Watching a man die

In his book Slaughter House 5, Kurt Vonnegut wrote the sentence “So it goes” 106 times. But before I get into that:

The other day I was watching David Letterman’s interview with Dave Chappelle. And they were talking about Dave’s response to the George Floyd murder and his special called 8:46. And Dave said “The commentary after [he died] was very heady and intellectual. And I was shocked that nobody ever talked about what it feels like to watch a man get murdered that way.”

The day before I watched that interview, I saw a video on Twitter of a Russian helicopter being hit by a Ukrainian missile, crashing to the ground, and exploding.

And the day before I saw that video, I finished reading Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughter House 5 for the first time. It’s a depiction of World War 2 and the bombing of Dresdon through the perspective of a soldier named Billy, who sporadically jumps around in time his entire life and is at one point abducted by aliens. The aliens aren’t the point, though. And neither is the time travel. The war is the point. And the death. So it goes.

Today, now, there is another war taking place in Europe. And thousands more deaths.

And I watched that video of the helicopter on Twitter, and I clicked in, and I used my finger to go back and forth, backwards and forwards, slower and slower – the missile hits, the helicopter goes down, the helicopter explodes, and the people die. I’d never seen people die like that before. So it goes.

Just like the scene of George Floyd’s murder. Just like the deaths in Word War 2 that Billy saw. We’d never watched someone die like that.

And there are two responses two watching these scenes: either you become desensitized to the horror, and you shrug your shoulders, and you say So it goes… Or you fight like hell to ensure it doesn’t happen again. 

And I watched that video on Twitter… I scrolled back and forth for a few minutes, slower and slower… And then I put my phone down. And I sat. And then after a moment of silence and sadness sitting at work, I pulled my computer over again and I went back to work. And then I got lunch. And did some work. And I complained about this and that. And then I saw a friend, and ate some more food, and did some more things. And I forgot about the helicopter. Until the next day, when Dave Chapelle said “I was shocked that nobody ever talked about what it feels like to watch a man get murdered that way.”

And those soldiers came back to my mind. And the couple of seconds after they were hit before the struck the ground – to cry or pray or think about their mothers or their children or their country or their war. And then the thinking stopped. So it goes.

The cost of war isn’t just the people who die. But the way it tempers our reactions to death. Our desensitization to the horror is just another byproduct of the horror itself. So it goes, so it goes, so it goes.

Alone, Together

I just finished reading a graphic novel from the library called Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness. Quite an apt book to be published in 2021, written and illustrated by Kristen Radtke. It walks through the psychology and reality of loneliness in America. I’d recommend reading the entire thing, but on page 206, a passage struck me.

“‘Loneliness,” Kristen quotes, “is receiving steadily more attention.”

I read that line, and it felt like a knock over the head. It felt like such a clear and true juxtaposition. Written originally by Philosopher Lars Svendsen in 2015, it went on, “But that does not mean there is more of it out there.”

I then realized what Svendsen had been saying was not how I had at first read it. He was saying the idea of loneliness, the concept or diagnosis itself, had been receiving more attention by the scientific and general community.

But what I had taken it to mean in that first moment, was that loneliness comes, or is born out of, receiving steadily more attention. That more attention equals more loneliness. And, though I believe loneliness has indeed been getting more attention as a concept, I like my interpretation better.

Because isn’t it true? That all the stories we’re told of those fortunate enough to became famous, or incredibly wealthy, or both, find loneliness as an unwanted tagger-on to their success? That those people who we revere, adore, praise, indeed find that loneliness comes as a byproduct of receiving more attention.

This isn’t true for everyone, of course. But I wager a guess that a chart of fame and loneliness would look something like this.

But still… We strive for fame. So many of us. Me included. We ignore the red flags, the “BEWARE” sign posts, the fables of those who have flown too close to the sun. Because the allure is too great. Because we think fame will solve our problems.

And for many, one of the problems for which fame seems a perfect cure is loneliness.

But what if we’re wrong? And we likely are. What if, instead, loneliness is receiving steadily more attention.

Then, of course, it would make sense to avoid fame and attention at all costs in pursuit of real, human relationships. To sacrifice the solitary grandeur of fame, for the warm embrace of community.


Here are some other quotes from Seek You I noted:

“Loneliness is often exacerbated by a perception that one is lonely while everyone else is connected. It’s exaggerated by a sensation of being outside something that others are in on: A family, a friendship, a couple, a joke.” p. 12

“The bond of a secret is an intoxicating trust fall, and each time I’ve learned I’ve been kept outside one – that a friend had confided in someone else but chosen not to share with me – it’s felt like an assassination of our closeness.” p. 82

“A study published in a 2008 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, conducted by the late loneliness expert and pioneer John T. Cacioppo, explored expansive social networks and found that loneliness “occurs in clusters,” extending up to three degrees of separation from one lonely hub.” p. 287

A New Perspective

Theodore Laurence from Little Women | CharacTour

The first five times I watched Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, I walked away yearning to be just like Laurie. To have his confidence and cool and stature. And all his vests. But on the sixth watch, a year and a half after the fifth, I suddenly saw the movie differently. It wasn’t Laurie’s character I admired most – though his turns of phrase, fashion, attitude, and kindness all shout to me still. Instead, I found myself thinking about a short scene that I’d never paid much mind to before. The scene when Joe shows the Professor, Friedrich Bhaer, her published work. Nervously pacing around, biting her nail, giddy as she waits for his response to her livelihood and greatest passion.

“I think they’re not good,” the Professor says meekly after a time, looking up at Jo. “I know you have talent, which is why I’m being so blunt with you.”

Jo stares at her friend, dumbstruck for a moment, before her temper flares up and gets the better of the situation. The quiet conversation explodes into a volcano of mingled feelings as Jo recoils at the Professors words. As she yells and criticizes, though, the Professor never loses his cool. Never judges her temper, never raises his voice. Never lashes out.

First, he is blunt with his candor. Then he is gracious with her temper. Finally, he is forgiving of her rage. This is the type of man I’d like to be. Critical and gracious. Honest and kind. And while I strive to hold many of Laurie’s finer traits in hand, it the heart of the Professor I want to follow after.

The Paris Review - Is Professor Bhaer Jewish, and Other Mysteries - The  Paris Review

The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry, excerpts

eliminate hurry - St Andrew's Church - 1 Church in Multiple Locations

“We, for every kind of reason, good and bad, are distracting ourselves into spiritual oblivion. It is not that we have anything against God, depth, and spirit. We would like these! It is just that we are habitually too preoccupied to have any of these show up on our radar screens. We are more busy than bad. More distracted than non spiritual, and more interested in a movie theater, the sports stadium and the shopping mall, and the fantasy life they produce in us, than we are in Church.”

“What you give your attention to is the person you become. Put another way, the mind is the portal to the soul, and what you fill your mind with will shape the trajectory of your character. In the end, your life is no more than the sum of what you gave your attention to.”

“Hurry is not just a disordered schedule, hurry is a disordered heart.”

“We’re mortal, not immortal. Finite, not infinite. Image and dust. Potential and limitations. One of the key tasks in our apprenticeship to Jesus is living into both our potential and our limitations. There’s a lot of talk right now about reaching your full potential, and I’m all for it. Step out, risk it all, have faith, chase the dream God put in your heart, become the technicolored version of who you were made to be. But again, that’s only half the story. What you hear very little of, inside or outside the Church, is accepting your limitations.”

“Limitations aren’t all bad. They’re where we find God’s will for our lives.”

“If you want to experience the life of Jesus, you have to adopt the lifestyle of Jesus.”

“Jesus was rarely in a hurry. Can you imagine a stressed out Jesus?”

“This rootedness in the moment and connectedness to God, other people, and himself, weren’t the byproducts of a laid-back personality or pre-WiFi world, they were the outgrowths of a way of life. A whole new way to be human that Jesus put on display in story after story. After all, this is the man who waited three decades to preach his first sermon, and after one day on the job as Messiah, he went off into the wilderness for 40 days to pray. Nothing could hurry this man.”

“[The gospels] are biographies. I would argue that these stories about the details of Jesus’ life have just as much to teach us about life in the Kingdom as his teachings or miracles or the more major stories of his death and resurrection.”

“Solitude is pretty straightforward. It’s when you are alone, with God, and with your own soul. For clarification, by solitude I don’t mean isolation. The two are worlds apart. Solitude is engagement, isolation is escape. Solitude is safety, isolation is danger. Solitude is how you open yourself up to God, isolation is painting a target on your back for the tempter. Solitude is when you set aside time to feed and water and nourish your soul. To let it grow into health and maturity. Isolation is what you crave when you neglect the former. And solitude, as somber as it sounds, is anything but loneliness. In his masterpiece, Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster wrote, ‘Loneliness is inner emptiness. Solitude is inner fulfillment.'”

“Sabbath is coming for you. Whether as delight, or as discipline. Maybe that’s why God eventually has to command the Sabbath. Does that strike you as odd? It’s like commanding ice cream or live music or a day at the beach. You would think we would all be chomping at the bit to practice the Sabbath. But apparently, there’s something about the human condition that makes us want to hurry our way through life as fast as we possibly can. To rebel against the limitations of time itself. Due to our immaturity, disfunction, and addiction, God has to command his people to do something deeply life giving. Rest.”

“The important thing is to set aside a day for nothing but rest and worship. Now, often people hear ‘worship’ and think that means singing Bethel songs all day while reading the Bible and practicing intercessory pray. That’s all great stuff, but I mean ‘worship’ in the wide, holistic sense of the word. Expand your list of the spiritual disciplines to include eating a burrito on the patio, or drinking a bottle of wine with your friends over a long, lazy dinner… Anything to index your heart to grateful recognition of God’s reality and goodness.”

“‘Persons who meditate become people of substance, who have thought things out and have deep convictions. Who can explain difficult concepts in simple language. And have good reasons behind everything they do.”

“Our days of pain are the building blocks of our character. Our crucible of Christ-likeness. I rarely welcome them, I’m not that far down the path, not yet, but I accept them. Because my rabbi teaches that happiness isn’t the result of circumstances, but of character and communion. So whether it’s a good day, or a not-so-good day, either way, I don’t want to miss the moment. If it’s true that goodness and mercy follow me all the days of my life, how many days do I miss that goodness in my helter-skelter race to cram it all in before sunset?”

“‘Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life.'”

Words from Sondheim

Stephen Sondheim, Titan of the American Musical, Is Dead at 91 - The New  York Times

As I assume you’ve long heard by now, Stephen Sondheim (writer of Into the Woods, Company, and Sweeney Todd among others) passed away last week. A hero and a pillar in American theater.

Hollywood Stars Remembers Musical Theater Composer Stephen Sondheim – The  Hollywood Reporter

On a plane, two days after his death, I watched Six by Sondheim on HBO. A documentary covering the life and career of Sondheim. I was enthralled by this man whose art I had already come to love, and now I’d like to share some of his words from the film.

Stephen Sondheim, Musical Theater Giant, Dies at 91 | Vanity Fair

“Nobody goes through life unscathed. And I think if you write about those things, you’re gonna touch people.”

“I’m not interested in making people unhappy. But I’m not interested in not looking at life.”

“The songs I write don’t really reflect me in any conscious way. They all are about the characters that the book writer has made, and I’m getting into those characters. I never think of them in my own terms.”

“A puzzle, like art, is making order out of chaos.”

“I still get pleasure out of writing a musical phrase I think is really good. I still get a pleasure out of writing a line that I think really encapsulates what I want to say.”

“I love inventing. The hard part is the execution, obviously.”

“It’s all about getting into the character. And you start to make lists of what she would talk about… It’s very much about serendipity.”

“The only reason to write is from love. You must not write because you think it’s gonna be a hit, because it’s expedient or anything like that. It’s so difficult to write… You write it out of passion. That’s what failure taught me.”

Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim dies, aged 91 | News | DW | 27.11.2021

Throughout the film, Sondheim stressed the importance of curiosity and teaching and learning. And since watching, I have heard many people talk about the great influence he had as a teacher, friend, mentor, and supporter (I found an Instagram account full of letters he sent, it’s delightful).

Sondheim, in many ways, lived a life I would like to emulate. He laid on his couch and wrote. He created things that moved people. And he supported others in doing the same.

In Praise of Chairs

I’m writing you from a chair. A large chair. A very large chair, all my own, taking up the corner of my room nearest the window. My feet are up, as it is a recliner. A very large, brown leather recliner that I bought from a woman named Heather on the internet. She was kind enough to help me lug it to my car, which had trouble stomaching the entire mass of my new, very large chair. But we eventually maneuvered the thing through the hatch in the back, where it sat neglected for several days and nights until I worked up the nerve to ask my new housemate to help me lug it out of the car. Then, up two flights of stairs and through my narrow door into a room that simply shouldn’t be asked to hold so many things.

But now, I’m writing you from my chair. And it is delightful. Upright and comfortable, I sit twiddling on my keyboards and computers, grateful to have left the days when I’d come home from work, collapse on my bed for lack of a chair, and promptly fall asleep far too early.

My chair is not just a chair, though, it is a place to work. A place to be. To be awake and comfortable. Because beds are not for sitting and typing, they are for sleeping. Chairs are for working and living. For being awake and alive. Chairs are where things get done.

And I’m not the only one with an affinity for armchairs.

Image

Above is Eve Sedgwick, an American scholar in the fields of gender studies, queer theory, and critical theory, working from home in a recliner of her own.

And below is Willem de Kooning, an abstract expressionist painter, in his large wooden studio chair.

My Dinner with Willem de Kooning, Painter Hero | by Bradley Wester | The  Creative Cafe

Writer Virginia Woolf supposedly had a favorite chair as well.

“Every morning she would walk down to the basement and into a storage room with a cozy old armchair that she loved. She would write away sitting in the armchair in her peace and quiet.”

Word Counter Blog

And the novelist May Sarton said:

“A house that does not have one warm, comfy chair in it is soulless.”

A sentiment with which I whole-heartedly conquer. Writer Alan Garner said:

“Everything I have ever written has been in the same chair, in the same room.”

But the setup of famed children’s author Roald Dahl may be my favorite of them all.

Ten Things You Might Not Know About Roald Dahl | AnOther
Past simple | Baamboozle

With his blanket and writing board, lamp, pinned up papers, and cluttered desk. His writing shed seems the ideal place to be.

Chairs are one of those things for everyone. They’re all around us, in every shape and color and pattern and texture.

In the wonderful documentary, Rams, product designer Dieter Rams tours a collection of whimsical chairs giving his opinions on some of the outrageous maximalist designs.

And chairs have come to mean so many things. They can be symbols of status and life circumstance. Our actions around chairs communicate much. And chairs are often used in movies and media as pieces of the story, as analyzed in this wonderful video essay from 2015. One of my all time favorites.

Of course, how can you write about chairs without mentioning those highest of all?

Though thrones are quite regal, they often seem to be rather uncomfortable, and occupied by cruel folk. Like the angular throne cut of black marble in Eragon, or the Iron Throne made of the swords of past enemies in Game of Thrones.

Game of Thrones symbology: What is the significance of the Iron Throne?
The Iron Throne, Game of Thrones

“It was not a comfortable Throne, this seat made of stone. But power was not supposed to be comfortable.”

– Elizabeth D. Marie, Chasing Cinders

Other times, thrones are full of pomp, showing plainly the disparity between the rulers sitting on the throne, and the ruled kneeling before it.

852 Throne Room Stock Photos, Pictures & Royalty-Free Images - iStock

Neither holds much sway on me. I myself prefer a soft, plain chair. To recline and work away on this and that.

“Every chair should be a throne and hold a king.”

– Ralph Waldo Emmerson

So this old leather recliner I shall make my throne.

Meeting Tom

I sat alone in my office for the day. Everyone else was out for this or that. The hours passed as I clicked and typed away, and finally I decided to get a breath of fresh air as midday dragged into afternoon.

On my way out, I noticed the door of that small studio near the entrance ajar, and I heard jazz music playing merrily into the hall. Glancing in as I passed, I saw the back of an older gentleman hunched over a work table, and canvases and papers hung all over the walls. I knew he used it as his paint studio, I’d often caught snatches of his work as I strode past, but I’d never met the man sitting at the table.

A couple people in my office had mentioned him. “He seems awesome,” my boss had said a month or two before. “I’ve never met him, but he seems like the coolest guy. He just sits and paints and listens to music and sometimes smokes weed.”

Walking back in, I didn’t smell any weed, but I did hear the music still playing, so I peered in. The man was painting something that lay flat on the table. When he set his brush down, I knocked lightly on the door.

He turned around and smiled questioningly when he saw me.

“Hi,” I said, pushing the door open slightly as he stood up. “My name’s Chris, I work down the hall. I just wanted to introduce myself – I’ve seen your paintings as I pass by and they’re just beautiful.”

“Hi, my name is Tom,” he said warmly. He took a step forward, and swung the door all the way open with a lean. “C’mon on in, please!”

I stepped into the small room, and looked around at all the work on the walls. Modern, and colorful, and expressive. Beautiful, the type of studio I’d like to have if I were a painter. Tom was wearing a brown apron covering a button up shirt, the sleeves rolled up to his elbows. He looked to be in his 60s, with a white trimmed beard, and kind, bright eyes. He stood a few inches shorter than me, and his hands held loosely behind his back as he looked at me looking at his work.

“How long have you been painting?” I asked, turning all the way around and back to face him.

“A year,” Tom said, with the faintest hint of a smile.

“A year?” I responded with a tone of fane-disbelief, picking up on the joke.

“A year,” he said. Glancing around. “Some things take a lifetime to get to.”

This confused me, and it took a beat to respond. “You mean you really have only been painting for a year?”

“Yeah, I started about a year ago. I was in my first show last month,” he said, a boyish pride shining through the words.

I stared back at him for a moment, stunned. Then again turned around to look at the work on the walls.

“I worked in real estate my whole life – and I think I dreamt of painting that whole time, but never did it. So now – I’m painting.” He said, and smiled softly again.

I told him how surprised I was. Then I told him I’d just moved, and had been studying illustration. He asked where from, and I said Chicago. “I grew up in New York City,” he said. “In Queens. I think growing up with real winters makes you a little tougher. The people here don’t know how to handle anything!”

I agreed whole-heartedly, and we chatted a little more. The conversation rolled smoothly to a stop, and I said “thank you for letting me come in, it was so nice to meet you. I’m so glad I knocked on your door.”

“I’m glad you knocked too!” said Tom. “I don’t get many visitors here. If you ever want to talk about snow, or advice on LA living, feel free to knock again.”

“Thank you, I would love to knock again,” I said with a smile. “It was so nice to meet you, Tom!” Then, putting my hand to my chest, I said “Chris,” again.

Tom, doing the same, said “Tom.” We both chuckled.

“We did it,” I said with another laugh. “Hope you have a lovely rest of your day!”

A few moments later, I sat back down at my desk in my office, and exhaled. I felt a little dazed. I don’t know why – why I’d been so surprised when he said he’d only painted for a year. Why it felt like his eyes had been peering right into me. Why I felt like I just met someone important to me. But I was and they had and I did.

And now I wonder when I’ll knock on Tom’s door again. And what we’ll talk about then.

Your Conjugation Must Be Perfect

The other day I met a new acquaintance who is in the long and arduous process of learning English as their second language. And while talking with them, I had the uncomfortable realization that I had to keep reminding myself no, this person is not less intelligent than me. This person is not a child to be talked down to. This person is a person, exactly like me, just older and surely wiser, who happened to grow up in a different place.

Because language is so closely linked with age and experience and wisdom. Vocabulary comes only with time. Language is humanhood. And to be an adult in a new land with a new language that you don’t speak perfectly is to be treated as a child trapped in an adult’s body.

The wisdom is there. The age and the experience is all there. The brilliance, the humanity. But all that is seemingly locked behind bars of pronouns and conjugation and cultural bias. Bars that erode with time, dedication, and practice, yes. But time spent being treated as a child in a foreign land. Pointing out the weather and how good the food was. Trapped by the words that won’t come.

Looked down upon for having the courage, tenacity, and smarts to leave a home behind, travel far, and learn a language. That’s more than I’ve ever done, but still I snear.

Living Takes Practice

The world is so unbelievably large. And the nuances of living life are so wildly small. The mundanity of the every day to one can be the pinnacle of adventure to another. The smallest things can hold wonder. And the basic rules can bring anxiety. Like the sand crabs bubbling under the surface as the surf rolls out, or learning how to drive in the snow.

To an Iowa farmer, every piece of a sandy beach town can seem foreign. And so too, the cold and snow of winter in rural Montana can feel like a horrible, freezing hell world to a boy from Miami.

Hank Green shows this in his video giving his best advice at living in a cold climate after 22 years in the heat:

The passage of time is implied by the basic ‘secrets’ learned in a new home. Like never letting your gas meter get too low in the winter. Or knowing what time rush hour hits on a Thursday afternoon. Because living in a new place, just like playing the piano or gutting a fish, takes practice.

Stuck in the stream

But unfortunately, those sudden strikes of inspiration feel rarer these days than they have these last few years.

Hours spent creating things seem dreadfully lacking these last four months. Four months… Goodness me how the time shifts around us.

I feel as though, moving quickly down stream, I suddenly found myself stuck up against a large rock. Unmoving, yet being rushed past. I’m not sure if the water is time or the desire to do more, but either way it’s there and moving quickly. I just can’t seem to get myself unstuck from this boulder I’m caught on.

So some days I close my eyes and let the water run and forget all about the movement. I sit contentedly in the stillness. The rush creating a lovely blanket of noise around me. But most days, my eyes are wide open. And I am dreadfully aware of the water running past. I don’t know which is better. To keep my eyes open, or keep them closed? What different lives the two options hold.

Sometime soon, I am sure, a particularly shaped branch, or a beautiful fish will come along and knock me from my perch. And until then, I’ll try to enjoy the view I’ve got.