Notes from the Grid

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What if we rediscovered our own privacy, our own hidden life, a place where our opinions and ideas didn’t need to be constantly proclaimed, seen, and approved?

What if we understood that the only real problem is meaning, and where we choose to find it or create it?

What if we sensed that none of our categories or attempts at identity can completely represent or explain us? What if we accepted our own complexity?

What if we were taught that the world cannot be perfected, that irregularity cannot be overcome, that ambiguity cannot be ironed out? What if we found ways to live in a difficult and uncertain world, instead of being overwhelmed by its imperfections?

What if we reconsidered what all of this could mean for how we live with culture and religion, education and technology, and how we view the past and live in the present?

First begun in 2006, Notes from the Grid has been following behind me ever since, and has emerged as a kind of Tao Te Ching for our times: a brief account of how we are living now, and how we might, just might, live differently. 

In 2022, I also created an audio version of Notes from the Grid on my podcast. It often diverges slightly, and sometimes in huge ways, from the print version.

An episode from 4/26/22: Tonight, I begin a five-part series called Notes from the Grid. It might as well be subtitled: How We Live Now, and along the way I take up things like technology, education, privacy, creativity, what it means to be an adolescent and what it means to be middle-aged, and so much else.

While these ideas have no doubt been wrung dry in many corners, I hope that my perspective makes them live again: that is, I write as someone who is not an influencer and is not famous, and I write for those who are just as hidden, anonymous, and perhaps forgotten, amid the perpetual attention-seeking (or just profit-making) nature of modern life.

The first essay (begins at 5:05) is called “Rediscovering the Hidden Life,” and it simply wonders why it is that we have been told (and why so many of us go along with the assumption) that meaning can only come from our participation in outward, public, or historical events. It is an unapologetic call to reclaim our own privacy and hidden life, our own grouchiness and weirdness, and it takes its cue from a quotation of George Eliot’s: “For the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

The second essay (begins at 29:08) “Fame is a Vampire,” notices first how our culture and our own voracious enthusiasms are able make cliches out of things like Einstein’s hair, or Michelangelo’s David, or just the grunge rock I grew up with. But then, there is the realization that anything which we find truly meaningful (whether Renaissance art or rock ‘n roll) can never really be exhausted and ruined. Anything that is truly worth our time can be reinvigorated and reinvented.

An episode from 5/2/22: Tonight, I continue with the second in a five-part series called Notes from the Grid.

The first section is called “To Criticize the Critic,” and it wonders what the use of criticizing, explaining, or pretending we can objectively judge art, really is. I come to the conclusion that, so long as we don’t think that criticism–whether in the snobbiest journals or just as the water cooler on Monday morning–can ever be objective, talking about the reasons why we like or dislike something can be a wonderful and essential way to pass the time.

It is only when we pretend that critics are doing anything like what the artists themselves are doing, or when we take their claims of authority seriously, that we open the door to so much unnecessary suffering. A remark from Picasso sums it up best: “Mathematics, trigonometry, chemistry, psychoanalysis, music and whatnot, have been related to cubism to give it an easier interpretation. All this has been pure literature, not to say nonsense, which has only succeeded in blinding people with theories.”

The second section (begins at 27:02), “What We’re Doing When We Think We’re Doing Nothing,” takes as its jumping-off point a quote the actor Richard Burton: “I am fascinated by the idea of something but its execution bores me.” From here I wonder about all the pressures creative people put on being successful, prolific, or in just finishing anything at all. I suggest that authors and artists should place as few expectations on themselves as possible, and that we even shouldn’t be expected to be able to talk about what we’ve done, after it’s finished.

Finally, in wondering what this might mean in my own life, I realize that even if I leave a handful of decent poems or essays in my wake, my notebooks and diaries (and now a podcast) might actually be the best of me, those words that I dash off quickly before going on to “what I’m really trying to do.

An episode from 5/9/22: Tonight, I continue with the third episode in a five-part series called Notes from the Grid.

The first section is called “All Things Can Console,” and again I use our experience of criticism (in art or culture) to simply say that we need not take it so seriously. When the writer Teju Cole was asked what books he was “embarrassed” not to have read yet, his reply is a huge spotlight: “… my grandmother is illiterate, and she’s one of the best people I know. Reading is a deep personal consolation for me, but other things console, too.”

I ask what it would take, for each of us, to hold strongly to our passions and interests, with the full knowledge that “other things console, too.” We need not make converts of anyone, or convince anyone, to enjoy what we enjoy; all we really need to cultivate is the enthusiasm of experience.

The second section (begins at 22:30), “The Virtue of Uncertainty,” looks at the difficulties of living with ambiguity of all kinds. Especially since so much of our lives actually can be known with near certainty—the ups and downs of the weather, the performance of our retirement plans and credit scores, how many miles before we run out of gas, etc.—it’s hard to believe that the rest of our lives can’t be understood in the same way. But they really can’t.

I expand on this idea by noticing how works of literature are, more often than not, experienced through anecdotes, translation, or in bits and pieces; and how, until photography and color reproduction came along, many lovers of the visual arts fell in love with painters and architects through illustrations or someone else’s copies, and hardly ever saw a Michelangelo or a Rembrandt in person.

I suggest that while this process is wildly uncertain and unpredictable, it is actually how great works of art survive, and that the example of how these things are studied in universities is actually the exception. The chance encounter with Vermeer in a friend’s coffee table book, or my own introduction to Dante via David Fincher’s movie Seven, is much closer to how works of art last, and live.

An episode from 5/16/22: Tonight, I continue with the fourth episode in a five-part series called Notes from the Grid.

The first section is called “Civilization Does Not Civilize,” and it hinges on a remark by the critic George Steiner. While many of us believe that an interest in art and culture can be some kind of barrier against inhumanity, Steiner says that “it’s all over our world: inhumanity can be combined with high aesthetic experience.”

Because of the way we talk and think about knowledge, this link with inhumanity seems to occur when culture ceases to be about the experience of literature or music or art, and instead becomes a matter of criticism, classification, and comparison. While fine on their own, when these things also become mixed up with notions of superiority, the hatred of rival ideas can very quickly turn into the hatred of people.

The second section (begins at 20:30), “The Perpetual Adolescent,” looks even more closely at knowledge, and education. When the psychologist Mary Pipher says about adolescents that “with amazing acuity, they sense nuances, doubt, shades of ambiguity, discrepancy and hypocrisy,” I realize what’s missing: that adolescents aren’t given any constructive way to deal with ambiguity or hypocrisy. They aren’t told how to live in a difficult world, and so they only end up criticizing it.

Using my own development as an example, I say that Pipher’s remark about teenagers is actually a spot-on description of many people today, and our principal malaise is in being unable to deal with ambiguity of any kind. When we retreat behind the supposed certainties of our chosen social or religious or political identities, we inevitably find those lacking, too. I quote a character in one of Nietzsche’s books, who says, “Man is for me too imperfect a thing. Love of man would kill me.” My conclusion, though, is that not being able to love each other, despite our imperfections, is what actually kills us.

An episode from 5/25/22: Tonight, I conclude with the last in a five-part series called Notes from the Grid.

The first essay, “Simple Awareness,” is followed by “The Uncomfortable, Unsolvable Middle” (begins at 20:30).The series concludes with “All Its Ways” (starts at 48:40)

Taken together, these last three sections ask why it is, in the world that we’ve made, it is always easier to be selfish rather than selfless, and what can we do about it?

Rather than putting forth some kind of program of political or social reform, I return to the transformative importance of those hidden moments in our private lives. As one UAW worker put it, “Every time I see an automobile going down the street, I wonder whether the person driving it realizes the kind of human sacrifice that has to go into the building of that car.”

For those of us who don’t want to leave the world altogether, this kind of simple awareness is enough, and alongside it the realization that there must be moments where we can understand that we are not deficient, and do not need what is being sold to us every hour of the day. This also brings to mind all of the unfairness and injustice (and the sense of powerlessness that many of us feel) that our everyday lives are saturated in.

In light of how difficult our work and family lives can be, and in light of how much is outside of our own control, almost the best thing we can do make ourselves open to those chance encounters where we are able to help and encourage others (or where they might be able to help us). The large social or political gestures that we are all drawn to are, in the end, probably less transformative than the quiet, nearly anonymous moments, that help us day-to-day–such as the encouragement of a teacher or friend.

Finally, I conclude that our political, religious, and cultural preferences–these ways of life that we value so much, including hallowed family traditions–are a play and a game, even as they are also our lifeblood. They are both: a game, and our lifeblood. These are the moments we live for, and they are rare; the rest is a game, but we have to play it. There does not seem to be a way out of this knot, the knot in which all of these things are bound together and dependent upon one another.

If we are willing to live in the world and not dismiss it with cynicism, or literally go off the grid, the key to our own fulfillment seems to be in seeing the eternal and the everyday as inextricably intertwined. No specific cultural or religious pose is required, except the pursuit and search and finding of meaning, the joy, the bittersweetness, the perpetual learning.

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