bizarre animals

I occupy the booth ahead of you at the diner, 2 AM. We don’t speak. I sip a coffee because I like the dry, rhythmic ache of my eyes begging for a respite, the buzz of the caffeine flooding my cracked desert mind. You work your way through a short stack. The lights in this place seem too bright, but I know it’s just me. I watch myself in the shine of the saucer. I watch you through the glass divider, carelessly. I watch the drone of the television, muted and flashing un-news: the world is shit. You work your way through your food, impervious.

In the world inside my mind, I wander the same gray monochrome halls I have haunted all day. Isolation, like grimy foam at a crowded beach, dredged up on my soul from all the productivity. I haven’t heard my own voice since noon.

See, I want to talk to you. Or to the waitstaff. To anybody. Take a drink of my coffee, lean my head on my hand, and escape myself in someone else’s story. Smile, laugh, listen. Flood my brain with more than sleep deprivation. Flood my brain with normal, straight-shot-down-the-middle-of-good-and-terrible humanity. Flood my brain with life.

But I don’t. It’s nothing new. You scroll through your phone. I stare out the windows.

Because we’re school children fearing stranger danger on the yellow bus home. You and I and every human we don’t meet, safe in our suburbanite luxuries, eyeing each other suspiciously. Are you what we have warned each other against? The depraved? The criminal? The toxic invasive newcomer in our ranks? Around the room we go, scrutinizing, analyzing, but in the back of our heads we wonder. Would we have hated each other if we’d known more?

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Can American Capitalism Survive? ~ Steven Pearlstein

I know. I know. How could a book published this year focused on the current state of the US be any good? How could it be anything but pretension or, worse, the meticulously organized confusion of shell-shocked adults wondering how they could have been so very wrong? Skepticism would be warranted. Perhaps it is a testament to my optimism (which, I admit, often seems indefinitely AWOL) that I have skimmed so many such books’ jackets, but it was all worth it because it led me, eventually, to this book: Can American Capitalism Survive? by Steven Pearlstein.

Can American Capitalism Survive? is no personal diary. It is not a harried attempt to piece together comprehension of a world gone mad. It is also not click-bait-y as its title seems to intimate. Can American Capitalism Survive? is a thorough, rigorous analysis of the evolution of America’s economy over the past several decades leading up to, and illuminating, the country we see and inhabit today. Pearlstein’s skill and experience as a business and economics reporter inform the book’s masterfully written and organized prose. He draws on philosophy, economics, history, social science, and political science to support his analysis and back his conclusions as he explores the dynamics and decisions that led us to our current economy and the ideas, solutions, and rhetoric that complicate and intensify our relationship to it. In a true mark of his skill as a writer, he makes a nuanced topic accessible and comprehensible to his reader.

Furthermore, Pearlstein is no self-appreciating intellectual nor an ideologue. He is a capitalist, sure, but his objective, stated in the book’s introduction, is not to absolutely and unyieldingly convert opinions but to provoke thought, to engage readers “to think about American capitalism in a new way…to consider it from a different angle.” Pearlstein wants us to read the book and, instead of just reacting or absorbing as we are wont to do these days, to contemplate the ideas he presents and hold them up against the lives we live and see if we can’t find some new understanding and maybe even a better way forward.

In a time when diluting ideas and opinions into short character strings and photo captions is the normal form of communication, when “discussion” and “firing an angry text off” or “posting a passive-aggressive to outright-aggressive meme” are all in essence seen as the same thing, this book’s objective may seem lofty. To be fair, some of you may still be disinclined to read it, skeptical that, like so much of our discourse, it will be more of an individual preaching to his particular crowd. Let me put that concern to rest.

As somebody who thinks that we as a country have a lot of growing to do, this book challenged me in ways I had not expected. First, and perhaps most obviously, this book challenged me intellectually because I do not have a background in economics. Pearlstein does not in any way dumb down the economic ideas central to his analysis of our capitalist society. Instead, he has the skill to illuminate dynamics like the intentionally confusing practices of Wall Street financiers and nuanced public repercussions. Pearlstein incorporates data and plots, statistical tools and even some light jargon into his work without losing the thread of the narrative or marring its clarity. In doing so, he challenges the reader to pay attention and think, which is crucial. Our economy and how it influences our lives and decisions and its own future relies on us understanding these complex ideas, (ideas, incidentally, that couldn’t really be summed up in a Tweet or a caption).

Secondly, this book challenged me to re-consider my understanding and my relationship to the economy. Can American Capitalism Survive? looks at capitalism today as it relates to where we grow up, what education we receive, what economic backgrounds we come from, our ideas on fairness and morality, and our assumptions about what we deserve from each other and our economy. All of this relates to each of us as individuals and as a community, and I found myself pausing frequently to consider the words I had just read.

Most surprisingly, this book made me re-examine desire for wealth and success and my relationship to the concept of greed. Theoretically, it may be easy to say that we want what’s best for the most people, but what does that really mean? What does that really involve? And when it comes to personal decisions, what do we really want and value?

I went into this book thinking I would learn something about how we arrived at the current economic state, one where large corporations are easily seen as bad and politicians really don’t seem all that trustworthy. I came out with a much broader understanding of the recent arc of American economics and with a greater comprehension of the relationship between an individual, a community, and the economy. Part of acquiring that involved the self-reflection and thought this book stimulated.

I know it is easy to recommend (and to dismiss recommendations) for anything these days because everyone has an opinion and is touting it. However, I sincerely, 1000%, pretty-please-with-a-cherry-on-top-follow-this recommend you read this book. It will widen your perspective, and you will learn a lot. Most of us to some degree know that the economy has been central to creating our present state of frustration and polarization. This book provides a framework for each of us to start thinking about, understanding, and eventually tackling this situation.

Also, it’s just a good, fun, engaging read. The man knows how to write (but then, he did win a Pulitzer).

coffee & recycled air

The air here smells like coffee and ventilation units. It’s beginning to sink into me, stain my skin and my neurons with familiarity. I think of the school days that seemed so infinite then, so distant now and sip my tea behind a window pane, watch the world wake up without me: the sun and the sky and the wind and the water. No one ever tells you what it’s going to be like to grow up, not really. They just hand you a pack of pretty lies but lies nevertheless. I turn them over in my head as I watch the clouds, frozen high in the sky so bright. Perhaps they’re filthy lies after all…

| 27.9.2018 |

meanwhile, the earth burns

I spent this past week in a blur of trying to put myself together. These things happen sometimes. The heartbeats we ignore just trying to catch our breaths. I watched the sunsets from my car driving home every evening, wondering if the years would disappear as quickly as the days. I spent the nights alternately searching for something lost or something not needed, staring into my own eyes in photos from the near-past and drowning in the glow of other lives. These photos we take with increasing frequency, thousands of them, desperate, as if we can hold down the moment with pixels, preserve it, freeze time, as if we have tomorrow…We never have tomorrow…

The maple tree on the street outside is curling at the fingertips. People I don’t know yearn for an imagined autumn, the one in photos, all warm hues and desaturated skies. Cute girls in cozy sweaters. The grocery store aisles gorge themselves on a fever-pitch obsession. These fantasies created in intoxicating images, now desperate dreams, as if through sheer will-power, the process can be reversed so that we may convert unreality into reality…

Meanwhile, the Earth burns.

late response

How do you do it? you asked, like I had any idea,
because I didn’t, not really. It was just a thing my brain did.
Because you were right, absolutely. The moment you start wondering
if it’s good enough, if it’s clever enough,
is the moment you start losing the soul that drove it all.

labor day

Hot like death rowing hard with life. Sprawled in the car, I can’t get cool, sweating like it’s mid-July. It’s September. We wade through the throngs in the grocery stores, celebrating the workers by making them work. It’s madness, like the heat has infiltrated all of our brains. We wander the aisles lost and determined. I get distracted by a batch of pretentious candles, inhaling an autumn that’s refusing to come.

Maybe the world as we know it won’t ever come back. I pretend the bustle around me can’t see me or feel me. Maybe the air will never cool, and the leaves will turn in vain; the apples trees will bear no fruit; the maple trees will wither. Maybe the wolves will move up north, and the pine cones won’t ever see another snow. The hot, sticky summers amidst the palm trees haunt me. I fear the rhythms of my life have dissipated, never to return, sucked down a wormhole like water down a drain. I open another candle and clutch at an aroma. What if the wind never changes, never grows wilder and colder and faster? What if the nights don’t turn to magic, and the afternoons to yearning melodies of mortality? What if my years stall forever here in a world that’s grown hateful and bitter and unkind?

Maybe then happiness, pure, full, true happiness, won’t ever come back.

| 3.9.2018 |

old August

The quaking aspens nodding in the wind remind me of home. Old home, the place where I eroded for the first time. Beneath the window glass, my mind wanders, a creature in captivity daydreaming. I can almost smell the change of seasons ruffling the sylvan crowns. The air is bright, the wind playful. Giants race puffy cloud chariots across an azure sky. If I could only join them, ride the gusts and the breeze, I’d be content to have spent another day, another set of precious heartbeats.

I let it linger because I know these breaths are wasted on filtered air. I let it linger because I know that out there it’s too hot for late August, too summer, but from where I sit, I can pretend. I can live in my mind in a past and a world where the Earth has not slid into its decline, where the seasons and the rhythms and the way air and sun and sky feel are still what they used to be.

| 30.8.2018 |

rush

The wind in my hair…

The ocean looked so much better up close, tangible and vital, pulsing and lapping and crashing and dipping below my feet. Now unfathomable and a blue so dark it was almost black. Now reflective, prismatic, silver breaking and mending among diamonds of wavering navy. I hadn’t felt this happy in a while. Scrambling and awkward amongst the pitching and sandpapery roughness. An unsteadiness steadying my mind. It was a rush in my bones nobody could take from me.

Who could know from the outside which of us lives for moments spent teetering on edges?

The slaps of cold sprays reminded me of a book I’d read: “It’s a tango, don’t you find? Sometimes dramatic, sometimes quiet, but always with a few good hard slaps thrown in.1

1The Perfume Collector by Kathleen Tessaro

the Soul of an Octopus ~ Sy Montgomery

“What is it like, we wonder at each meeting, in shared meals and secrets and silences, with each touch and glance, to be you?”
~ p.29

I had not been reading the Soul of an Octopus long when I began to slip between its words into another book, floating just beneath the surface, exploring not the secret lives of octopuses but of humans from a distinctly not-human lens. It was then that I realized this book was going to be so much more than a romp through octopus-land.

Of course, the book, by its own declaration, involves much octopus-romping, great, fun octopus-romping. I learned so much about the mysterious, dazzling, fantastical eight-armed alien-wizard-shape-shifters of the oceans. I’ve never been terribly fascinated with octopuses and certainly have never wished to touch one if I met one, but this book has challenged all of that. Befriending an octopus suddenly seems intriguing, adventurous, and possibly worth the risks. That’s partly thanks to the octopus, as a collective set of creatures, for being awe-inspiring and awfully good subject material. That’s also largely thanks to Sy Montgomery, our intrepid author, for being good at writing. Through her beautiful use of language and personable narration, Montgomery takes us by the hand on a trip to the New England Aquarium and Beyond. She vividly portrays the personalities and quirks, the decisions and actions of the octopuses she meets and slips biological trivia in amongst the romping. Thus, the ordinarily dry and vibe-killing business of factual information kills no vibes. Cleverly, Montgomery structures the narrative around meeting and getting to know individual octopuses and parallels the octopuses’ arcs with the lives of the people she meets in the process. Thus, for all of the barriers separating us from octopuses (they live in water; we don’t. they have eight arms; we don’t. they have dexterous suckers; we don’t.), entering their world in the Soul of an Octopus feels easy, natural.

For me, The most fascinating, eye-opening moments were when my view as a human and as a creature on this planet were expanded simply from thinking about humans and human life from the perspective of the non-human world.

However, if all you want is a fun, engaging read to pass the nights, the Soul of an Octopus delivers; there’s adventure, emotion, humor, the mysterious and unexpected. If animals or marine biology are your thing, this book is no let-down. If you’re like me, and you enjoy thinking about everything, turning it inside out and backwards just to see what you can glean from it, then, too, this book will be a joy to read.

The octopus the Myth has served as the basis for so many creators of fantasy and science fiction creatures throughout the years. The octopus the Cephalopod, observant inhabitant of the oceans of the Earth, is just as fantastical but, amazingly, marvelously, excitingly, real. So go ahead. Add the Soul of an Octopus to your list, even if you’ll only get to it three years later (like I did 🙂 ).