know a girl teaching English in Japan, glad to be away from home.

Your mind goes back to Ulysses. He was in Dante; he tried to do what man just can’t do, tried to climb the mountain that man, without manna, cannot climb. He failed and fell.

Propose a thought experiment. Your mind goes dark places when you let it. Your girlfriend is embarrassed for you, but this is legitimate: imagine that you’re not going to the parade; imagine that you’re afraid, that you’re in Germany and that everyone around you knows just like you know where this train is going, or maybe not where, to be precise.

Imagine panic. It drains the blood from the white faces around you, shreds the atonal wails, broken only by the staccato of the men with the guns, few in number but enough to slaughter the lot of you, at least the majority of you; then, when the bullet cases are done hitting the ground, who will be left of the resistance?

No, you file into the train. The cabin is rank with stale sweat, but soon it will be urine. Soon children will lose control, then the adults. It will stink not just of body fluids. Someone will die because they won’t be able to breathe. The people around them will try to shuffle away through the crowd, and the people they shuffle past will let them, not knowing what new company they’ll have.

The walls are painted now with blood from fingernails that have ripped themselves against grooves. The doors are locked; the train is moving; the air is still, refuses to circulate, to become clean. All is stagnant.

Already a part of your humanity is lost. Already you’re afraid, clinging to your instincts to save you in this strange place, this strange time, to save you from this deadly peril. Some maintain through religion or stoicism, but that will all go away, too, under the tyranny of the camp. The metal rods and the senseless killings and the food rations and the showers; it will all strip away what you had just moments ago, moments ago when all you had ripping at your then-stable psyche was fractured wails. Now there’s the copper smell of blood, the fingernails stuck in the grooves. Soon it will be worse.

But no, the thought is ridiculous. You’re on your way to the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in south Boston where the police will march, but they’re not going to arrest you. They’re not the ones who shuttled you onto this train. It’s not the same bureaucratic instinct that leads them to form lines with their concrete barricades that leads you away from the train and led Jews to the train. Let the experiment go. Celebrate.

**

Where I’m thinking about going with this piece:

American feeling towards bankers was German feeling towards Jews, coupled with anti-Semitism left over from Middle Ages. Write up scene involving American rhetoric against bankers during 2009 economic crisis, switch bankers with Jews. Point is to re-humanize the German forces; un-PC, I know.

German Holocaust as related to meat-packing industry

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Controlling passion

This blog post is complete but is also part of a larger article. Your reactions in the comments will decide how quickly I move on to part 2.

Also, I’m still looking for user submissions for the creative part of this blog. Message me with a real story from your life as brief or as full as you’d like, and I’ll make a fiction story out of it.

**

Look into your lovers eyes, those great orbs in whose depths passion has stirred and whose force has partaken in the greatest moments of your life. Her life is crumbling: run your fingers through her hair and tell her it will be alright. She’s put on weight, and her fear of her mother’s harsh criticism has driven her hysterical: call to her lightly, put your hand on her stomach, and tell her that your opinion is the one that matters and that she looks good to you. Look into those eyes and lie. We convince ourselves of the necessity: sometimes such lies are necessary, sometimes little white lies help instead of hurt.
A girl looked at me once, halfway a woman but not quite and me not yet a man, she looked deep into my eyes, placed her hand on mine in the darkness of her Chevy Malibu, and requested of me, “Promise me you’ll never make me cry.” That’s one of those opportunities we men see at the start of nearly every relationship. You listen to her cry about lost loves and what bastards they all were, and then she turns to you and asks you not to treat her like they treated her, to love her where they failed. You don’t know yet whether you can succeed in this task or not—the relationship is young, unformed, and you are inexperienced with her quirks and she with yours. All you know is that you can make her happy if you agree to this demand, and she may leave you if you refuse.

For better or worse, I refused. I told her that I don’t make promises I can’t keep. Thus started the next three torrential years of my life with Christina, artsy Christina, parasitic flower whose maintenance killed me and whose beauty would made me glad to die in such service.

Perhaps six months went by before she asked me her next favor. Christina and I were driving around doing errands in that little blue Chevy of hers when she asked me to promise that I would never cheat on her. Promise me, nineteen year old boy, that for the rest of your life (for I thought our relationship might just last that long) you will never love a woman other than me. She didn’t even make the promise specifically carnal; she asked me to never love another woman.

We know what to do in this situation. We know that the aesthetically correct response is to blindly say, “Yes, honey. You’re my girlfriend, I love you, and I would never cheat on you.” But I’m a man of principle, and I had already refused her once on the grounds that I don’t make promises I can’t make in good faith. I knew that I could not fulfill this one, and I declined; I said I would not promise it, and I didn’t.

I’m not asking today why Christina asked for such a token: I’ve heard her request from multiple sources and have answered it the same way every time. My response is the issue at hand. I’ve also heard the enough responses to my argument to call some standard or cliché. Let me deal with a few superstitions:

1) Fidelity is not a matter assumed virtue can resist. While traveling, I once found myself surrounded by four muggers. I wrestled in high school and trained lightly in several martial arts throughout my life; perhaps I could have fought back. But in a strange country, I let the mugging occur without resistance; I put my hands up in the air and let them slide my wallet out of my back pocket. Several friends, especially those currently in the armed forces, have said that they would have fought back. Others said I acted rightly by potentially negotiating my wallet for my life; perhaps one of them had a knife, or maybe four to one is a bad enough ratio for a deadly beating. Either out of fear or self-knowledge, I knew that I didn’t possess the ability to fight off my attackers. Others assure themselves in the abstract that they have the means at their disposal to resist such wrongs. Only fortune may provide them with an opportunity to back up their boasts.

2) Sexual acts are not always motivated by desire. Just as with any other human action—in fact, sex is rather notorious for this particular aspect, but people seem to forget its complexity when talking about infidelity—sex involves multiple and often warring emotions, including but not limited to confusion, daring, fear, and repression. When I got out of an asexual relationship last November, I traveled and found an opportunity to have sex with someone I didn’t desire at all, one of my sister’s close friends, and we did. Even in hindsight I can’t really say why; some have said that alcohol was a factor, others that sexual frustration from the prior relationship surely played a part, but neither correctly constitute my frame of mind in that moment. My sister was sleeping in the next room; perhaps voyeurism was the feather that broke my hesitation.Perhaps not; a confusing mist obscures the whole situation. I remember thinking as the scene was building, “I can stop this.” The scene was so fragile that just making an impolite or awkward comment, or perhaps just the no when she asked if she could climb into my bed so politely, would’ve made her retreat. But I didn’t, and we did, and there’s no clear-cut issue at hand except that desire itself had little to do with my part in the story.

3) I am not weak-willed. Friends and girlfriends often ask in relation to this refusal of mine whether I can imagine a situation in which I would cheat on them. Though I’m a fairly creative person, I cannot, never can. Just as much as any middle-class American, I hold fidelity as one of my primary values and assumptions in a relationship, especially once the relationship is official. Just as I can act on the principle of refusing to make promises I can’t keep in the face of adversity, I must suppose that I could hold to the principle of fidelity in the face of desire.

Point three, of course, goes back to the two previous superstitions: A situation wouldn’t necessarily spawn from my desire, and even though I feel confident at a distance saying that I wouldn’t act when confronted with my own passion, I know neither what pressures will appear during the confrontation of another’s passion nor how I might react. I do know, however, a great many men choose infidelity when given the chance and then are at a loss for how to explain their choice. I’m also aware that these other men’s decisions are not a matter of financial or political class; infidelity occurs in middle and lower class alike, in Republican and Democrat alike. This information gives me pause, and I wonder how anyone goes along with the promise in the face of such widespread and misunderstood failure except by ignoring the question and simply responding “Yes” because we know that’s the right answer.

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