Purposeless on Purpose

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I seek to be at peace with my own irrelevance.

In earlier, less distracted, and less accountable years, I was a fount of creative energy. Free time was often spent on writing songs and recording music or writing essays and blogs. I have always been driven to create. That drive formed my earliest sense of identity.

Today, in my forties, raising two kids, and working at an intellectually demanding job, my sparse remaining energy usually feels insufficient for extracurricular creativity. Fumes make for a poor muse.

So I don’t write nearly as much anymore. I rarely pick up an instrument. Songwriting is now filed away in the dusty archives of my persona as ”something I used to do.”

But while the fatigue of existence is real, and my drive to create fires on fewer cylinders, these aren’t the real obstacles to creating. Nor can I lay the blame on the easy abundance of distractions provided by the internet, a phenomenon that had yet to saturate the culture when I was in my prolific twenties.

It used to be that as I worked, with every paragraph or stanza, I believed myself to be building toward something. I was laying the foundations of my career, one in which I would not just be a creator, but one that mattered. “Fame” isn’t quite the right word for what I was after (though I would not have shunned it by any means), but perhaps “prominence.” I would be known.

That didn’t happen. It’s not going to happen, either. For years now, this has been an inexhaustible source of regret and self-loathing. I’ve been dedicating a great deal of thought and work toward being at peace with the fact that whatever meager level of renown I’ve scraped together at this point is about as good as it’s ever going to get.

What does this mean for the creative drive I claim to still possess? Nothing good, I’ll tell you that!

I might become more accepting of my irrelevance to the wider world, but that very acceptance starves me of much of what once served as creative fuel. Why write an essay that only a handful of people will ever read, for which I will not be compensated, and which doesn’t lead to my work being discovered so that I can be placed into the demi-pantheon of People Whose Writing Matters?

In other words, why bother?

The wall of “why bother” is a big one. From any distance, its summit visibly looms over the top of my laptop’s screen. Large, white letters adorn the wall like the Hollywood sign promising “NO ONE CARES.” The letters are much brighter than the display on which I type.

One is not supposed to see things this way. Creation is supposed to be for its own sake. I have always had a great deal of trouble with “supposed to’s.”

So I seek out wisdom. In Zen and the Art of Archery, Eugen Herrigel questions his master about the purpose of his archery training. The master insists that Herrigel take no note of the target. The master insists that he not consider releasing the arrow. For what feels like ages, the master keeps him focused only on drawing back the bow, and nothing else. And Herrigel is utterly flustered. He says to his master that he is unable to lose sight of the fact that he draws the bow and lets loose the arrow in order to hit a target. There is a reason for all of this effort:

“The right art,” cried the Master, “is purposeless, aimless! The more obstinately you try to learn how to shoot the arrow for the sake of hitting the goal, the less you will succeed in the one and the further the other will recede.”

They debate this point for a bit, and Herrigel asks:

“What must I do, then?”

“You must learn to wait properly.”

“And how does one learn that?”

“By letting go of yourself, leaving yourself and everything yours behind you so decisively that nothing more is left of you but a purposeless tension.”

“So I must become purposeless — on purpose?” I heard myself say.

“No pupil has ever asked me that, so I don’t know the right answer.”

The idea that art, creation, is purposeless, is very difficult for me to internalize. I can intellectually understand and even appreciate it, but I can’t seem to accept it in my heart. The words “why bother” still ring in my head, and the “NO ONE CARES” sign still leaves a visual trace on my retinas when I close my eyes.

“You will be somebody, the second you make peace with being nobody,” Heather Havrilesky has written. “You can create great things, the second you recognize that making misshapen, stupid, pointless things isn’t just part of the process of achieving greatness, it is greatness itself.”

Being purposeless on purpose is, itself, greatness? I want to believe. The idea that a creative work is supposed to be purposeless is a claim without evidence. It is less a truth than it is a statement of faith. One has to decide for oneself that the work itself is enough.

“Let go of the shiny, successful, famous human inside your head,” writes Havrilesky. “Be who you are right now. That is how it feels to arrive. That is how it feels to matter.”

I do believe that. I can work with that.

But she also says, “Being a true artist merely lies in recognizing that you already matter.” That, I don’t understand. How does she know what qualifies one as a true artist? How does the archery master know that one’s aim must be aimless?

Like many statements of faith, I suspect the value of the claim that art is purposeless lies less in its veracity, and more in the behavior it induces. Its value is in the discipline required to live that ideal. It may or may not be true that creative work is “supposed to” be purposeless. It may or may not be true that writing this essay right now, or any other, is a meaningful end in itself, regardless of whether it is ever read or appreciated by anyone.

I don’t know if these things are true. I doubt that they are. But I might need to take the leap of faith and live as though they are. Doing so will take a good deal of practice. Discipline. But unlike art, it would not be purposeless. For if I can manage it, I may begin to believe that I do matter right now, and that mattering right now, and at no other time nor to any other people, is enough.

In Between the Pictures is the Dance

639D09D3-5BC7-4147-8B0A-FD0B734B8200I’m not a dancer by any stretch of the imagination, but I’ve taken my share of dance and movement classes in my previous life as an acting student. I don’t mind being able to tell people that “I studied dance at Alvin Ailey,” which is technically true, as that’s where the acting students in the Actors Studio graduate program had dance classes. I was a hard-working if mostly-hopeless student, and a frequent cause of eye-rolling and pity-sighs from our teacher Rodni, who moved with incredible control, strength, specificity, and power. It was not necessarily transferable.

The man who taught me more about dance and movement than anyone else in my life was Henry, the impossibly graceful, endlessly wise, and astoundingly patient head of the dance department at my undergraduate state college. Truly, there was something superhuman about the man (I assume there still is, he’s alive and well, and I imagine will be for many centuries to come). Taking a dance class with Henry was what I imagine taking a physics class with a gifted professor is like; it seemed as though every lesson had several “ah-ha” moments in which something marvelous about the body in space suddenly broke its way into my bewildered brain.

An example: What is walking? Henry would ask us as we ambled around the studio. The answer, which I was distinctly proud to call out in class when I had my eureka moment: Walking is falling. Think about it, you’ll get it.

Getting through to me was a doubly remarkable feat on Henry’s part, given that I’m autistic (Asperger’s, to be precise), which was unknown to me at the time, and surely made the job of teaching me how to move in a coordinated, graceful way exceedingly difficult. Rodni, gifted as he was, could have learned a few things from Henry, I have no doubt.

One particular “ah-ha” moment with Henry came outside of regular class time, when for some reason I can’t recall, he was looking over some of the choreography he had written for the school’s next big dance concert. I had never seen choreography written down before, only taught to me in person (an experience I do not envy any choreographer). Musical notation I could understand conceptually, of course, but how could one codify movement in unmoving glyphs?

I don’t know what most choreographers do, but Henry’s approach was pretty damned simple: stick figures. Much like a comic strip, the figures would be drawn in particular poses, indicating the moves the dancers would execute at various points in the music. There were probably arrows indicating direction and other marginalia scribbled throughout, but this is all I can remember.

I think I expressed my surprise that this was how choreography was written, that it could be done with stationary pictures even though the art form itself is based entirely on motion. Henry explained that rather than think of them as representations of movement, each picture should be thought of as points for the dancer to reach, marks to hit with their bodies. The stick figure poses were guideposts, “You Are Here” indicators.

“The pictures are the choreography,” explained Henry. “In between the pictures is the dance.”


There’s that cliché about the journey being of greater value than the destination, “it’s not where you go, it’s how you get there,” and so on. Maxims on that theme are so overused that they usually come off as trite to me, if not meaningless, or at least what Daniel Dennett might call a “deepity,” an idea that is true on its face in the most basic and obvious way, but without any of the profundity it’s presumed to convey.

I may be coming around.

Another fellow who, though I’ve never met him, I nonetheless consider one of my most important teachers, is the writer Alan Jacobs. One of his recent books is a short volume called, simply, How to Think, and truly, I feel like no one should be allowed to discuss politics or religion, write opinion columns, or use Twitter until they’ve read it.

The book warrants a substantive review of its own, but I want to call attention to one passage that had my neurons firing off like the 1812 Overture. Thinking, according to Jacobs, is a skill that has been wrongly equated with coming up with answers, decisions, and responses. Thinking becomes about being right, about winning. Jacobs explains what it’s really about:

This is what thinking is: not the decision itself but what goes into the decision, the consideration, the assessment. It’s testing your own responses and weighing the available evidence; it’s grasping, as best you can and with all available and relevant senses, what is, and it’s also speculating, as carefully and responsibly as you can, about what might be. And it’s knowing when not to go it alone, and whom you should ask for help.

Decisions, answers, conclusions; these are the final pose at the end of the music before the curtain falls. Each new piece of data acquired, each bit of information learned, are marks to hit, the guideposts that lead us on. They are static snapshots, pictures. But the thinking itself is what happens while we’re seeking those data points, hunting for information, and piecing it all together in our minds.

In between the pictures is the dance.


A few months ago, a friend of mine fervently insisted I read Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck, one of those anti-self-help books that seem to hip right now. I was somewhat reluctant. (Oooh, it has “fuck” in the title! How edgy!) But I am so glad I did, because, much to my surprise, it taught me what happiness is.

That’s overstating it somewhat. But Manson offers a way of thinking about happiness that, for whatever reason, had never consciously occurred to me. Simply put, Manson says that happiness is not a state one achieves, but it is rather a process, it is what we experience when we are solving the problems we want to be solving.

That’s it. Happiness is not something to be attained, it’s just what happens while we’re solving problems. If we hate or don’t care about a set of problems, we’re miserable. If we do care about them, the process of solving them is what makes for a rewarding, meaningful existence. If I am spending my time and energies on tasks that hold no meaning for me, I’ll hate every moment of it.

But when I’m directing a play for my university students, for example, I can actually experience bliss, because I’m solving the problems presented by the production so that it can become its own living, breathing work of art. When it’s over, and the run of the play has finished, I almost always crash hard, and have serious trouble clambering my way out of a serious depression. This is largely because completing the play is not what brings me happiness (though averting a disaster for the production also averts severe psychological breakdowns).

It’s putting the play together that brings me meaning; helping the actors understand what they’re saying and why their characters do what they do; arranging the movement and positions of bodies on stage; coming up with ideas for costumes, sets, props, and sound; helping individual students overcome their hangups and anxieties so that they can grow into their roles and blossom. While it’s gratifying when each problem gets solved, checking off boxes on the great beast of a to-do list that a theatre production can be, each solved problem is one mark, one picture.

The struggle is the point. The joy is in the journey. Happiness is in the process. And in between the pictures is the dance.


Am I too old to have just figured some of this out? Having spent 40 years obsessing over goals and products, I never noticed that everything that mattered was in the reaching, in the creating. The doing, not the having-done. The -ing’s, not the -ed’s. Looking back, it becomes obvious.

I have time left, I think. I hope. I can’t have those previous 40 years back, but maybe I can reframe my memory, tell my story to myself that focuses on the journeys rather than the successes and failures. And maybe I can start the next story from this perspective, though not as a goal to be achieved — I must think differently about my life— but as a process, a discipline, an asymptotic odyssey.

Look, some goals must be achieved, whether they provide meaning or not. Marks do have to be hit and some boxes absolutely have to be checked. You know what kind of box-checking I mean, the Maslovian, bottom-of-the-triangle kind, the kind that provide for one’s life necessities, and that of those in one’s care. There is not always joy in hitting the most remedial marks of mere survival. Though maybe there sometimes is.


This is how love works too, isn’t it? Whether familial, platonic, or romantic, it’s the active cultivation of a relationship, the choice to give of oneself to another person, be it a child, friend, or lover. Like happiness, love can’t just be a feeling, a state that we achieve, or a spell cast upon us. It’s the choice to love — a choice we keep making, moment to moment, picture to picture — that gives it meaning, that makes it matter, that makes it real.

I think that has to be it.

Walking is falling, and in between the pictures is the dance. I between the answers is the thinking. In between the giving is the love.

In between the moments, in between the events, in between the accomplishments, in between the failures, in between the losses, in between the lessons, the steps, the miles.

In between the seconds is life. That’s where it is.

I’m Convinced There’s No Hope for America. Please Talk Me Out of It.

Here’s what I need to know.

I need to know that all is not lost. I don’t need to be told that all is not lost, I need to be convinced. I need proof. Without that proof, I either have to remain in this unbearable state of stomach-churning anxiety, or I have to accept the end and prepare for what’s truly next to come.

So this post is a request. Or maybe a cry for help.


Let me go back a bit. I left my theatre career in order to get involved in politics, because I believed that the good I could do in that arena would be more tangibly meaningful than whatever effect I could have as an actor on a stage. (I was almost certainly wrong, but that’s for another post.)

When I made that decision, George W. Bush had been re-elected president, and as bleak as that was, I knew that there were enough souls in this country to nudge the ship of state in a more positive, enlightened, and humanitarian direction, if only they could be moved to do so.

While the Democratic Party wasn’t exactly doing wonders for itself during this era, it still had the allegiance of about half the electorate, and they managed that following not with aw-shucks faux-average joes or slick media manipulators, but with statesmen. People like Al Gore and John Kerry may not have been the most charismatic politicians, and lord knows they were prone to screw-ups. A lot of folks even doubted the sincerity of their principles, but I didn’t.

There is always ugliness in politics. There are always egos of unusual size and tenderness, always those whose ambitions for power boggle the average citizen, always undesirables and deplorables, even within the wider orbits of leaders and representatives on unquestioned integrity. It will always be so. This is a given.

I always understood the Republican Party to be premised on a lie, on the claim that it was made up of men (and almost entirely men) who stood for traditions, stability, and safety. The reality was and is of course that it has, as long as I’ve been alive, stood for the perpetual acquisition of power for those who already have it. Some within the party and its ancillary groups and movements truly believed in the values the party pretended to care about, and, as all of us are wont, managed to rationalize every ethically or morally repugnant action taken on the party’s behalf; from senseless wars to pandering to theocrats to stoking xenophobia, racism, and disgust for the already-marginalized to decimating the mechanisms of society on which tens of millions of souls rely.

Just as evil men could launch themselves into the orbits of true-hearted leaders of character, well-meaning people could also find themselves pulled by the gravity of this plutocratic gas giant, and therefore in its thrall.

I have taken this all as given. This darkness, this oligarch-trained leviathan disguised as an American political party, was known.

Yet I believed that if the Truth could be successfully and thoroughly conveyed, if the public could only be persuaded to listen and think for a half a moment longer than our lizard brains are inclined, and if the body politic could be exposed to just the right appeal to our innate empathy and higher notions of ourselves, then we could win. I was never so naive as to think that there could ever be anything like a total victory, one in which our politics reflects the loftiest ideations of what true democratic discourse could and ought to be. But I did believe that there were sufficient numbers of us who, given the right nudge, could look past our lazy, atavistic aversions and foster something approaching a national generosity of spirit.

Lost elections didn’t necessarily mean total defeat, either. If the good guys couldn’t quite make their case on one go around the electoral track, we regroup, rethink, and run the race again.

And when a brilliant, professorial black guy whose name rhymes with “Osama” gets elected president, twice, despite running against a lionized maverick war hero, and later a man who was clearly grown in a pod for the purpose of becoming president, I think it’s understandable that I could come to believe that not only could we win sometimes, but that the tide had finally turned. We were winning.


During the Obama years, despite the pride I took in knowing that a truly good man was president, it was impossible to ignore the boiling magma of fear and hate that began cracking the surface of the public sphere and spewing jets of scalding rage and idiocy, disfiguring all who wandered too closely. So too, it was impossible to ignore the depths of cynicism, callousness, hypocrisy, and mendacity that Republican leaders and cultists were willing to employ for even the tiniest gains, at the national, state, and local levels.

I knew it was there, and it made me sick, physically ill. And yet I still couldn’t allow myself to believe that it was indicative of more than a disgruntled ruling class and a baffled, aging demographic lashing out like a cornered animal. If nothing else, it would only be a couple of decades before these increasingly anarchic tribes of aggrieved aristocrats, and the ignorant mobs to whom they distributed pitchforks, would simply die off.

Now it’s 2018. Every branch of government is not only utterly dominated by Republicans, but by the very worst kinds of Republicans. The grotesque horror that is the president is well established, but he is only one part of a triumvirate of depravity.

There may be no one living who encapsulates the word “soulless” better than Mitch McConnell. With truly inhuman coldness, he lies, schemes, and destroys. I find him terrifying.

Paul Ryan is a tool. If Republicans keep hold of the House, Kevin McCarthy will be a stupider tool. Less principled than Ryan, if that’s even possible, and without all those pesky brains to confuse matters. And the House Republicans themselves are not much better than the most conspiracy-crazed Tea Party rally, only wearing suits instead of eagle-emblazoned tank tops.

And there’s the latest tragedy, the courts. Among a Supreme Court conservative majority largely made up of partisan hacks, Brett Kavanaugh has asked America to hold his beer(s) as he proceeds to out-hack them all. He is the Platonic ideal of the aggrieved, old, rich, white guy, a Euclidean avatar of the spoiled, entitled country-clubber, who now feels that he has been wronged by Democrats and, more importantly, American women, who dared to question his right to their bodies. Well, now he gets to show them who’s boss.

Let’s not stop there! In state after state, legislatures and governors conspire to dismantle democracy itself. From the disenfranchisement of minorities and the poor to the revocation of municipalities’ right to local governance, Republicans are torching the fields and salting the soil.

If we’ve learned nothing else from the past decade, it’s that if Republicans can’t win through persuasion, they’ll simply rewrite the rules. They are eternally controlling Boardwalk and Park Place. It’s written right on the inside of the box, that they shall eternally passeth Go, over and over, forever and ever, amen.


Today, those of us in the reality-based community, those of us who aspire to something more meaningful than personal power or status, those of us who feel a whit of empathy for those unlike ourselves, are scared. We are marching, we are rallying, we are donating time, money, and energy. We are sparking vital social movements and unleashing waves of compassion, creativity, and raw determination, the likes of which I cannot recall seeing in my lifetime. We sense the threat, the feeling of permanence to the darkness already snuffing out light after light. It feels like an emergency.

It is an emergency. I do believe that people are waking up to that simple fact. Many millions of people have come to realize that things have not only gone wrong, but horribly, existentially wrong. The republic is in mortal danger, and the blight will not be contained within our borders. It’s soaking into the Earth’s crust. It’s riding the oceans’ currents. It’s attached to the very molecules we breathe.

There’s no more nudging. We’re heading headlong into a new Dark Age, and a minor course correction will not suffice.

And my fear, my despair, is that it’s too late.

I fear that there aren’t enough good souls in the electorate to transfer power from the monsters in the Republican cult.

I fear that even if we do outnumber the bastards, that they have so twisted our electoral mechanisms that even the bluest of waves could not wash them from power.

I fear that Republicans and their allied extra-national agitators have so successfully sowed confusion and mistrust, not only of our institutions, but of reality itself, that there is no path back to a shared understanding of what is and is not so.

I fear that our better angels are simply no match for our worst demons.

I said this post was a request. I admit, it took me a while to get here. But this is it: Someone convince me I’m wrong.

Show me that the anti-democratic voting laws, the boots on the necks of the poor, the dehumanization of women, the tantrums of white men, the open racism, the soulless quislings, the partisan hacks, the bullies who cast themselves as victims, and the dumptrucks of money sloshing through the system do not spell the end of this American project.

We’re stealing children from their parents and putting them into camps. We’re destroying our ability to inhabit the only planet we have. We’re callously incarcerating generations of black and brown men. We’re revoking the ability of millions to vote. We’re robbing women of the right to control when and whether they give birth. We’re kissing the rings of sociopathic and psychopathic dictators and turning our backs on the world’s democracies. These are just a few things I just now thought of. I could go on.

How does this get fixed? Show me the math and illustrate the physics. Point me to those who are in a position to repair the damage to our democracy, and explain to me how they’ll even be given the opportunity to do it. Make me understand how control of a grossly unrepresentative Congress will be wrenched from the iron grip of the evil men who currently wield power.

Persuade me that if the good guys start winning again, that the bad guys will even acknowledge it or allow it. Obviously, nothing is beneath them. The mask of civility has long been discarded, and I don’t believe for a second that they see any means as too savage or too depraved. They have proven this time and again. Ecological catastrophe is fine. Mass poverty is fine. Violence and brutality are fine. Nazis are fine. Sexual assault is fine. What depths are even left to plumb? Let your imagination run wild. They certainly let theirs.

If I’m wrong, if there’s real hope, show me. Make me see how Republicans lose control of Congress, the White House, the Supreme Court, the federal courts, the state capitols, the school boards, and how power gets into the hands of men and women who aren’t moral monsters. Convince me that the haze of misinformation that burns our eyes and ears is not the new normal, and that Americans can have something approaching a shared understanding of reality.

Point me to the light at the end of the tunnel, and prove to me that the tunnel hasn’t already caved in. Because I can’t see it, and it’s getting harder to breathe.

commonplace book

alan jacobs on the commonplace book:

Commonplace books became widely used in the early modern period, largely because literate people were discombobulated by the flood of information that the printing press had unleashed on them. (One 17th-century writer wailed, “We have reason to fear that the multitude of books which grows every day in a prodigious fashion will make the following centuries fall into a state as barbarous as that of the centuries that followed the fall of the Roman Empire.”) Some of these were just scrapbooks, the predecessors of today’s Everything Buckets, as Alex Payne has called them — applications like Evernote or DEVONthink — and would be places to store recipes, notes from sermons, remedies for common maladies … you know, everything.

But the other kind of commonplace book was different. Its goal was to gather a collection of the wisest statements, usually of the ancients, for future meditation. And here the key thing was to write the words in your own hand — by this means, by laboriously and carefully copying out the insights of people smarter than you, you could absorb and internalize their wisdom. Call it osmosis-by-handwriting. (Some people would copy out whole books by their favorite writers in the hopes of achieving some kind of voodoo transference of power.)

and elsewhere he says:

I think I can hazard this claim: Keeping a commonplace book is easy, but using one? Not so much. I started my first one when I was a teenager, and day after day I wedged open books under a foot of my ancient Smith-Corona manual typewriter and banged out the day’s words of wisdom. I had somewhat different ideas then of what counted as wisdom. The mainstays of that era—Arthur C. Clarke and Carl Sagan were perhaps the dominant figures—haven’t made any appearances in my online world. But even then I suspected something that I now know to be true: The task of adding new lines and sentences and paragraphs to one’s collection can become an ever tempting substitute for reading, marking, learning, and inwardly digesting what’s already there. And wisdom that is not frequently revisited is wisdom wasted.

who knew?

joel l. daniels, a book about things i will tell my daughter:

make the choice to be a better you, and live in that truth, you are that truth. you are the love you need, the water you need, the nourishment you need, the things you have desired, have wanted and wished and dreamed and prayed and asked for, have prayed god’s hands apart for, all reside within. i beg you to dig deeper, dig harder, dig longer for the answer that lies right at the tip of you. a million and one fireflies circling your light-beams, who knew? who knew the arches in your feet, the disproportionate parts of your self, the dips, the dents, the density of your skin, the weight of it, the volume and mass of your skin, could be the thing. you are the thing, merely a mirror you are, a magnetic reflection, a beacon bouncing back what is needed to be brought forward.

Loki is onto something here

I come with glad tidings, of a world made free. … [Free from] Freedom. Freedom is life’s great lie. Once you accept that, in your heart, you will know peace.

Is not this simpler? Is this not your natural state? It’s the unspoken truth of humanity that you crave subjugation. The bright lure of freedom diminishes your life’s joy in a mad scramble for power. For identity. You were made to be ruled. In the end, you will always kneel.

– the avengers (2012)

carly_x_loki__kneel__one_shot__by_mind_wolf-d751lhf

ministering to my own sores

Seneca, to Lucilius:

I have withdrawn not only from men, but from affairs, especially from my own affairs; I am working for later generations, writing down some ideas that may be of assistance to them. There are certain wholesome counsels, which may be compared to prescriptions of useful drugs; these I am putting into writing; for I have found them helpful in ministering to my own sores, which, if not wholly cured, have at any rate ceased to spread.