Writing Without a Mask

Clearly, there’s something I’m not doing right.

It is my third full day at the writers’ refuge and I am researching my article’s topic, the muscles in my neck and shoulders simultaneously taut and compacted such that I find my range of motion constrained.

IMAG1268.jpgI am in a veritable paradise, with astounding natural beauty, a sublime and comfortable writing environment, surrounded by books and supplies and various corners and nooks into which I can settle and work my craft, smart and friendly people around who are both few in number and fully understanding of my need for solitude, but also interesting and enlightening when I do get into conversation with them, and two weeks to pursue this project in any way I please. Oh, and I am right now looking at a different tectonic plate than the one on which I stand. Seriously, it’s right there. Also, deer aren’t afraid of us, and they hang out and eat apples. Oh oh oh and there’s a hawk that flies around my part of the house, sometimes so close I can look into its eye.

And I’m lost. Whereas I had begun this retreat with a lot of enthusiasm for this project and eagerness to get it going, I’m now overwhelmed by the breadth of the topic, unsure of the degree of depth that is most appropriate, ignorant of the best practices for this kind of work, anxious about the unwise use of my time, and generally feeling beneath the task. I even think I broke the electric kettle in the kitchen.

I am being treated to more privilege than billions of people will ever experience, and here I am, angsty. I hope I at least get credit for recognizing the absurdity of my own hangups.

I know there is no right way to go about this. That’s really the point of this retreat, to give writers the space and time to take things at a pace and within a structure that suits the writers themselves. I’m so accustomed to stop-and-start times, specific formats and styles for particular written products, and an established approval process, that this freedom, this liberation, is bewildering.

But now that I think about it, I suspect that what’s really going on is very similar to the distinction I make between performing as an actor on stage in a play and giving a presentation on a real-world topic for my job. There is too much of me riding on it.

Let’s begin with the theatre/work-presentation distinction. Upon learning of my autism/Asperger’s diagnosis, many people who know me from my theatre life are in disbelief. How can I feel anti-social, afraid of human interaction, uncomfortable in crowds, and oversensitive to stimulation and also thrive on stage? It’s a perfectly reasonable question (though I bristle at the skepticism of my diagnosis that it implies), and one that took some time to for me to understand myself.

When I’m performing a role in a play, there is no question as to what I will talk about. My words are predetermined, and not just for what I will say, but when I will say it. The play will also have been blocked, meaning that where I am in space will also have been set and rehearsed well in advance. Through the rehearsal process, it will be determined how I will say all these words, how I will conduct myself physically, and even how I will imagine my character to have reached those various decisions. There is always room for change, iteration, adjustment, and depending on the production, sometimes even improvisation, but the structure is always there, and it is firm. Most importantly, I am not me. I am someone else. Not literally, of course, but there are sufficient layers between me and the audience (and even between me and my fellow actors on stage) that the excruciating discomforts associated with my autism are, if not wholly eliminated, sufficiently dampened. The role is a mask.

But take me out of the world of the performing arts, and into the world of speaking on behalf of an organization or a cause, and those layers are stripped away. If I am, for example, expected to give a talk about communications work, I know I will be utterly exposed. Not only can I not play a character (try as I might), but the “real me” must also lay bare whatever degree of expertise I have, or claim to have. “I’m Paul, and this is what I know.” My words, my physical comportment, my inflection, my gestures, and even the very contents of my brain are open to public scrutiny. There is no mask. That is unbearable.

So let’s apply this basic idea to writing, and, in a way, the dynamics flip, with two different areas of my life producing opposite results. As I mentioned, my writing for work is routinized with established formats and processes. As with a public presentation, I am the one producing the words, but I am rarely writing them in my own voice. In a very real sense, when I write press releases, emails to supporters, and newsletters, I am writing “in the character” of the institution I work for. I’m playing the role of my organization. My job title and the institution’s logo, they are my masks. Those layers are sufficient, once I am settled into the given employers’ needs, processes, and, importantly, voice.

Here at the refuge, I am attempting to write a long form magazine article on a topic of great interest to me. But I am not writing or “reporting” it in the voice of my institution, nor in the voice of the publication in which it will appear, as one might do with a straight-news newspaper article. With this project, the speaker is me. The facts I present, the sources I’ve chosen to mine, the people whose perspectives I’ve sought, the conversations and quotations I’ve initiated, the things I’ve chosen to omit or gloss over, and the conclusions reached, they’re all me, in my own voice. Whatever is wrong or unsatisfying or weak about the final product is a reflection of me, with no mask to hide behind. That, I tell you, is dizzying.

Now, one might then wonder, hey Paul, you seem to have no trouble opening every one of your precious little wounds and examining them in detail on this little blog of yours. Too true! And I’m not certain why this kind of writing that I’m doing right now doesn’t make me feel just as vulnerable. But I suspect it’s because I’m rather sure of the topic at hand, that being myself. Even if I’m completely deluded about what is going on within my own tempestuous morass of a psyche, there’s no one else in existence who can claim a greater level of expertise or comparably intimate knowledge. There is relative safety in that. Whatever the reason, exposing my inner thoughts and struggles is far less perilous than claiming the authority to expound upon an external subject.

So perhaps a healthy approach, and even a more fruitful approach, is to lean into my own inclinations and preferences, and tackle the subject of this project through my own lens. In other words, rather than present facts and an argument impersonally, maybe I can chronicle my own experience of the subject as I absorb it, and recount for the reader my intellectual journey to better understand it. The cliché is that one ought to “write what you know,” but I really don’t know much. So maybe the best thing to do is to write what I am coming to know – of the project’s subject and of what it comes to mean to me personally.

Okay, maybe I can do that. Take it easy now, oh knotty neck muscles of mine. Let’s get a few deep breaths in. Let’s take in the vast scene of nature around us and indulge in its otherworldly peacefulness. Let’s let the brain soak up what it’s learning and let the new information bounce off the thoughts and values that are already there.

And then, let’s write.

(And pay for the kettle I broke.)

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A Sore Thumb, a New Face

I’m on a plane to California, about to spend two weeks at a refuge for writers, a retreat for which I was nominated by a colleague who had himself been a resident as part of a fellowship for writers in the freethought community.

Being selected for this wasn’t just a surprise. Certainly, I went through all the thoughts of “what an honor” and “what a wonderful opportunity,” and they are very sincerely felt. But my dominant attitude is, “Oh, dear, they’ve made a mistake.”

Wait, this isn’t the usual imposter-syndrome lament. Let me go at this sort of orthogonally. As I was preparing for this excursion, I figured I ought to get at least a couple of new shirts or pairs of pants, since so many of the nicer items in my already spare wardrobe are looking worse for wear. As poked around the men’s section, haplessly, I found myself fixed to an idea of what a “real writer” is supposed to look and dress like. It wasn’t a fully conscious thought, just something I became gradually aware that I was aiming for as I shopped. Despite the anxiety this caused me, whatever that writerly image is or was, I’m fairly certain I did not achieve it. I’ll come back to this is a bit.

This retreat will take place in what appears to be a big, gorgeous house in a ridiculously picturesque area of Southern California, overlooking a fault line I think, and yes, the weather is supposed to be heavenly while I’m there. Apart from a couple of formal meet-and-greet meals held by the proprietors, writers are otherwise left to themselves to work on whatever it is they’re working on. When not writing or sleeping, we’re encouraged to take advantage of the local restaurants, outdoor activities, and I think there’s even a tennis court.

I’ll be in residence with two other writers, selected, I assume, through different means, since my spot is specific to those writing about freethought and secularism. These two writers, my soon-to-be housemates, are very accomplished, particularly for their ages, as I suspect they are both a good decade younger than me, though that’s just a guess. One is an award-winning novelist, the other a journalist with bylines at prestigious outlets and publications. Me? I’ve written a whole lot of press releases and email newsletters. I have a personal blog that more or less no one reads. I have a blog for work where I round up news stories and make dumb jokes. That’s…kind of it. And I’m gonna be 40 soon! I mean, I also now host a podcast that is listened to by a few thousand people, but I was selected for this retreat well before that got started. So what am I doing here, on this plane, heading for this gorgeous place and joining these amazing people?

I’m not seeking validation. I mean, I usually am, but not here, not for this. I actually do think I’m a pretty good writer, so my discomfort and foreboding aren’t due doubts about my skills. I suck at many, many things — but I’m fairly sure I can write. 

But I also know I don’t have the resume, the credentials. For the vast majority of my public writing, there are several layers separating me from the material. I am writing in the voice of an institution, not my own. I am rarely writing in the first person, or from my own personal perspective at all, but from the point of view of an organization or one of its leaders. Even were I to grant that my work was uncommonly exemplary, it wouldn’t even begin to approach the prestige or cultural significance of what my fellow residents have achieved with their work. My predecessor for this fellowship who nominated me to succeed him is also incredibly accomplished. Holding a similar position to mine in his own organization, he has been a well known and highly respected leader, not just in secularism, but in political advocacy in general. He’s written books, academic articles, and has had a leading role in the advancement of the cause for which he fights. He’s not only qualified to be at a writers’ retreat like this, he’s overqualified and overdue for even greater honors.

Oh but hey, I’m kinda funny on Twitter!

Okay, well, they knew all of this when I was nominated and selected. And they didn’t hedge their invitation with anything like, “Well, you don’t quite have the pedigree we normally look for in our residents, but your friend seemed to think you might be worth a shot.” They were as warm and welcoming and excited about my arrival as they would be for anyone else. (Or at least they made it seem so, which is almost the same thing. As a parent, I know all too well the emotional and psychological cost of feigning enthusiasm.)

Remember the clothes shopping? Half-consciously, I was focused on looking the part of what I think they think a real writer is supposed to be. I didn’t want them to think of me as a weird outlier, an exception to their usual standards. Just as I have always done as an unknowing-autistic for all of my life, I was aiming to pass.

In attending this retreat, I am entering a world that is both aspirational and alien to me. I have always wanted to be taken seriously as a writer, a thinker, a creator. I’ve been on the cold street, looking in through the window at that society of the humanities, the creative class, the intellectuals, feeling simultaneously compelled to become one of them and certain that I could never, ever truly belong. So I never stood close enough to that window to fog up the glass. Someone might have noticed me.

In my mind, this is a world of people with deep, varied, and rich life experiences, who have achieved greatness in their fields, who have been intellectually and creatively ahead of the curve since toddlerhood. And now, they write thinkpieces and longform articles and nonfiction books and novels and poetry, and are rewarded with respect, admiration, income (I assume), a place in a network of brilliant and thoughtful people seeking to learn from and collaborate with each other, invitations to speaking engagements, conference panels, NPR interviews, generous fellowships, and, of course, retreats.

The stereotype in my head gets richer still! They love nature and trekking about in it. They also love the city and its unrelenting stimuli. They love fancy and eclectic restaurants. They also love — really love — dinner parties, where they drink and laugh and eat exotic food and swap stories of their adventures and the many, many books they’ve read.

I’m not one of these people (whom I’ve mostly made up). I don’t like dinner parties or almost any kind of party. I don’t like exotic or unfamiliar food. Hell, I don’t even really like eating at all. I wear silly T-shirts and ratty jeans, I read very slowly, and I am averse to being outdoors, what with the sun and bodies of water and insects and all that. My education has been modest and not culturally rich, and both my acting and nonprofit communications careers have been fairly static, owing in large part to my own reticence to do what is necessary to advance socially and professionally. I’m an awkward little man with Asperger’s and a lifetime of experience considering myself broken, failed from birth, only achieving what I have by dint of happenstance and people making exceptions for me. I am the sore thumb. Humiliation is my default expectation.

But here I am on this damn plane. Here I go, nonetheless, onto alien soil. My best hope would be to go there, to *be* there, as me, unapologetically, and perfectly content with myself as I am, without crossing the line into being ungenerous or unaccomodating. If I am truly not “like them,” then so be it. They asked me to come, and this is who they get. It’s not like I’m going to do any damage or hurt anyone’s feelings. I just might not be the usual thing, or what they expect.

I want it to be okay to jut out a bit, not like a sore thumb, but simply to stand out as a new face. The face of someone who thinks and acts a little differently and has something meaningful to offer. Someone who, if he’s not liked or appreciated, is okay with that too.

I suppose I’ll find out if this is possible, at least to some meaningful degree. I’ll enter that world in a few hours. I guess we’ll see what things look like at the other side of a fortnight.


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Surround Yourself with Books, Save Humanity


Although I certainly have little patience for the fetishization of books as decorative status symbols, I have a deep affection for the physical, dead-tree book as a medium. Unlike an electronic device, to see and hold a single volume is for me to feel the thoughts and ideas it contains seething within its closed pages, like there is a flow of energy that is eager for a conduit through which it can propagate. I love that. And I feel it both before and after having read a meaningful book.

As a consumer of books, however, I also find ebooks almost miraculous in their convenience and utility. In a single device I can have literally thousands of books at the ready, which expands to millions if my device is connected to the Internet. I can infinitely annotate these books, entirely nondestructively. The device even provides its own damn reading light. Books feel great, I adore them, but to dismiss the ebook and particularly ebook readers like the Kindle is absurd.

But in one crucial way, ebooks’ greatest strength also is their greatest weakness. And I mean weakness, not flaw, as I’ll explain.

I’m thinking about this because of Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny, a book that is all at once easy, enriching, and gut-wrenching to read. Among Snyder’s 20 lessons for avoiding life under some kind of Trumpian Reich are his recommendations that we a) support print journalism and b) read more books. Now, it’s fairly obvious why good journalism needs to be bolstered in times such as these, for it may very well be the last layer of defense we have from a media entirely made up of propaganda. He writes:

The better print journalists allow us to consider the meaning, for ourselves and our country, of what might otherwise seem to be isolated bits of information. But while anyone can repost an article, researching and writing is hard work that requires time and money.

That’s very clear. But by print journalism, does he merely mean deeply researched, sourced, and fact-checked reporting regardless of medium, or does he also mean that this quality journalism must be, by necessity, literally printed on paper? I’ll return to that in a bit.

Back to books. Right now, my 7-year-old son is enamored with a series of kids’ nature books in which one animal is pitted against another in a “who would win” scenario (like crab vs. lobster or wolverine vs. Tasmanian devil, for example). He’s collected eight or so of these slim little books, and he loves them so much, he’s taken to carrying them – all of them – around with him wherever he can.

“Daddy, I don’t know what it is,” he says, “but these books have just made me, well, love books!”

I’m delighted that he’s so attached to these books, that he has this affection for them. I know that wouldn’t be possible if he only had access to their contents on a tablet. The value of the content is no different, but he can show his enthusiasm in a real, physical way that a digital version wouldn’t allow. The objects, being self-contained with the words and pictures he loves, take on more meaning. And by assigning so much meaning to the objects, he imbues the content itself more meaning too.

What does a kids’ book with a tarantula fighting a scorpion have to do with resistance to tyranny? Let’s see what Snyder has to say about the contrast between books and digital/social media:

The effort [of propagandists] to define the shape and significance of events requires words and concepts that elude us when we are entranced by visual stimuli. Watching televised news is sometimes little more than looking at someone who is also looking at a picture. We take this collective trance to be normal. We have slowly fallen into it.

Snyder cites examples from dystopian literature in which the fascist state bans books and, as in 1984, the consumption of pre-approved electronic media is monitored in real time, and in which the public is constantly fed the state’s distortion and reduction of language, all “to starve the public of the concepts needed to think about the present, remember the past, and consider the future.“

What we need to do, what we owe it to ourselves to do, is to actively seek information and perspectives from well outside official channels, to fortify our consciousness from being co-opted and anesthetized, and to expand our understanding of the world beyond the daily feed. Snyder says:

When we repeat the same words and phrases that appear in the daily media, we accept the absence of a larger framework. To have such a framework requires more concepts, and having more concepts requires reading. So get the screens out of your room and surround yourself with books.

But what if the screen is displaying the same concepts as those books? “Staring at a screen” when one is reading an ebook is a very different practice than staring at it for Facebook-feed-induced dopamine squirts. Even more so if the screen with the ebook is on a dedicated e-reader like a Kindle, which intentionally withholds many of the distractions immediately available on a phone or tablet. Heck, I read Snyder’s book on my Kindle.

You won’t see me arguing that ebooks are inferior to physical books when we’re talking about the usual day-to-day reading of books, hell no. But in the context of this discussion, think about how we get ebooks onto our devices. They exist digitally, of course, and in the vast majority of cases they come from a given corporation’s servers with the ebook files themselves armed with some kind of digital rights management in order to prevent anyone from accessing those files on a competitor’s device. (Not all ebook sales are done this way, but they are very much the exception.) When we buy an ebook, in most cases, we’re not really “buying” it, we’re licensing it to display on a selection of devices approved by the vendor. And so it is with most music and video purchases.

Those ebooks are then transmitted over wires and/or wireless frequencies that are owned by another corporation, access to which we are once again leasing. So even if you are getting DRM-free, public domain ebooks in an open format like ePub that is readable on a wide variety of devices, you probably can’t acquire it unless you use a means of digital transfer that someone else controls.

You see what I’m getting at. Ebooks come with several points of failure, points at which one’s access to them can be cut off for any number of reasons. Remember a few years back when, because of a copyright dispute over the ebook version of 1984 (of all things), Amazon zapped purchased copies of the book from many of its customers’ Kindles. It didn’t just halt new sales, or even just cut off access to the files it had stored on its cloud servers. It went into its customers’ physical devices and deleted the ebooks – again, ebooks they had paid for. Customers had no say in the matter.

This was more or less a benign screwup on Amazon’s part. Presumably it had no authoritarian motives, but it makes plain how astoundingly easy it is for a company to determine the fate of the digital media we pretend we own.

This is about permanence. A physical book, once produced, cannot be remotely zapped out of existence. While some fascist regime could indeed close all the libraries, shut down all the book stores, and even go house to house rounding up books and setting them ablaze, physical books remain corporeal objects that can be held, passed along, hidden, smuggled, and even copied with pen and paper by candlelight. If the bad guys can’t get their actual hands on it, they can’t destroy it. And it can still be read.

But for ebooks, all it would take would be a little bit of acquiescence from the vendor (or the network service provider, or the device manufacturer) and your choice to read what you want could be revoked in an instant. Obviously, the same goes for video, music and other audio, and of course, journalism. The ones and zeroes that our screens and speakers convert to media can be erased, altered, or replaced and we wouldn’t even know it was happening until it was too late.

Physical books, along with print journalism (literal print), come with real limitations and inconveniences that electronic media obviate. But those same limitations also make them more immutable. It fortifies them and the ideas contained within them. Though constrained by their physical properties, they also offer the surest path to an expanded, enriched, and unrestricted consciousness. One that, say, an authoritarian state can’t touch.

Here’s an example of what I mean, once again from Snyder, with my emphasis added:

A brilliant mind like Victor Klemperer, much admired today, is remembered only because he stubbornly kept a hidden diary under Nazi rule. For him it was sustenance: “My diary was my balancing pole, without which I would have fallen down a thousand times.” Václav Havel, the most important thinker among the communist dissidents of the 1970s, dedicated his most important essay, “The Power of the Powerless,” to a philosopher who died shortly after interrogation by the Czechoslovak communist secret police. In communist Czechoslovakia, this pamphlet had to be circulated illegally, in a few copies, as what east Europeans at the time, following the Russian dissidents, called “samizdat.”

If those had been the equivalent of online articles, they’d have been deleted before they ever reached anyone else’s screens.

There’s one additional step to this, one more layer of intellectual “fortification.” It’s about the act of reading as something more than a diversion, more than pleasure. Because if we only read the digital content that’s been algorithmically determined to hold our attention, or even if it’s one of our treasured print books that we read for sheer amusement, we’re still missing something.

Today I happened to see Maria Popova of Brain Pickings share a snippet from a letter written by Franz Kafka to a friend, in which he explains what he thinks reading books is for (emphasis mine):

I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. That is my belief.

We don’t need books to achieve mere happiness. To expand our intellectual and moral horizons; to give our minds the armor they need to withstand the assaults of misinformation and stupification; to be made wiser, more empathetic, and more creative than we are, we need to read those books that affect us, “like a disaster” or otherwise.

To fully ensure that we have those books, that they can be seen and held and smelled and shared and recited and experienced outside the authority of a state or corporation, they need to be present, corporeal objects. They need to exist in the real world.

So, please, do use that Kindle for all it’s worth; use it to read all the books that wake you up, blow your mind, and change your life.

But also, if you can, surround yourself with books. In a very real way, they might just save us all.

I Am Dreamcast (A Play)

This is an extremely short “play” I wrote in 1999. I recently rediscovered it in a folder of old projects, and it made me laugh. On the inside, because I don’t laugh out loud all that often.

Here it is, with a few tiny things cleaned up after a fresh reading, as I originally wrote it 18 years ago. Oh, if you don’t know, this is what a Dreamcast is/was. Enjoy.

I Am Dreamcast

A play by Paul Fidalgo

Blockbuster Video store, 1999.

PAUL, an employee, early 20s, and JUAN, the manager, late 20s, are behind the counter, working on scanning in VHS videotapes which are stacked up in various piles, or prepping new releases or some nonsense like that, putting tapes into cases and whatnot. We see them from behind the counter, which is upstage of them.

JUAN stops suddenly, straightens up, and says…

JUAN: I am Dreamcast.

PAUL: You are?

JUAN: I am Dreamcast.

PAUL: Really.

JUAN: You…

PAUL: Yes?

JUAN: You can play Crazy Taxi on me!

PAUL: My god.

JUAN: I am-

PAUL: Dreamcast.

JUAN: Yes, Dreamcast.

AMY, another employee, 20s, enters.

AMY: What’s with Juan?

PAUL: He thinks he’s a Sega Dreamcast.

AMY: What?

JUAN: I am Dreamcast.

PAUL: See?

AMY: Why?

PAUL: I don’t know. Maybe too much exposure to all these games.

JUAN: I have a 128-bit graphics processor.

PAUL: Yeah, you see what’s funny about that is that I don’t think he would actually know that.

AMY: Wow.

JUAN: I am normally retailed at $199.99.

PAUL: This is kind of cool.

JUAN: I am Dreamcast.

AMY: He’s just fooling.

PAUL: I don’t think so.

JUAN: Grrrrr!

PAUL: What?

JUAN: Grrrrr!

AMY: He’s growling.

PAUL: Why would the Dreamcast growl? I never thought of it as, you know, scary.

AMY: Well…

JUAN: Dreamcast!

AMY: Ssh! This is why I think he’s kidding.

PAUL: No, I think Juan believes the Dreamcast is a monster, that he is a monster.

JUAN: I am Dreamcast!

Enter CUSTOMER, approaches counter

CUSTOMER: Excuse me.

JUAN: I am Dreamcast.

CUSTOMER: What?

PAUL: Nothing.

AMY: Can I help you with something?

CUSTOMER: My kid wants this video game, um, Tony Hawk?

AMY: For which system?

JUAN: Dreamcast!

CUSTOMER: Um, no, the Nintendo one. N64.

PAUL: Yeah, Juan, Tony Hawk isn’t on the Dreamcast yet.

AMY: (To CUSTOMER) Let me see if we have it. (Types on computer.)

JUAN: Um.

PAUL: Yeah?

JUAN: Um.

AMY: Yes?

JUAN: Grrrr!

CUSTOMER: A monster! Run!

End

Immeasurable

I have lately discovered in myself a kind of sympathy with a certain flavor of religious belief and practice, which, when approached from a very particular angle, I find relatable, even laudable. To be clear, I don’t mean religion in the sense of unquestioning belief in absurd cosmological claims or even magical thinking about some silly “universal spirit” or what have you. This has more to do with things like yearning, reverence, discipline, peace, and one other thing.

That other thing, interestingly, is part and parcel with the very ideals I work to promote in my professional life advancing reason and secularism: Doubt.

It’s kind of a funny thing. I live a life positively drenched in doubt. My self-doubt is, of course, the stuff of legend, and it spills over into grave doubts about all manner of external things, from the intentions of others to the sustainability of human civilization. I’m just not so sure about any of it. No, that’s too flip. I deeply distrust all of it. Everything. It’s, as they say, crippling.

At the same time, I have a mind that strives for certainty. This is to be expected from someone with Asperger’s (which I only became aware of a few months ago), and true to the stereotype I grasp for recognizable patterns and hard-and-fast explanations for everything. Perhaps this was a primary factor as to why I found the secular-skeptic movement so appealing: Well at least I know those people are wrong!

This need for the concrete is, I think, a major reason as to why I soured on the arts about a decade ago. I didn’t feel like its benefits to humanity were sufficiently tangible. At the time I was making these considerations, things were very dark in American politics (which looks rosy compared to today), and I felt that all hands were needed on deck to fight back and make the world a better place. I did still believe that performing Shakespeare had the power to do some good, but that the effect I could have was too small, too localized. I needed to expand my do-gooder blast radius.

Politics, I thought, would bring concrete solutions, eventually. Successes there would do more than lift the spirits of a few upper-class theatre-goers; they would improve society as a whole, helping people who needed it, as opposed to just those who could afford a ticket to a play.

But I think I was missing something, something I couldn’t be expected to understand at that time in my life, at that age. I’m not sure I understand it now, but I do think I undervalued what I was doing at the time. But I couldn’t quantify it, I couldn’t see it. I doubted it.

I couldn’t live with that doubt. The irony of course is that I now utterly doubt the ability of politics and advocacy to make lasting positive change, given, you know, how things have shaken out.

But aside from the abysmal state of things in that particular arena, it remains that political advocacy is largely mechanical. Yes, of course, there is as much poetry as prose involved in the whole mess of politics and government, but all of that poetry is meant, in the end, to get some dials adjusted on the machinery of government; to get particular gears of society to move or speed up, and get others to slow or stop. Meaning can be measured.

I couldn’t measure what made a performance of Othello or As You Like It meaningful, just as I can’t measure the meaning of the songs I write and record, or even the meaning of these words. I have metrics for attention paid, surely, in clicks, downloads, listens, views, likes, shares, tweets, and all that. But there is no measuring the impact, no quantifying to what degree the world has gotten better as a result, if at all. Indeed, I have so little understanding of this that I often doubt the things I do have any meaning at all.

In the quantifiable world, the readings on the gauge are very grim. The wrong gears are moving, the right gears are being removed from the inner workings, and the dials are pointed in all the wrong directions. It is dark. And I realize this darkness is due to an emptiness, a void. It’s not a lack of good ideas or good campaign strategies. It’s a void in the human heart, a vacuum instead of open air. It is dark.

The thing about darkness, though, is that little lights become really freaking important. I’m directing a production of Into the Woods with the local university, and it might be great, or we might just eke out a passable showing by the skin of our teeth. But that’s not really the point. The point is that this group of young people are throwing their hearts and minds and energies into telling this beautiful story with this beautiful music that is full of joy and pain and fear and yearning. Whatever happens, I am certain that this show will be a little light in the dark. It already is. Before it’s even been performed, it’s already made the world a better place, made all those who have been a part of it, myself included, better people.

I can’t measure that. But only in this time of darkness do I realize how badly we need it anyway. How bad we’ve always needed it, and always will.

Here’s a thing I read recently by Dougald Hine that helped focus my thinking about this:

Art can teach us to live with uncertainty, to let go of our dreams of control. And art can hold open a space of ambiguity, refusing the binary choices with which we are often presented – not least, the choice between forced optimism and simple despair.

These are strange answers. For anyone in search of solutions, they will sound unsatisfying. But I don’t think it’s possible to endure the knowledge of the crises we face, unless you are able to draw on this other kind of knowledge and practice, whether you find it in art or religion or any other domain in which people have taken the liminal seriously, generation after generation. Because the role of ritual is not just to get you into the liminal, but to give you a chance of finding your way back.

If religion, for you, is something that is not about theological certainties or following the revealed will of the creator of the universe, but like art is about yearning, reverence, discipline, peace, and doubt, then I think I am beginning to understand that. I can’t take at all seriously any claims about some mystical being or force that has willed us into existence and interconnectedness. But I am interested in a way of thinking that yearns for this connection, that reveres the vastness of our knowledge and ignorance, that partakes in a discipline to explore and strive for this connection, that seeks and achieves moments of bliss, harmony, and peace in this practice, and that doubts every bit of it, so as to power the continuation of the cycle. Maybe that’s what faith is supposed to be about, or what it ought to be about anyway, having faith that there’s something to strive for. Against all evidence. 

This is what the arts, the humanities, are for. Not only their products, but the practice, the making, the discipline. That’s what’s holy about one more goddamned performance of a show I’ve been doing for a year. The ritual. This is what I think I missed all those years ago, or was not yet capable of understanding. It’s what I think I misunderstood about certain key aspects of religion, and what I suspect the vast majority of religious people misunderstand, or neglect, as well.

My Aspie brain struggles painfully with this. “Why bother” is the mantra of my subconscious mind whenever I even consider undertaking some effort in writing, music, or what have you, especially given that I am not making my living this way anymore. “To what end?” asks my brain. “What good will it do, for you or anyone else?”

Daunting, invigorating, and frustrating, the only response is that it is, in every sense of the word, immeasurable.


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I Watched the Mighty Skyline Fall

Cleaning up the kitchen after dinner this evening, my wife Jessica had put on some Billy Joel to listen to, and asked what album of his I preferred to hear. Songs in the Attic, I replied, his 1981 live album intended as a way to introduce his older songs to an audience who has just become aware of him from 1977’s The Stranger. The performances of songs like “Streetlife Serenader,” “Los Angelenos,” and “Summer, Highland Falls” are far, far superior to their studio album versions. Perhaps my favorite song on the record, however, is “Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway).”

And then it hit me. Holy shit, I thought to myself. It’s 2016. Next year is 2017. That’s crazy!

Let me just quote Wikipedia for an explanation of what this amazing song is all about:

Joel has described it as a “science fiction song” about an apocalypse occurring in New York as a result of discussions that the city was failing in the 1970s. … He explain[ed] that the song depicts the apocalypse occurring in New York, “the skyline tumbling down, this horrendous conflagration happening in New York City.” Joel stated that the song is titled “Miami 2017” because many New Yorkers retire to Miami and the narrator is telling his grandchildren in the year 2017 about what he saw in the destruction of New York.

So in Joel’s sort of alternate-parallel-universe, New York City becomes an unfathomable disaster (“it always burned up there before”), its problems in the 70s running out of control, and some unmentioned authority sees to it that the city is simply wiped off the map. (“They said that Queens could stay,” of course, and someone “picked the Yankees up for free.”)

I assume that this urban apocalypse happens more or less contemporaneously with the time the song was written, the late 1970s, because in the song, 2017 is supposed to be the far future, when elderly retirees in Miami are thinking back on the event, “Before we all lived here in Florida / Before the Mafia took over Mexico.” But of course 2017 is no longer the far future. It’s five and a half months away.

It’s worth pausing to consider, as noted by Joel himself, that on September 11, 2001, we all, in fact, “watched the mighty skyline fall.” But it wasn’t a failed city that needed to be “dealt with,” as in the song, but a revived and ascendant city that was attacked by those who preferred that we all exist in a kind of Bronze Age hellscape.

But in both cases – the obliteration of the city in the song, as well as after the towers fell in real life – New Yorkers are and were defiant and resilient:

We held a concert out in Brooklyn,
To watch the Island Bridges blow.
They turned our power down,
And drove us underground,
But we went right with the show!

Luckily, in the real world, New York is still here as 2017 approaches. But there’s also the eerie line in the song about how “the Mafia took over Mexico.” That, of course, hasn’t happened as far as I know. But the intractability and unthinkable horrors wrought by drug cartels in Mexico today make the line disturbingly prophetic.

I wonder if Joel could have conceived in his dystopian 2017 that someone like Donald Trump might approach the presidency. After a year like 2016, it’s not hard to imagine a President Trump, fictional or nonfictional, deciding that the best way to deal with any hotbed of trouble and unrest, be it within or without our borders, is to lay waste to it.

In which case, we’d be looking back on it from, say, 2057. Not in Miami, of course, because by that time it’d probably be either under water or too hot to bear. But perhaps in Maine, forty years from now, a handful of us old folks will look back in horror and wonder, still alive, “To tell the world about / The way the lights went out.”

But of course, it’s just a song.