Death & all the little deaths preceding it

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Life, as we know, can be tedious and brief. What else is life? We think it owes us happiness and that our job is to strive for that. But is happiness the same thing as finding meaning? And how does one find – or define – meaning?

This tedium and brevity is illustrated, but also upended, in the S-Town podcast, which has been quite popular and quite… human. The man who is the focal point of the podcast is complicated. Early on he talks about sundials and how all sundials have mottoes engraved on them. He mentioned “Tedious and brief” as one of them:  “All sundial mottoes are sad like that.” And yes, sundial motto or clever tattoo, “tedious and brief” is what we experience, with temporary and memorable bright spots deposited throughout the otherwise tedious (and brief) journey.

sundial

Build your own sundial.

…When I returned from being away for a few days, I looked out into the field and saw that hordes of birds had gathered in a huge swarm in a field near the road, not far from home. Upon closer inspection, one could see the twisted carcass of a picked-apart deer. It’s more common to see a fox in this roadside state of non-being. But here, the picked over remains of a deer, a feast for avian life, made me consider life – in general. And how inconsequential its endings. To end up dead in a field for ravenous birds to pick at.

A realization that someone from high school had died some time ago, someone I did not know well but remember in the mind’s eye – these bright memories that form the spine of all the silly stories of youth and even inform the way I came to identify myself (the eternal, calm counselor to heartsick friends). I’ve reached that age when people either start to die or unspool the threads of their tidy lives into tangled knots of midlife crises. And then it’s the stark contrast between the graveyard (metaphorical or not) and the musical chairs game of midlife.

“The interim is mine”

Never mind all the things we do in the interim before reaching death, fooling ourselves. (The word “interim” now always reminds me of a scene from Neil LaBute’s Your Friends and Neighbors. Jason Patric’s character boasts about something he had done, “The bitch deserved it. She never understood me.” “Don’t you think you’re going to have to pay for all this in the end?” “If there ends up being a God, probably so. But until then, we’re on my time. The interim is mine.”)

In this interim that belongs to you, or to me, or to us, we can live for the little deaths, whether it’s the small, crushing disappointments that erupt under all the surfaces of our smooth-going, gliding-along lives, or the orgasms we covet (la petite mort, in the purely French sense), or all the bad habits we accumulate but brush off until they kill or damage us, which we instinctively know but still act on, and literature chronicles for us:

“Nothing records the effects of a sad life so graphically as the human body.” -from Palace of Desire, Naguib Mahfouz

“My health was excellent. My daily consumption of cigarettes had reached the four-package mark.” -from Bend Sinister, Nabokov

“An alcoholic, his blood no longer able to clot, who bled to death into his joints and under his skin. Every day, the bruises would spread. Before he became delirious, he looked up at me and said, ‘It’s not fair—I’ve been diluting my drinks with water.’” -from When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalinithi

“In such a state, the philosopher and writer Friedrich Nietzsche remarked, ‘One cannot get rid of anything, one cannot get over anything, one cannot repel anything—everything hurts. Men and things obtrude too closely; experiences strike one too deeply; memory becomes a festering wound.’” -from In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, Gabor Maté

“A great deal of pathological drug use is driven by unmet social needs, by being alienated and having difficulty connecting with others.” -from High Price, Carl Hart

Real death

I’ve thought about mortality a great deal (it’s human to do so, after all) from so many angles. I am not sure why it comes to mind so often right now – maybe just as a counterbalance to pettiness. Maybe because there is frailty everywhere. Maybe because it seems meaningless to end up dead in a field (even as a deer), which makes me, as a person, think that even though I won’t leave an indelible mark on the world when I die, I like the idea of at least affecting or influencing those closest to me, which is not really possible if there is no one close to you during this fleeting, brief “interim” that belongs to me, to you, to us, to those who exist in this particular window.

Lately I’ve also read books specifically on the topic (Kalinithi’s aforementioned book as well as Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal).

If the unexamined life was not worth living, was the unlived life worth examining?“

“I began to realize that coming in such close contact with my own mortality had changed both nothing and everything. Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely. The problem wasn’t really a scientific one. The fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live.” -from When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalinithi

Remembering the man, losing the details

I have written before about the passing of detail with the passing of people – how we don’t know what we will want to know from the people who have died before us. We don’t even preserve their histories and details when they live to a ripe, old age – so how can we hope to gather all the detail from people who die at 30, for example? My mom lost her brother last year, and she has come to realize that not only is she the last one left from her immediate family, her brother was the keeper of all the details. She had counted on being able to ask him about things from their childhood, or about things they had experienced ten years ago. When he died, she lost not just him but that last link to the shared history, to the details. And death looms over the life – and its details – that passed.

“It is curious how sometimes the memory of death lives on for so much longer than the memory of the life that it purloined.” -from The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy

“What we remember lacks the hard edge of fact. To help us along we create little fictions, highly subtle and individual scenarios which clarify and shape our experience. The remembered event becomes a fiction, a structure made to accommodate certain feelings. This is obvious to me. If it weren’t for these structures, art would be too personal for the artist to create, much less for the audience to grasp. Even film, the most literal of all the arts, is edited.” -from The Painted Bird, Jerzy Kosiński

Tedious and brief – and you are not to blame

“Death, of course, is not a failure. Death is normal. Death may be the enemy, but it is also the natural order of things.” -from Being Mortal, Atul Gawande

Yes, death is inevitable. It’s coming for all of us, some sooner than others. Life is “tedious and brief” – and does not care for you. But at some point, it is no longer seen as a game of chance or a hand you are dealt. It is no longer abstract. And if you don’t live to a ripe, old, senile age, somehow you are accused of moral failure. It’s your duty to try to stay alive as long as possible.

“Premature death, particularly if it’s due to terminal illness, is no longer seen as lucking out in the divine lottery, but as a personal failure, like a self-induced bankruptcy.” -from Karaoke Culture, Dubravka Ugrešić

And yet if you overstay your welcome in life, you are anticipating death, perhaps impatiently and angrily, while others either want to hasten your death or force you to keep living even when you don’t want to, falsely selling the idea of prolonging youth when in fact old age is all you can prolong at a certain point:

“The problem was her death: it simply wouldn’t come. If it had crawled in through the central heating system, she would have gladly given herself over to it. Death doesn’t smell. It is life that stinks. Life is shit!” -from Baba Yaga Laid an Egg, Dubravka Ugrešić

“‘Why don’t you dream up a way of dispatching old people comfortably, instead of tormenting them by dragging out their old age?’ Pupa emerged from her slumber. ‘Forgive me, I don’t understand …’ ‘Crap! Prolonging old age indeed! It’s youth you want to prolong, not old age!’” -from Baba Yaga Laid an Egg, Dubravka Ugrešić

“All primitive cultures knew how to manage old age. The rules were simple: when old people were no longer capable of contributing to the community, they were left to die or they were helped to move into the next world. Like that Japanese film in which a son stuffs his mother into a basket and carries her to the top of a mountain to die. Even elephants are cleverer than people. When their time comes, they move away from the herd, go to their graveyard, lie down on the pile of elephant bones and wait to be transformed into bones themselves. While today hypocrites, appalled by the primitive nature of former customs, terrorise their old people without the slightest pang of conscience. They are not capable of killing them, or looking after them, or building proper institutions, or organising proper care for them. They leave them in dying rooms, in old people’s homes or, if they have connections, they prolong their stay in geriatric wards in hospitals in the hope that the old people will turn up their toes before anyone notices that their stay there was unnecessary. In Dalmatia people treat their donkeys more tenderly than their old people. When their donkeys get old, they take them off in boats to uninhabited islands and leave them there to die. Pupa had once set foot on one of those donkey graveyards.” -from Baba Yaga Laid an Egg, Dubravka Ugrešić

Waiting around to die

Also in this interminable interim: “As we grow older, we weep less and less. It takes energy to weep. In old age neither the lungs, nor the heart, nor the tear ducts, nor the muscles have the strength for great misery. Age is a kind of natural sedative, perhaps because age itself is a misfortune.” -from Baba Yaga Laid an Egg, Dubravka Ugrešić

Part of this indeterminate-in-length waiting room that is life – and it really is a waiting room, even if that makes it sound most mundane (but a lot of life is misery and the most mundane of dullness) – is the part where you are actively waiting to die. Perhaps the medical industry – kabuki that it can be – is trying to extend your life, but at whatever stage of the process you’re in, whatever age you’re at, it’s still kind of a ‘waiting around to die’ ride at the fair: ups, downs, twists, spins, loop-to-loops, and even some maneuvers that turn you right upside-down.

Aftermath

Yet, even with the knowledge of the expected end – that we and those around us will die – it is something we do not know how to handle or prepare for. I again use my mother as an example here – she lost both her parents, her sister-in-law and her three cats (each of which was over 16 years old) all within a short span of time. To say she was devastated by grief would be an understatement. It didn’t matter that her parents were in their 90s, that her sister-in-law finally didn’t suffer any longer or that, as many insensitive souls said, her cats were “just cats”, she was heartbroken, and the hits just kept coming.

It’s this aftermath that’s hardest to know what to do with. The people who remain: how should they move on? Should they? I mean, do you ever really move on? Are you the same person after you experience a major loss and the kind of grief it visits upon you? Of course it – death and grieving – is a part of life; do you come out the “other side” dramatically changed because, in fact, your world is changed so significantly (because of these absences/losses)? Or is grief the engine of being exactly the same person you were in a changed world (and you start to “let go” or “stop grieving” only once you start to change in facing the new reality)?

“Moving on, as a concept, is for stupid people, because any sensible person knows grief is a long-term project. I refuse to rush. The pain that is thrust upon us let no man slow or speed or fix.” -from Grief is the Thing with Feathers, Max Porter

Photo (c) 2008 Nathan Rupert used under Creative Commons license.

Random Gum: Darling Buds of May 2017

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The Good Goo of Random Gum: Darling Buds of May
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,/And summer’s lease hath all too short a date
Shakespeare, sonnet 18

Whole playlist available on Spotify.

01 Angel Olsen – “Who’s Sorry Now” …Right to the end/Just like a friend/I tried to warn you somehow…

02 Deidre & the Dark – “Which Way”…we can, we can begin again…
“Maybe this time I’ll be in the right place for the wrong time”

03 Darling Buds – “Crystal Clear” …You need a friend someone to say/Get your act together…
A slice of 1990 in sound form

04 Crocodiles – “Groove is in the Heart/California Girls”

05 A Tribe Called Quest – “We the People…”

06 Arab Strap – “The First Big Weekend of 2016”
Sigh, here we go again, Mr Firewall. My heart always lies, cries and dies in Glasgow

07 Slowgold – “Korta sommar”
Surprise, surprise: Sweden; short summer (and this year, long winter… still snowing in May!)

08 Mount Eerie – “Real Death” …Though you clawed at the cliff you were sliding down/Being swallowed into a silence that’s bottomless and real…
Heartbreaking true story of loss; what remains in mortality’s aftermath. Feeling lucky. Could be a companion piece to the book Grief is the Thing with Feathers

09 Elvis Perkins – “My Kind” …I conjure you/And you produce me/An off-white heir/for my vanity…
Love for Catherine S, who recommended Perkins years ago

10 Troller – “Storm Maker”

11 Leon Bridges – “River”
“Oh, I wanna come near and give you/Every part of me/But there’s blood on my hands/And my lips aren’t clean”

12 Merchandise – “Become What You Are” …But it don’t really matter what I say/You’re just going to twist it anyway…
“No I couldn’t bear the burden/So I threw it all away/I left my home and all my friends behind”

13 The Chills – “Pink Frost”
New Zealand

14 The Ukrainians – “Spivaey solovey
Remembered lovely Ukrainian versions of Smiths songs earlier this year after years of not hearing – had forgotten the whole enterprise and connection with The Wedding Present

15 Yamasuki Singers – “Yokomo”
Something old that sounds new (predating my life at least), from the father of one of the Daft Punk dudes. I can’t get enough – this one is great for driving along winding country roads in the sun

16 Belle & Sebastian – “The Stars of Track and Field” …But when she’s on her back/She had the knowledge/To get her where she wanted…
Oh, yes, endless love affair with Glasgow & Scotland ❤

17 First Aid Kit – “Emmylou” …Oh the bitter winds are coming in/And I’m already missing the summer/Stockholm’s cold but I’ve been told/I was born to endure this kind of weather…
“I’ll be your Emmylou and I’ll be your June/If you’ll be my Gram and my Johnny too/No, I’m not asking much of you/Just sing little darling, sing with me”

18 Laura Gibson – “Not Harmless” …I’ll teach you to cry in a crowded room/I’ll teach you how to talk ’till your teeth come loose…

19 New Fast Automatic Daffodils – “Fishes Eyes”
Oh, the familiar sounds of the high school years. Here’s to long-lost Terra Firma.

20 Niyaz – “Tam e Eshq (Taste of Love)”

21 Sure Sure – “Easy Way”

22 Christopher Owens – “Another Loser Fuck Up” …Sometimes a song is like a photograph:/Everybody wants to figure it out/But you and I will see a different picture/And I don’t need to tell you what it’s about…

23 Gram Parsons – “Return of the Grievous Angel”
Escape from rehab hospital, take ten. For SD

24 Françoise Hardy, Jacques Dutronc – “Amours toujours, tendresse, caresses”
One of those carefree-feeling-over-it kinds of songs. Of course, there must be quelque chose French

25 Jeffrey Louis-Reed – “Obamacare
26 William Onyeabor – “Atomic Bomb”
With love for Billy and Travis, two of my favorite people in the world

27 Dolce – “Säg Nåt Vanligt
Because who doesn’t love Swedish?
28 Sam Prekop – “Showrooms”

29 Martha Wainwright – “I Will Internalize …I am wet and weak…
I’ve included this one in a mix years ago but it felt appropriate for now
30 Tele Novella – “Sacramento” …one day you’ll die going into the light/and you’ll find yourself right here/turn the doorknob without fear/you were always coming here/since the day your soul appeared…
Spending frustrating days secluded at home, left to my own devices. Love for J, fellow at-home worker

31 The Beau Brummels – “Laugh, Laugh”
Those times when your breath is taken away, and it hurts, to laugh so hard…

32 Parsley Sound – “Ease Yourself and Glide”

33 Muzsikás – “Eddig Vendig”
Throwback to college-era music obsessions; with love to my Hungarian friends

34 Johnnie Frierson – “Have You Been Good to Yourself”

35 Feist, Jarvis Cocker – “Century” …I fought my feelings and got in the way/Could’ve been easier than a decade of days…
A vaguely PJ Harvey sound going on here but unmistakably Feist-style lyrics

36 Fruit Bats – “Flamingo”
“The last thing I’ll do before I call it quits/Is probably dream just a little bit/But nothing too hard on my sweet fadin’ mind ’cause everything is gonna be just fine”

37 St Francis Hotel – “You’d Gotta Be Alive”

38 Angus & Julia Stone – “A Heartbreak”

39 Rahim AlHaj – “Going Home”
Listened to a moving performance and interview on KEXP and wanted to include

40 Documenta – “Love as a Ghost”
It’s all about the sound

41 The Soundcarriers – “Low Light”

42 Levy – “Rotten Love”

43 Klaus Johann Grobe – “Ein guter Tag” …nein, nein lieber nicht…
Branching out into the Swiss

44 Frankie Reyes – “Alma, Corazón y Vida
45 Can – “Mother Sky”

46 Field Music – “Let’s Write a Book” …Let’s not apologize/Let’s not assume blame…

47 Big Star – “Feel” …You just ain’t been trying/It’s getting very near the end…

48 Fikret Kizilok – “Leylim leylim”
Because Jill always leads to beautiful discoveries. Love to you, dearest!

49 Julia Holter – “So Lillies”

50 The Modern Lovers – “Hospital” …I’ll seek out the places that must have been magic/To your little girl mind/Now as a little girl/You must have been magic…
“I still get jealous of your old boyfriends/In the suburbs sometimes/And when I walk down your street/Probably be tears in my eyes/I can’t stand what you do/Sometimes I can’t stand you/And it makes me think about me/That I’m involved with you/But I’m in love with this power that shows through in your eyes”

51 The Boomtown Rats – “Banana Republic” …Stab you in the back yeah laughin’ in your face/Glad to see the place again, it’s a pity nothing’s changed…
For Travis, for Angelika – the very few who can join me in loving the Rats

52 Juana Molina – “Cosoco
53 Marvin Gaye – “It’s a Desperate Situation”
Got on a bit of a Marvin Gaye kick; this song fit the frame of mind (can’t shake the sense that certain urges are uncontrollable – the lyrics don’t really apply in the least!). For J

54 J Churcher – “I Remember”

55 Radiohead – “Burn the Witch” …We know where you live…

56 Exploded View – “Orlando”

57 The Jones Girls – “You Gonna Make Me Love Somebody Else”
A reminder of the lovely visit from Travis and Billy and discussions on musical ‘guilty pleasures’

58 The Avalanches – “If I Was a Folkstar”
“And I’d like to see her every day/I know I can’t be gone every weekend/Let’s wake up side by side/Let’s sleep in till we die”. On the road visiting the PoPos (Portugal, Poland, not the police). For R

59 Sam Evian – “Sleep Easy” …chemicals and candy/don’t know what they do to me/but I know I got a song/to come home to…

60 Robyn Hitchcock & the Egyptians – “Raymond Chandler Evening”
Beloved Hitchcock. “There’s a body on the railing/that I can’t identify/and I’d like to reassure you but/I’m not that kind of guy”

61 The Radio Dept. – “Sloboda Narodu” …When out of patience/Is your constant state of mind…

62 Rose Elinor Dougall – “Colour of Water”

63 The Pastels, Tenniscoats – “Vivid Youth”
Collaboration: Glasgow’s Pastels with Japanese duo Tenniscoats

64 Jeffrey Lewis – “Back to Manhattan”

65 Aztec Camera – “We Could Send Letters” …And now I’ve seen what you can’t understand
/I’d try to lead you but I’d crush your hand…
Classic, brilliant song and more Glasgow-area/Scotland goodness. “So if we weaken, we can call it stress/You’ve got my trust, I’ve got your home address/And now the only chance that we could take/Is the chance that someone else won’t make it all come true”

66 Eleni Mandell – “Someone to Love Like You” …some people never stop trying…

67 The Tornados – “Telstar”

68 Childbirth – “Siri, Open Tinder
I marvel at this title that now makes perfect sense but would once have been nonsensical gibberish. And of course this comes from Seattle…

69 Nathan Fake – “The Sky was Pink”
The pink morning and evening skies on the homestead

70 Rivulets – “Ride On, Molina” …I feel a fever coming on…
J and those horribly feverish days

71 Dear Nora – “The Lonesome Border, Pt 1”
Border life, as usual. “And I know we’re gonna last a long time/But I can’t help but need to live from minute to minute/’Cause now it is said there’s a change/And I sense the change in me”

72 Emma Pollock – “Don’t Make Me Wait” …I’m just the one to mop it up/When someone overflows your cup/Sitting in the shadows till you blame me…
The anthem of this late part of spring… waiting for winter to end, even as we head into summer, always waiting for the next step, the next move. And of course – Glasgow Glasgow Glasgow ❤ “You’ll never ever make it on your own/what makes you think you’ll make it on your own?”

73 Gwenno – “Chwyldro” …Paid, paid anghofio fod dy galon yn y chwyldro…
Because who in her right might would not want to learn Welsh?

74 O – “Deepthroat Love” …But I fear you In an offhand way/Digging the back door/Slamming, my heart in a daze/And you like that/It’s a lot like God/But not close enough…
Mr L… “you got a lot goin’ on, don’t you babe? My deepthroat love…”

75 A Certain Ratio – “The Fox”

76 EZTV – “High Flying Faith” …broken would be better than an answer halfway clear…

77 gobbinjr – “firefly” …we’re only worth what we give back/and i deserve a heart attack…

78 Nap Eyes – “Mixer” …But it’s easy to understand/What it is that makes me feel this way/It’s not so easy to make/All of my problems go away…

79 Happy Meals – “Le Voyage”
Glasgow ❤

80 Josefin Öhrn + The Liberation – “Rushing Through My Mind”
Sverige

81 Marvin Gaye – “All My Life
82 Robyn Hitchcock – “To Turn You On”
Love for J. “I would leave you as you were/If I wanted to/Then I wonder is it fair/Now you’re on your own/Who cares about you/Except me, God help me/When things go wrong/I’d do anything to turn you/Must phone me, you know me/When things go wrong/I’d do anything to turn you on”. Roxy Music cover

83 Pavo Pavo – “Ran Ran Run” …time is a hole in my waterbed/some kind of cardinal sin/tomorrow might be sleeping in…

84 Joan Shelley – “Here and Whole
85 Arik Einstein – “Prague”
The identified Israeli singer; Prague in mind (Martina ❤, MI) & Brno, too (Anne ❤)

86 Michael Kiwanuka – “Cold Little Heart” …I can’t stand myself…
“I’ve been losing you/one day at a time”. Wouldn’t have known the song were it not for the Big Little Lies miniseries, for which this was the theme – but both well worthwhile. Now I am well and truly terrified of Alexander Skarsgård

87 Charlie Hilton – “100 Million”
“I’m a fountain/you can throw yourself in me”

88 Emmylou Harris – “Tulsa Queen”
Poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko recently died in, of all places, Tulsa – and this seemed a good choice

89 Julia Jacklin – “Same Airport”*

90 Cowboy Junkies – “You Will Be Loved Again” …Her cold eyes tell you that you’re not welcome/she tells lies, but you’ll take her back again…
“How can he take you in his arms, and help you to be free, then leave you forgotten?” “Someday you will feel a love so deep, and you’ll find someone not lost in sleep…”

*******************************************************************************

Not entirely sure what to say because I have resorted to making these mixes with such frequency.

*Considering the ‘same airport, different man’ question – in how many different men and different (and same) airports have I experienced these greetings and departures? Meeting one in Copenhagen airport and later him greeting me at Paris CDG and later at Stockholm Arlanda? Or all the Oslo Oslo and more Oslo. Or arriving and departing Lyon. The endless hours in and out of Minneapolis-St Paul. And let’s not forget the old days of meeting-greeting-bidding adieu at Keflavik. Or the Sea-Tac of another life.

Tips and tricks of how these mixes are built: my favorite songs are usually at the beginning and the end – occasionally one I really like comes in the middle. There are always a few that are not good songs but are reminders of some moments in my life. This time is was a lot about sound – what sounds and transitions made the most sense to me and my ears? What appealed to me most as I walked through the hills or drove late at night through the city, lost in detours avoiding all the endless construction. Music carries you through most of all when you’re lost.

Many people have let me know they no longer have conventional CD players, so I am cutting back on mailing these by post. I also have the entire playlist freely available on Spotify if you want to see it (and you can follow me on Spotify to find all the lists, dating back to 2004). I have not yet found a better alternative where I can put all the lists and tracks that will make it easily accessible for everyone.

Expectation and the value of nothing

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“Expectations carry the day, causing us to ignore contradictory data. We speak in conversations in incomplete thoughts and sentences but we do not perceive it that way. Oral conversation is full of holes, but we don’t hear it that way. If we did, it would be quite disruptive. It is usually efficient to perceive in terms of our expectations. On the other hand, it disguises just how much we actively share what we perceive to fit our image of what is there to be perceived.” – Awakening Your Psychic Powers

I think (and write) a lot about the concept of expectation – but what exactly is it?

We all seem to have an understanding of what ‘expectation’ means. We expect something to happen, to receive something, and there is a level of trust implied in that expectation because, as I have written elsewhere, expectation is on one end of the spectrum and hope is on the other. On both ends, some action or object is ‘promised’ – it’s just that with expectation, we have a stronger sense or assumption, or trust, that we will experience or receive the promised thing. With hope, it’s more distant, just a possibility, and often much more unrealistic. Is that how everyone perceives these concepts? Is expectation always in the “likely, unless…” (sometimes with caveats) column while hope resides usually in the “unlikely” column?

Sometimes it’s practical: things go as expected… until they don’t. And you wonder why. Promise theory aims to get to the root of some of these issues. Even if it won’t solve everything, it is an interesting enough concept to delve into briefly (with an handy animated video, no less!):

“No matter how good the plans or how detailed the instructions our expectations about the world have limitations. Our information is incomplete.

One answer to the question is that the world has both remarkable predictability but also maddening uncertainty. But that’s not helpful.”

Can we immunize against uncertainty?

“What did you expect?”

From Calvino’s Invisible Cities: ““I speak and speak,” Marco says, “but the listener retains only the words he is expecting. The description of the world to which you lend a benevolent ear is one thing; the description that will go the rounds of the groups of stevedores and gondoliers on the street outside my house the day of my return is another; and yet another, that which I might dictate late in life, if I were taken prisoner by Genoese pirates and put in irons in the same cell with a writer of adventure stories. It is not the voice that commands the story: it is the ear.”” “At times I feel your voice is reaching me from far away, while I am prisoner of a gaudy and unlivable present, when all forms of human society have reached an extreme of their cycle and there is no imagining what new forms they may assume. And I hear, from your voice, the invisible reasons which make cities live, through which perhaps, once dead, they will come to life again.”

It’s funny when you’re immersed in something, especially with another person, and when something changes, that other person – almost like an amnesiac, or a cold operator who shuts everything down with emotionless precision, now outside the sphere of shared feeling or experience, forgets or misplaces what the connection once (possibly only in a limited or illusory way) offered to both people. Or when you are part of a project or a job or any activity. Expectation boils down to – to be successful – a give and take.

But failing that, in essence, we can always expect inconsistency, a lack of transparency and, most of all, contradictions, particularly where people and feeling are involved.

Is anyone better at juxtaposing the contradictions and our propensity for fooling ourselves than Pessoa? At our expectation and desire for the new but then being exhausted and annoyed by having to actually deal with the details and complications of the new?

“I reject real life for being a condemnation; I reject dreaming for being an easy way out. But my real life couldn’t be more banal and contemptible, and my dream life couldn’t be more constant and intense.”

“This is true in the whole gamut of love. In sexual love we seek our own pleasure via another body. In non-sexual love, we seek our own pleasure via our own idea. The masturbator may be abject, but in point of fact he’s the perfect logical expression of the lover. He’s the only one who doesn’t feign and doesn’t fool himself. The relations between one soul and another, expressed through such uncertain and variable things as shared words and proffered gestures, are strangely complex. The very act of meeting each other is a non-meeting. Two people say ‘I love you’ or mutually think it and feel it, and each has in mind a different idea, a different life, perhaps even a different colour or fragrance, in the abstract sum of impressions that constitute the soul’s activity.”

“The tedium of the forever new, the tedium of discovering – behind the specious differences we see in things and ideas – the unrelenting sameness of everything…” “…the stagnation of everything that lives just because it moves…”

“To love is to tire of being alone; it is therefore a cowardice, a betrayal of ourselves. (It’s exceedingly important that we not love).” Yes, even within ourselves. We long for love, sometimes to not be alone, but at the same time, feel as though that longing is a betrayal or that we have succumbed to a great weakness. (See the poem “Longing is the betrayal of oneself…” by Agneta Ara for a more poetic take…)

Expectation of superfluity

“this syndrome is a war that nearly every woman faces every day, a war within herself too, a belief in her superfluity, an invitation to silence…” –Men Explain Things to Me

We can also – almost always – expect mansplaining and sexism. It’s almost always a given, unintentional or overt. Rebecca Solnit has published two whole collections of essays on how half the world’s population expects the worst – expects to be silenced or talked over or had its concerns ignored, at best, or expects to be raped or killed, at worst.

In Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me, she pretty much hits all the nails right on the head:

“Yes, people of both genders pop up at events to hold forth on irrelevant things and conspiracy theories, but the out-and-out confrontational confidence of the totally ignorant is, in my experience, gendered. Men explain things to me, and other women, whether or not they know what they’re talking about. Some men.”

“…billions of women must be out there on this seven-billion-person planet being told that they are not reliable witnesses to their own lives, that the truth is not their property, now or ever.” “…And no man has ever apologized for explaining, wrongly, things that I know and they don’t.” “…Dude, if you’re reading this, you’re a carbuncle on the face of humanity and an obstacle to civilization. Feel the shame.” (Maybe I fell in love a little bit with this statement because I love starting statements with “dude” when I am at-the-end-of-my-rope frustrated and irritated.

“Think of how much more time and energy we would have to focus on other things that matter if we weren’t so busy surviving.”

Perhaps the remarkable thing about Solnit and her writing is that, despite describing the condition of – and expectation(s) – of, for and by women in society, she nevertheless explores the opposite end of the spectrum: hope. And why? Because, back to the principles of the aforementioned promise theory, of uncertainty:

“To me, the grounds for hope are simply that we don’t know what will happen next, and that the unlikely and the unimaginable transpire quite regularly. And that the unofficial history of the world shows that dedicated individuals and popular movements can shape history and have, though how and when we might win and how long it takes is not predictable. Despair is a form of certainty, certainty that the future will be a lot like the present or will decline from it; despair is a confident memory of the future, in Gonzalez’s resonant phrase. Optimism is similarly confident about what will happen. Both are grounds for not acting. Hope can be the knowledge that we don’t have that memory and that reality doesn’t necessarily match our plans; hope like creative ability can come from what the Romantic poet John Keats called Negative Capability.”

It is not blind hope, though. It, too, is informed by experience – the times we have ignored logic or signs to succumb to seeing only the reality we wanted – or expected – but if we were to marry the two, could we overcome the stumbling block of the ‘plan’ we can’t seem to abandon?:

“As I began writing this essay, I picked up a book on wilderness survival by Laurence Gonzalez and found in it this telling sentence: “The plan, a memory of the future, tries on reality to see if it fits.” His point is that when the two seem incompatible we often hang onto the plan, ignore the warnings reality offers us, and so plunge into trouble. Afraid of the darkness of the unknown, the spaces in which we see only dimly, we often choose the darkness of closed eyes, of obliviousness.”

“We are by nature optimists, if optimism means that we believe we see the world as it is. And under the influence of a plan, it’s easy to see what we want to see.”

The expected end

We expect death, but we hope it comes for us later, much later. But do we know what to expect within death? Is it, as I have asked before, just an expanse of nothingness forever?

What we do know, as William Empson writes in “Ignorance of Death“: death is “the trigger of the literary man’s biggest gun”. Too true – pondering its manifestations and meanings runs through everything. And yet, as Empson also wisely states, “Otherwise I feel very blank upon this topic,/And think that though important, and proper for anyone to bring up,/It is one that most people should be prepared to be blank upon.”

In Slaughterhouse Five it is: “At that moment, Billy’s high forehead is in the cross hairs of a high-powered laser gun. It is aimed at hm from the darkened press box. In the next moment, Billy Pilgrim is dead. So it goes.

So Billy experiences death for a while. It is simply violet light and a hum. There isn’t anybody else there. Not even Billy Pilgrim is there.

In Calvino’s Invisible Cities: “I thought: “Perhaps Adelma is the city where you arrive dying and where each finds again the people he has known. This means I, too, am dead.” And I also thought: “This means the beyond is not happy.””

In Pessoa: “I don’t mean the mystery of death, which I can’t begin to fathom, but the physical sensation of ceasing to live. Humanity is afraid of death, but indecisively. The normal man makes a good soldier in combat; the normal man, when sick or old, rarely looks with horror at the abyss of nothing, though he admits its nothingness. This is because he lacks imagination. And nothing is less worthy of a thinking man than to see death as a slumber. Why a slumber, if death doesn’t resemble sleep? Basic to sleep is the fact we wake up from it, as we presumably do not from death. If death resembles sleep, we should suppose that we wake up from it, but this is not what the normal man imagines; he imagines death as a slumber no one wakes up from, which means nothing. Death doesn’t resemble slumber, I said, since in slumber one is alive and sleeping, and I don’t know how death can resemble anything at all for us, since we have no experience of it, nor anything to compare it to.”

Also, even one of the new-age psychic books suggests that meditation is as close to near-death experience as we can get – makes me think of my questions on this very topic earlier.

When you can expect nothing: A gift horse, full of surprises

Maybe we don’t always have expectations – penis size, for example, is apparently a crapshoot. One can hope, of course, but pop culture will caution about expectation in either direction.

Vonnegut’s preternatural obsession with cocks and their sizes (appearing in both Slaughterhouse and in Breakfast of Champions) is another reflection on how our society prioritizes and values this all-important fact. Size matters, even when this particular size is confidential and invisible. He has just made it visible.

From Slaughterhouse: “Montana was naked, and so was Billy, of course. He had a tremendous wang, incidentally. You never know who’ll get one.”

No, in fact you just never know… until you know, that is. But you really cannot have any expectations in this department. In Breakfast, there are stats provided about multiple characters on these matters.

And then there is Lars von Trier, famously bizarre film director, who claimed that actor Willem Dafoe had a “confusingly large” member, which called for a “stunt cock” in Antichrist. (And this becomes slightly more confusing for me, reflecting on watching The Last Temptation of Christ and recently wrapping up my reading of Reza Aslan’s book Zealot about Jesus of Nazareth. By the way, even Aslan refers back to Dostoevsky when it comes to faith and religion – does anyone not fall back on Dostoevsky?! Hard to reconcile it all somehow.)

Oh, and then there are always the poor micropenises.