The Story of Ben and Maggie…

Follow the fucked-up yet inspiring love story of Ben and Maggie, a quirky, character-driven romantic drama set New York City in 1980.

Never read my novels? Now is a good time get drawn in!

The Offbeat Rhythms, Volumes 1 and 2 are available here.

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On Pipe-Smoking

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Me, smoking my pipe

I vaguely recall an old expression known amongst pipe smokers, taken from the 1869 oddity, Pedlar’s Pack of Ballads: “What is the world without its pleasures? What is pleasure but a pipe?” The accuracy of this statement—and it is indeed accurate—can only be attested to by those who partake of that singular pleasure.[1] Those who do not will never understand, and we pity them.

We, the partakers, smoke pipes first and foremost because of the delightfully soothing and restorative experience that doing so invariably supplies. There is something existentially beautiful about the smell, the taste, the warmth of a lit pipe in your hand, and the pleasant aftereffect that lingers in the room longer after a bowl is spent… something that no other such activity can equal. The contemplative state of mind reached whilst smoking a pipe is unlike anything one could reach without smoking a pipe. Those don’t smoke them will balk at such an assertion. But those who do will know exactly what I mean, I have no doubt. I suspect it’s similar to climbing a mountain. Those of us who’ve never stood on the summit of some great peak could never understand what it’s like to touch the heavens from such a great height. Those who don’t smoke pipes can never know how insanely relaxing and meditative it is. And, again, we pity them.

The thing about pipe-smoking is that no one comes to it by accident. Maybe they did 70 years ago, when it was as common as wearing fedoras and calmly smacking a girl around without fear of losing your dick to a handy knife. But in 2019, anyone who smokes a pipe has a story about how the practice began. I have one, and I’ll tell that story some other time. For now, I want it understood upfront that I consider the practice one reserved for the superior mind, those singular human beings amongst the otherwise unenlightened rabble who have cultivated the sort of intellect necessary to not only smoke a pipe but also understand the beauty of it.

Now, if it seems like I’m going to great lengths to elevate the pipe-smoker, rest assured: I am. Indeed, consider the following quote from William Makepeace Thackeray:

The pipe draws wisdom from the lips of the philosopher, and shuts up the mouth of the foolish; it generates a style of conversation, contemplative, thoughtful, benevolent, and unaffected.

And who was William Makepeace Thackeray? Oh, he only wrote Vanity Fair, of the greatest literary works in the history of the western canon. (Game, set, and match.)

There’s a moment I enjoy in the 2005 film Sahara (based on the Clive Cussler book). Dirk Pitt (portrayed by Matthew McConaughey) tells his lady friend (portrayed by Penelope Cruz) that every good thing that ever happened to him happened on the water. I understand. Almost every good thing that ever happened to me happened in a cloud of pipe smoke. Every book I’ve written was churned out with a lit pipe in my mouth. I was puffing on some choice cavendish the night I decided to ask my wife to marry me. And after asking her, on a bridge in St. Louis’ Carondelet Park, I smoked a bowl of Captain Black upon returning home. On most days, good weather pending (and sometimes even in foul weather), I can be found sitting on my porch or my deck amidst a cloud of blue pipe smoke, sometimes blithely, sometimes less so, but in each case with a trace of contentment stirring beneath the surface… not because everything in my life is perfect but because at least this much is perfect, this moment of enjoying the comforts and insights only the cured tobacco leaf can offer.

The point is this: those who know me, and perhaps even those who have read my work without having the dubious pleasure of meeting me, have no doubt come to associate me with the clichéd image of the pretentious writer pecking away on a keyboard somewhere (I wanted to say “typewriter,” but I confess I’ve never used one) with the trademark pipe hanging limply from muttering lips. It is known that my pipe is as extension of my body, a necessary gear in the mechanical workings of my mind, that pipe-smoking is as much a part of me as my face is. My competency on this topic is well-established, in other words. Of this no more needs to be said.


Taken from my upcoming book, All Directions at the Same Time.

[1] The reader needs to understand that smoking a pipe is about as far away from smoking cigarettes as eating lobster is from chewing gum. “Smokers,” a category under which we pipe-enthusiasts must unfortunately fall, are often seen as unwanted untouchables in a societal caste-system that grows increasingly hostile toward anything involving the tobacco leaf. When the reader saw the word “smokers” in the preceding sentence, images were most likely conjured in the mind of guys in hoodies huddled outside in the rain, hunched over their own cigarettes, blowing foul-smelling smoke into the faces of those who deign to walk past them. It is a mistake to include the pipe-enthusiast with this bunch. The pipe-smoker smokes not because he’s addicted to tobacco but rather because it enhances his intellectual enjoyment of life, the way a fine wine adds to the experience of an expensive dinner. Understand this now and we won’t have a problem.

A Dialogue on Abortion

(written by a man who is vehemently pro-choice.)


PRO-LIFER: Abortion is wrong.

PRO-CHOICER: Why?

PL: Because it’s murder.

PC: You get to kill someone if they’re in your house and you don’t want them there. But you shouldn’t be allowed to terminate an unwanted lifeform in your own body?

PL: People who break into your house took a risk knowing that death could be the result. A baby in your womb didn’t ask to be there. It shouldn’t be punished.

PC: Maybe I didn’t ask the baby to be there, either. Maybe I was raped.

PL: That’s unfortunate… but you’re still stuck with that child.

PC: Since it’s something happening within a person’s own body, that person should have a say in what happens. I don’t have the right to tell someone else what they can and cannot do to their own body.

PL: That’s like saying pedophiles should be let off the hook because you can’t decide for them that their actions are wrong. It’s the same thing.

PC: No, no, a pedophile is performing an act upon another sentient being, a child who is aware of what is happening. Abortion, on the other hand, is something you do to your own body. Apples and oranges.

PL: No, it’s something you do to another body that’s inside of you. Something that’s alive.

PC: “Alive” is not the same “sentient.” Trees are alive, but we cut them down by the thousands. Not one of them has ever been aware of what was happening.

PL: An unborn child is different.

PC: Why?

PL: Doctors can see that the brains of unborn babies are active.

PC: This doesn’t mean they are aware. Brain activity is not necessarily the same as sentience. There are people in vegetative states who are in no way aware of what’s going around them or happening to them.

PL: But babies can respond to stimuli!

PL: So can a Venus flytrap. That doesn’t mean it is sentient.

PC: But a baby has living cells in it. It’s life!

PL: A tumor has living cells in it. But you’d have no problem having one of them removed from you. Or take a cancerous kidney, for that matter. That has living cells in it as well. But you’d remove that kidney without a second thought. Shit, even bacteria are alive. But you have no problem killing them when they invade your body unwanted.

PL: A tumor or a kidney or some damn bacteria—these are not the same as a baby.

PC: What is an unborn child if not an assemblage of non-sentient living cells and tissues that respond to stimuli the same way your toe does when you stub it? Are you as against the amputation of toes as you are against abortion?

PL: A toe is not a baby!

PC: What, then, is the definition of life? A tumor is alive. A toe is alive. An unborn baby is alive. None of them are aware of what they are. A baby needs to be born and experience the world as a sentient being in order to be subject to the morality and ethics of lifeforms. Until then, it is merely a living extension of the woman carrying it. As such, she should have the right to choose how to handle it. If she didn’t plan it, doesn’t want it, and has no moral qualms about terminating it, how is that any different than having a tumor removed?

PL: I just don’t know if I agree philosophically that a baby and a tumor are all that similar.

PC: Exactly! You don’t agree with me. And I don’t agree with you. It is at this point, using the word “philosophically” as you did, that our opinions diverge. This here is the very nature of the debate! And “pro-choice” is a stance that says I don’t have the right to make my opinions in this debate your opinions. I might have my own private ideas about the morality or immorality of abortion, but due to the nature of the debate, I don’t get to force them on you. You, as a pro-lifer, are trying to do that to me and everyone else. I, as a pro-choicer, endeavor to refrain from that kind of coercion.

PL: I just think life is precious.

PC: So do I.

PL: But you have no problem killing unborn babies.

PC: You subscribe to capital punishment, right? So you have no problem killing adults.

PL: Those adults had it coming! Their own choices sealed their fate.

PC: But if all life is precious, then why make a distinction it all?

PL: Those adults broke the law.

PC: That’s fine. But I think you have to be born in order to be subject to laws. Nobody ever put a tumor on trial for killing its human host. An unborn baby can be neither guilty nor innocent. It’s just a physical extension of the mother until it emerges from that womb. If it’s a part of her body, she gets to have a choice.

PL: I disagree.

PC: I know. And unlike you, I’m okay with you disagreeing with me. I don’t need to make you think or believe what I think and believe. I’m fine with the debate.

PL: I don’t want there to be a debate. I want everyone to adopt my stance on this.

PC: Yeah, I know.

Life Lessons from Henry David Thoreau

I.

The first time I read Thoreau’s Walden, I’d just turned fifteen years old and had never once set foot west of St. Louis, Missouri. Still in high school and painfully unaware of the immense depth beneath that thing I kept hearing about called “the real world,” I read Walden not because I was all that interested in Thoreau or the book itself but rather because it was on a list of literary mainstays assigned to me a few years previously by one of my English teachers who noticed my embryonic yen to be a writer. This list, said she, contained the names of the best books ever composed in the English language, and if I really wanted to be a writer someday, these were the books I’d need to ingest beforehand, the better to develop my intellect and vocabulary. Since I was primarily an introverted young boy (except in the company of females who happened to fit my fastidious criteria), I earnestly began to make my way through the list, which included  distinguished titles such as Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, Camus’ The Stranger, Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, and Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings books (paired with The Hobbit) just to name a few.

When I purchased my copy of Walden, I knew only that its author, Henry David Thoreau, was one of the 19th century’s Transcendentalists, but I didn’t know what that meant exactly. I also didn’t know what to expect from the book, but oh, I soon found out. As I read it, I became romantically enamored with the idea of a man shunning regular society to live in quiet seclusion in the woods, as Thoreau does in Walden, and yet to my relatively inexperienced mind at that time, I couldn’t quite comprehend what such an experience would be like. It wasn’t until I was 25 that I finally went west and beheld with trembling wonder the stirring and transportive beauty of Nature (driving through Colorado and Wyoming and Montana will do that to you). Nevertheless, even in my youthful ignorance at age fifteen, Walden had an enormous impact on me, not only on my bourgeoning development as a writer but also on my growing individualistic views toward life itself, views that have remained with me and influenced much of what I’ve become.

Of all the various nuggets of perfection to be found within the pages of that great book, one of the passages that stands out the most is, unfortunately, the one that most people can quote even if they have never read the book. It’s a famous passage, referenced on many a greeting card and bookmark, yet filled with more profundity than could ever be grasped by the uneducated multitudes:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.

I am overcome by the treasure trove of statements here. To drive life into a corner… I know all too well what Thoreau meant by that. I too feel a similar, continuous urge. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life… Oh, what a beautiful, powerfully haunting statement of what I feel every damn day of my life! And not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. Yes, I too dread that specter which hovers above dreamers like Thoreau and me, that hateful thought of coming to the end of life and, upon looking back, realizing that we hadn’t actually lived or spent our time well. And although Walden is a book about going out into Nature to chase down true life, one doesn’t necessarily have to do that. Real life can be found anywhere. You don’t have to go to the woods to live “deliberately.”

But do you have to be alone to do it? Maybe not, though it certainly aided Thoreau. And given my current feelings toward the world and the people in it, I suspected it would help me as well. But being alone, especially on purpose, flies in the face of conventional wisdom. We’re taught through the conveyance of societal propaganda—films, shows, songs, books, cards, magazines, and the like—that happiness is to be found only in being with other people. Spouses, significant others, family, friends, coworkers… The overwhelmingly loud and blatantly invasive message of pretty much everything we see in culture is crystal clear: if you’re alone, you’re a loser. To be alone, according to popular opinion, is to somehow fail. You need to be surrounded by people, this message says—people who care about you, people you’ll trust, people you can be vulnerable with, people who will be there for you when the proverbial shit hits the fan. Family, we’re told, is one of the best institutions on this planet, which any wholesome, healthy, happy person embraces. To be in love, the poets tell us, is to be alive. Sitting at home with no one to talk to—this is considered too awful to accept. The “friendless rogue” who meanders in darkness and solitude is thought to possess nothing any sane person would envy. Why rest on your sofa and read a book when you can stumble home from the nearest bar after having raised way too many glasses with people you may not like if alcohol weren’t in the picture? Or why meditate within yourself when you can be distracted from such things by the pitter-pattery little feet of riotous offspring running through your house? No, the message is loud and oh so fucking clear: if you want any possible shot at being happy, you must surround yourself with other people, no matter what.

There’s strength, we are told, in numbers.

Strength in numbers. Perhaps that was true when humans were hunters and gatherers wandering around for food on the steppes of Africa. Perhaps that was true when white families were moving west in covered wagons through land that didn’t belong to them but rather to their dark-skinned, unwelcomed neighbors. Maybe it was true when chaos and wanton cruelty reigned supreme, as in the Dark Ages of Medieval Europe or the American “Wild West.” But is it still true today? Perhaps not. After all, we who populate this little planet have fashioned a lifestyle for ourselves that, for good or ill, has redefined what words such as need and survival mean. Ergo, maybe “strength in numbers,” while being a crucial philosophy in those yonder days of yore, has today evolved into something more of a hindrance.

Or perhaps these are just the disgruntled rants of an introverted misanthrope? Maybe. Maybe not. Scratch the paint off of a misanthrope and you’re likely to find a wounded humanitarian underneath. Besides, I’m not sure I’d describe myself as a misanthrope. Indeed, misanthropes despise people whereas I only mildly dislike them. I don’t abhor my species. I love my species—I just don’t want much to do with most people, but I don’t think that makes me a misanthrope. It makes me, well… a bit of a dissident.

Nor do I oppose the importance of family and friends. To be sure, there’s a comforting, reassuring fortitude that spreads through one’s being when, in the healthy presence of friends and family, love, trust, and acceptance are being exchanged. The problem is that such an experience, while ideal, is usually the exception, not the rule. Most families are dysfunctional. True, a person can live with a certain amount of dysfunction (and some writers flourish on it), but all too often the amount of dysfunction found in the average home grossly exceeds that which is tolerable. The result is that humans from all over the planet are growing up without approval, acceptance, affection, and all the other similar adjectives. Families all over the world are torn into pieces by differences of opinions, divergent lifestyles, abusive tendencies, infidelities, and an awful lack of basic communication skills—all of which are in some way contingent upon what a particular society is or is not saying about the current values of a given historical period. If the family is supposed to be the bedrock upon which is built the emotional development of our species, we’re fucked, because the family has failed.

As to the importance of friends, I admit I’ve experienced a few friendships in my time that were singularly beneficial to me, to say nothing of being profoundly rich and transformative. Yet I cannot escape the knowledge that the closest friend I’ve ever had, a man who was like a brother to me, eventually betrayed me and revealed himself to be the very antithesis of everything I value in humanity. Not that my experiences have any bearing on the species as a whole, or that the fallout from my damaged friendships necessarily means your friendships are hopeless. I can only offer what I have discovered through repeated experience: given enough time, most people will let you down. Some versions of being let down are maneuverable. That is, you can get past the infraction (if indeed you have any kind of heart within yourself and are not predisposed toward anger and resentment). But some versions of being let down are just not maneuverable. Sometimes the people you love and trust the most are the ones who will twist and crush your soul into an irreparable bit of wreckage.

I would know.

As a man of evidence and an unwavering advocate of the inevitability of logical deduction, I must submit what should be clear: the truest brand of strength that could ever be experienced by a human being is that which comes not from others but rather from self. Yes, whatever beauty comes from loving someone else, whatever assurance comes from knowing that someone has your back, whatever sense of identity you might derive through the approval and acceptance of others—none of it could possibly compare to that which you can and should be deriving from yourself. After all, the people you love might come and go. Family members perish. Friends might depart. Spouses leave. But as long as you’re alive, the only person who will always be there, the only person who will be continuously accessible, the only person who’ll be left standing after everyone else falls is you. You, within your own self, are the last ally when all others have been driven away. Consequently, you are the most important ally. If you cannot trust yourself, trusting someone else doesn’t mean much.

So, is there strength in numbers? Perhaps. No, the answer is probably. But there’s certainly strength in self. Or rather, there can be. Sadly, most people live as though they are their own worst enemy rather than their greatest ally, and there are an infinite number of reasons as to why that is the case. But if those reasons, whatever they may be, could be overcome, perhaps the lay of the land on Earth could look very different.

As it stands now, the lay of the land is a miserable one. We are a species of creatures disconnected from each other and, worse, disconnected from ourselves. The human race is like a window that cannot be shut—it’s continually gaping open, letting the unwanted in and allowing the riches to spill out. We have no footing, no foundation, no ground, no center. We look within ourselves and there’s nothing there, nothing to stand on, nothing to hold on to, nothing to steady us. We float about and it’s excruciating. All we want is to land, but we never can because there’s nothing on which to land. Our individual inner worlds are holocaustic debris fields of ghastly holes, unhealed wounds, and nagging pain. To be human is to hurt. Or, as first the Buddha and then later Nietzsche said, to live is to suffer. Existence is agony.

Why then should human beings consider looking inward for their strength? Why should they seek stability from within when all they see there is utter desolation and emptiness? It therefore makes perfect sense, when you think about it, that our societies should be as they are. Homo sapiens, who once may have held way more promise than they do now, have become a medicated, sedated race of willing zombies who lurch from one diversion to the next, never stopping to evaluate the sanity of it all, never stopping to address the underlying cause, never stopping to recall, even for just the tiniest of moments, that life is supposed to be lived deliberately, not passively, not detachedly, not with a stoic shrug of the shoulders and a half-hearted commitment to maintain a level of basic functionality. Life should be driven into a corner, not casually discarded like a lot of crumpled-up paper. Life is supposed to be lived… not just endured.

The paradox here is that the deteriorating state of the collective human psyche is not our fault, even though it is totally our fault. We did this to ourselves, to be sure. Nonetheless, the relationship between humans and the Universe in which they live seems to have erected a reality that made this deterioration inevitable. Each one of us is born into this system and, as fish are born into water—water in which they must remain if they are to survive—this is all we know. We had no say in the matter when we exited the womb and took up residence in this fucked-up region we call existence. Things were this way when we got here. It’s not our fault; yet it is our fault. Why? Because each of us, after having arrived here, has a responsibility to do something about it, to change it somehow, even if only by tiny degrees. Some people do that, but nowhere near enough. (I’m not talking about people who lend their talents to literature or filmmaking or art, nor those who heal wounds or perform surgery or lead nations. All of those are fine, but contributing to the Zeitgeist, such as it is, does not necessarily help free those who come after us—it may help to entertain, amuse, enlighten, or inspire—but if the condition within their broken hearts isn’t altered for the betterment of the species, it ultimately doesn’t mean much.)

Ergo, what we have here is two-fold: a species of creatures who 1) need to draw their strength from self, and 2) have lost the ability to do so. And while marriage and family and friendship and fellowship are all healthy things—they will ultimately continue to fail all around us because connecting two or more broken “selves” together does not a healthy, helpful situation make. If I have nothing inside to cling to, and neither do you, what good does it do for us to marry our deficiencies together? Two aching souls, when merged, are still two souls that ache. It’s therefore far better to get yourself whole than worry about how many friends you have or whether you are going to meet Mr. or Mrs. Right.

But no one wants to do that. To journey within oneself and do battle with what’s found there is a task for which only a few volunteer. It’s too difficult, requires too much time and energy and effort, and ultimately seems impossible anyway. Indeed, when you feel defeated before you even begin, how are you to stay motivated? And why bother, anyway, when there are so many diverting streets to get lost down, such as professional sports and sex and Netflix and drugs and food and chocolate and parties and going on vacations and abusing alcohol and the fucking Internet and whatever else people use to medicate their ache and distract themselves from their appalling deficiency of inner peace. The principal manifesto of our species seems to be a simple one: turn the TV on, turn up the radio, go to a bar and get lost in the mindless chatter and forget the fact that you are hurting, that you’re not whole, that you secretly long for the kind of life that has been driven into a corner, all while believing you’ll never actually experience it.

II.

Thoreau said he went into the woods because he wished “to live deliberately.” I have always been haunted by that phrase, mostly because it seems to represent some long-forgotten approach to interacting with existence—forgotten, it seems, even in Thoreau’s day. The phrase is very evocative, and it occurred to me just then that I didn’t fully understand everything it implied. And so, as was/is my ongoing custom, I packed my pipe, lit it, and went outside to smoke and think deeply underneath a (somewhat) star-filled night sky.

“Living deliberately.” I repeated the words aloud several times, scrutinizing their apparent meaning (although I have come to understand that often the best nuggets of wisdom are derived when you discover a word’s less-than-apparent meaning—the hidden connotations that lurk just below the surface of most words but which are so often unnoticed by those who, unlike me, do not err on the side of the logophile[3]). I recalled the meaning of the word deliberate. As an adjective, it means “done with intention,” “done on purpose,” or “done carefully.” As a verb, it means “to consider deeply” or “to think carefully.” For instance, I might say, “The judge deliberated the verdict for quite a while” (verb usage), or, “She was deliberate as she crept down the hall” (adjective usage). Related words would be calculated, weighed, thoughtful, measured, premeditated, and meticulous. Ergo, the overwhelming subtext of the word deliberate involves the idea of approaching a certain matter, whether it be the sealing of an envelope or the living of one’s life, with a sense of extreme care, caution, and purpose, to be intentional in one’s activities. Indeed, if one considers the antonyms of deliberate, words like careless, unwitting, sloppy, casual, and indifferent, it becomes clear that “to live deliberately” is to conduct oneself with extreme purpose, control, and thoughtfulness. Is that what Thoreau intended to do when he went to the woods? It seemed probable, and yet I still got the sense that there was more to it than that, as though living deliberately involved something a bit more aggressive than just proceeding with care and caution.

I then focused on the words intentional and purposeful, specifically in relation to how most people in society live their lives. To live “with purpose” is to live with something driving you, something dictating your actions and the impetus behind those actions. And to “live intentionally” is to know ahead of time what you are doing, why you are doing it, and what you want out of the endeavor. In either case, what we have here is a life propelled by a predetermined set of values, objectives, and priorities. On the surface, it might seem like the majority of people do live this way. After all, what is more prevalent in the world than religion, and what is religion if not the embodiment of predetermined values, objectives, and priorities? Yet I couldn’t help remembering that the ideals of religion and the actual application of those ideals by the religious are usually miles apart. Most people will concur with a religious creed in theory while doing little or nothing to exemplify that creed in daily life. It also occurred to me that there are indeed “driven people” in this world, people whose ambitions for wealth and power influence their every behavior as they climb the various ladders needed in order to eventually sit in the fat chair. One could say that such people live intentionally and with purpose, that they live deliberately, but I’m not so sure that I’d agree. I think they are chasing their goals with purpose and running a race deliberately, but whether or not they are actually living life is a debatable point. It appears to me that all they’re really doing is hurling themselves toward death.

No, I’m not convinced that most people do live deliberately. There’s a certain necessary aggressive insistence for joy and profound experiences that I think should characterize the way we spend our days, and this, it seems to me, is lacking in most human beings. I don’t say that as a judgment of others; I say it as a confession, for as I thought about these things that night on my porch, I knew that I too, in my own way, was guilty of the same. But now that I was adopting the lifestyle of a hermit, now that I was retreating from society, I decided that not only was I done with the world, I was also done living accidentally. It was time for me to begin living deliberately, with intention and with purpose…

The next questions were therefore quite clear:

What was my intention?

What was my purpose?

The answers were just as clear, and again, Thoreau provided them: to “front only the essential facts of lifeand to “drive life into a corner.”

But what did that look like? I realized just then that I didn’t entirely know.

I finished my pipe bowl and went back inside. Later that night, I lit a fire in the fireplace and, once the flames were alight with the soothing, crackling sound that only good wood can produce, I stretched out on the living room floor with my journal. Just what, I wondered, were the “essential facts of life,” and what did it mean to “front” them? And what did it mean to “drive life into a corner?”

With a sense of embarkation, I opened my journal, turned to a blank page, and wrote:

The Essential Facts of Life

My intention was to list them all out so I could repeatedly reference them in the weeks and months to come. But what were they? It occurred to me that different people may answer that question in different ways. In other words, perhaps each individual has his own take on what constitute the “essential facts of life.” So I jotted the word “my” between the words “of” and “Life,” so that the heading now read:

The Essential Facts of My Life

Now the question was easier to answer, so I began making my list.

RelationshipsThat’s the first word I wrote, but I immediately felt half-tempted to cross it out. Being a self-confessed dissident who philanders with the lighter shades of misanthropy, and as one who was at that moment orchestrating a retreat from society, it felt oxymoronic to consider relationships an “essential fact of life.” But I kept it because, in the end, even though I’m not the biggest fan of other people, there are relationships in my life that I consider important, relationships that, were I to lose them, would cause me substantial heartache. My lovely wife, for example, and the few friends I had (I have never been one who has scores of acquaintances masquerading as my friends, people I see regularly but who likely know as little about me as I know about them—that’s not my way; I prefer to keep a small circle of close friends, people who know me as intimately as I know them). And my family, such as it is. These relationships are indeed essential to my life.

The next thing I wrote was reflection. While others might see that as an interesting sideline of life, they may not see it as essential. Well, reflection is very essential to me. Sans ample time and space to reflect on life, my choices, my thoughts and feelings, and my interactions with others, I cannot function. Meditation and contemplation have always been the basis upon which I’ve built my style of existence.

Next, I wrote expression. Indeed, unlike so many people in this world who feel the need to disguise their thoughts and feelings and inclinations, I’ve always been one who absolutely requires self-expression. It is not my way to keep quiet. Whatever’s going on inside me, whether it’s creative or some heavy piece of philosophical insight that I’ve been wrestling with, or some dark, dysfunctional bit of baggage, I simply must have means by which I can express it. I can’t function without such an outlet, and this is one of the reasons I became a writer.

I finished the list by writing the words recovery (since it’s always been my deep desire to pursue healing inasmuch as is possible for me), evolution (by which I meant personal development and mental/emotional growth), illumination (I must have a dependable and regular means by which to increase my personal knowledge—on all subjects), and welfare (by which I meant safety and emotional security, since, as a victim of appalling childhood abuse, the lasting effect of which was always with me, feeling a sense of safety in life—as imagined as such a feeling might be—was nothing if not essential to me).

There were likely more ideas that could have been jotted down, but I didn’t want to overwhelm myself right from the start, so I stopped there and then sat back to survey the list:

f.jpg

Feeling as though I’d made a good start, my next task was to ascertain what it would look like to “front” these things. I understood the usage of the verb to front in this case. It meant to face something head on, and deal directly with it. In other words, my withdrawal from society would have to be, among other things, a determined effort to comprehend those characteristics that make me me, fully digest everything they implied concerning the living of life, and make them my driving force. Facing these essential facts of life meant accepting the weight of their repercussions and letting them dictate my destiny.

I packed yet another pipe bowl and sat in front of the fire, smoking and thinking deeply about these things, wondering how to put all these disconnected bits of wisdom together into something productive.

Then I suddenly recalled the words of Søren Kierkegaard:

The most common form of despair is not being who you are.

I’d seen that statement on a bookmark once, and I never forgot it. I think these words are true, and I think that in some obscure way this is what Thoreau was hinting at, too. When he went to reside in the woods that surround Walden Pond, was Thoreau attempting to find God? No, Walden doesn’t seem to suggest this. Was he hoping to discover Nature? I don’t think so. No, I think he went into the woods because he knew that being surrounded by Nature would assist him in his ultimate goal, which, I think, was to find himself. Yes, I think Thoreau went into the woods to discover the man he wanted to be, and “fronting the essential facts of life” was his way of doing that. And now that I had my own list of the essential facts of (my) life, that’s what I intended to do as well.

But what did it mean to “drive life into a corner?” As I have said, I absolutely love this phrase. In fact, this phrase alone is enough to justify a lasting adoration of Henry David Thoreau. What an incredible albeit succinct construction of words that convey such a massive philosophical weight. But, again, what does it mean? To me, the two key words in the expression are drive and corner. To “drive something” is to dictate the direction it will take, to force it to go where you command. To drive something means you are the one in control, and that which you are driving is at your mercy. It means that you can insist on any course and you’ll get what you want. And what exactly is a “corner?” I think in this instance it means there’s nowhere else to go. There is no escape. There is no alternative. There is no chance that what you’ve driven into the corner can disobey you. It means existence has been brought to a threshold, and there is no way forward except into the heart of aliveness.

Therefore, to drive life into a corner is to take control of your own destiny. It means that you are no longer living accidentally but rather deliberately. It means that you’ve insisted on certain things that absolutely must characterize your life and your experiences, and you will not be defied. It means you are not a victim of what befalls you; no, you are the one calling all the shots. And if bad shit does befall you—because bad shit will befall you sooner or later—your response won’t be one of weakness or defeat but rather a calm equipoise and a resolve to keep on going (since, indeed, it’s not how badly you fall that counts, it’s how you carry yourself as you stand back up). To drive life into a corner is to remove the peripheral bullshit that promises to fulfill but never does, those appealing diversions that vie for our attention and keep us from living deliberately. To drive life into a corner is to live with purpose, to live intentionally, to have a say in who you are and what you’ll become. It means that when you experience something, you experience it to the full. You are present. You’re in the moment, not off in some dream world or lost in the bowels of your latest distraction. It means you’re not a willing partaker in the downward spiral that is our chaotic world; instead, you’re going against the grain, doing things differently, with the end goal of “sucking all the marrow out of life.” It means you are finished with reactionary living; indeed, you’re now a person of action, not reaction. You’re now someone who has whittled reality down to only those things that truly matter, and in those things you are immersed—everything else has either fallen away or been deliberately driven away. You’re no longer blown about by the waves, those tumultuous exertions placed upon you by others, those expectations that you never signed up for and don’t understand anyway. You know who you are, and you like it. You live as you insist, and you don’t apologize for it. And finally, to drive life into a corner is to know the truth and to accept that truth as it is, to embrace reality, not flee from it or pretend it is otherwise.

To drive your life into a corner is to own yourself and your experiences.

That all sounds pretty fucking good, if you ask me. But it’s just a theory until you make it a reality. The only problem is… well… how the fuck do you do that, exactly? And where do you begin?


Taken from my book, Letters From a Dissident Philosopher.

[1] I could have just as easily decided on the term anchorite rather than hermit, since anchorite literally means “to withdraw from society.” But I got the impression that anchorites not only withdrew from society, they also withdrew to an isolated geographical location, and while the classic usage of the term hermit is similar, it no longer carries the same stigma.

[2] Translated into English: Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for All and None, published in several sections between 1883 and 1891.

[3] A lover of words, their meaning, and their usage(s) in sentences. True nerd shit.

Humans and Moonflowers

As a philosopher, I’m sometimes asked if I subsribe to John Locke’s version of humanity (which states, essentially, that human beings are born good and can become bad through their experiences in life) or Thomas Hobbes’ version of humanity (which, on the contrary, states that humans are born bad and usually remain so, but can, at times, become good through their experiences in life). In the past, my answer was always easy and offered without hesitation: Locke! Indeed, I have long believed that humans are, essentially, born as good and empty slates onto which reality often draws negative pictures. I’ve never been a fan of Hobbesian thought, though I’ve never discounted it completely.

These days, my answer isn’t as easy and it’s not given without hesitation. The thing is, I’ve been alive for almost 42 years. In that time, I have observed myself and those around me. I have watched the world evolve, and I’ve paid attention to everything I witness, from the birth of babies to the death of crones. And when the question of Locke vs. Hobbes comes up, lately I find myself thinking about moonflowers.

MWL441024.jpg.rendition.largestMoonflowers (Datura metel) are a plant indigenous to the Americas and parts of North Africa. They are, in this author’s opinion, uncommonly beautiful. Their shape, color, and scent are intoxicating to the eye, the nose, and, apparently, the sex drive. Moonflowers are not the most beautiful plant in the world, but in my opinion, they make the top 20 list. And… moonflowers are among the deadliest living things on Earth. To ingest any part of them will bring a horrific death in less than ten minutes.

These days, I tend to think of humanity as being like moonflowers. So inherently beautiful. So captivating and intrinsically imbibed with all things attractive. And lethal. Moonflowers didn’t ask to be lethal. Nor did they ask to be beautiful. They didn’t even ask to exist. But they do exist, are beautiful, and violently deadly.

I think we are like that. We are Locke and Hobbes rolled into one, like moonflowers.

The Year 1945

As evidence of the often painful propensity I have to think way too much, I shall offer the following bits of prose concerning the year 1945, which I obsess over to a ridiculous degree. If I had to separate human history into only two epochs, I would speak about humanity as it existed before 1945, and humanity after 1945. Thus, I would differentiate the human species that was incapable of destroying their home planet from those who suddenly were capable of destroying their planet (the surface of it, anyway).

This is not to say there wouldn’t be other eligible dates for candidacy. We might mention the advent of agriculture, or the erection of civilization. We might talk about when the written word first made an appearance in history, or that redemptive moment when humans first understood the scientific method. Or, maybe we could revisit the invention of the printing press, or the discovery of the New World. All of these moments are undeniably benchmark dates in the progression of our species through time. Nevertheless, my meager opinion, for what it’s worth, is that the year 1945 emerges as by far the most pivotal moment thus far in the history of our wretched species. Prior to this point, humans could inflict all kinds of violence upon themselves, their neighbors, and the atmosphere, but they did not have the ability to destroy the planet in one single stroke. Perhaps they were able to eradicate themselves as a species, but the planet itself? No. Furthermore, not only did they not possess the capability of destroying their planet prior to 1945, they also did not have to live with the mental knowledge that such a thing was even possible. After 1945, however, humans not only had the ability to destroy their home planet, they also had to live under the mentally crippling knowledge that it was now actually possible, that someone somewhere on this planet—maybe some fat-ass dictator with sweaty palms and beady eyes over whom an average person had no influence—not only had access to the kind of weapon that could destroy the planet but also the ability to actually push the button at will or whim.

I occasionally suspect we don’t put that fact in its proper context, that from 1945 onward, humanity had to live within a reality that included the possibility that someone somewhere might, for reasons entirely unknown to anyone else, launch a weapon that would spell the end of the species and the planet upon which that species lives. That is a tremendous weight to place on the collective mind of a species. And I think that even now, in 2015, we don’t fully appreciate the impact this has had on our psyches and our cultural development. Only hundreds of years from now, assuming we even make it that far, will we be able to look back and see just how this knowledge skewed the collective human mentality toward untold aberrations of behavior, thought, and perception. Surely the knowledge that worldwide self-destruction is possible and maybe even likely has had a hugely debilitating affect on our psychological well-being over the last 70-odd years?

I’ll often amuse myself by imagining what extraterrestrial intellectuals would say about all this if they were studying us through telescopes from afar. It seems to me that while there are several benchmark moments such observers might point to as being the defining crossroads for our species (the advent of writing might be the next most significant moment), I think they would see us divided as I have just stated, between 1) the historical sector of humanity that could destroy their planet versus the sector that couldn’t, and 2) the historical sector of humanity that had to live with that terrible knowledge versus those who did not. In both cases, the year 1945 emerges as the most pivotal juncture along our timeline.

A person living in the Middle Ages had a very small circle of concerns to worry about. Such a person, if they hailed from Europe, likely fretted about life and death and food and shelter and hell. Indeed, their sphere of fear, if you will, was quite limited. And while fear of hell is a heavy psychological burden to place on the minds of a people, it just doesn’t have the same astronomical scope that the destruction of the planet does. It’s one thing to fell a tree or blow up a castle or level a mountain, but to destroy a planet and all those who live upon it, I think, goes beyond what the human mind is currently equipped to handle.

When you consider the terrible scope of such fear (or, X) measured against the backdrop of humanity’s unpredictability (Y) (by which I mean the knowledge that anyone is capable of anything at any time), it’s no wonder that modern humans are unraveling as a species in ways that history has never before seen. Compare the current year (2014) to the historical conditions of a century ago, or two centuries ago, or ten, even. Sure, the specter of war and suffering and men doing terrible things to each other has always been present, but can you really say all of these nefarious realities aren’t getting worse? Each year it seems like there are more school shootings and meaningless murders and genocidal incidents than the year before. It’s as if our species is rushing headlong toward some awful precipice, a cliff over which we’re all doomed to fall, and that which each passing day this forward momentum’s gaining more and more speed. My suspicion is that, while maybe this forward momentum toward ultimate doom has always been in motion, it went into overdrive after 1945.

Thus, we have the following equation:

  • X + Y = Z, or the fucked-up reality of modern life on this Earth

Taken from my book, The Unnecessary Essays.