it is either nothing
or everything. and i’m not
sure. so tell me what?
it is either nothing
or everything. and i’m not
sure. so tell me what?
let our minds meld be-
fore our bodies blend so our
souls can sing; surreal
step out. feel the calm,
sterile, soft, serene cold night
smell charcoal, oak; crisp
I was jogging in the woods this morning which is atypical for me. 10 years ago (holy shit, I’m actually typing that) I was 17 and had just had my first knee surgery. It was a complete ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) reconstruction operation that took me a year and a half to recover from.
In writing, “a year and a half,” is only thirteen letters and a fragment of a sentence. It’s five syllables. It’s nothing to a reader (most of the time) because you can breeze right over it – “Ah, ten years ago, mmm, a year and a half recovery, pretty average,” you might think. But, when you leave the doctor’s all drugged up doing daily tasks becomes dismal. A shower? What is usually a refreshing, quick way to start the day becomes an hour and a half ordeal of taping your knee so that your surgery bandages don’t get wet and setting up a chair to sit on while showering because standing is too dangerous. This always requires another human to help you along the way too, so something really personal becomes a shared activity.
Working became obsolete so I had to take some time off. The day would always begin with stretching my leg so that I could feel relaxed and comfortable. I’d pop a few painkillers, prop up my X-Box, and position some pillows for a pensive evening. The first day of kicking back with a banged up knee and nothing productive to do wasn’t so bad. The second day neither but… with each progressive day, the days began to feel longer. Seconds became minutes and minutes became hours. Soon – by the fourth, fifth, sixth day – I felt like I was losing my mind. Due to the difficulty, I hadn’t showered in a couple days. My skin felt itchy from painkillers, greasy from being unhygienic, and I wasn’t even past the first week.
That’s stagnancy. When all movement stops, time stretches, and boredom is abound. Two years ago, I had more knee surgery (MCL) and shoulder surgery (labrum, bicep tendon, and bone spurs).
But today, almost a full two years from my shoulder surgery and a few months past a year from my second knee surgery, I was jogging in the woods. What I thought about while running was the energy I put into running and the energy I received from running. Normally, running is pretty bad on your knees, but running in the snow softened my impact. I immediately thought of the jogger on the news (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=98mBl9d0dew). But it really did, I felt it grip my feet as I jogged and my feet gripped back. However, when I’d take a moment to catch my breath and walk, I could feel my feet sink. Slowly, I’d pull my leg out of the clutch of the crystallized ice, then feel it sink deeper into a sullen, sink-hole of snow (“that’s stagnancy,” I thought). Overall, my knee felt good jogging in the snow. Then, I began to think about momentum.
Momentum, unlike stagnancy, is continual impetus. I thought about energy-in and energy-out. That, for example, all of the energy I put into the run would be returned to me after the run; I’d be breathing heavier, thinking deeper and clearer, and overall more awake. Time felt quick again. An hour and a half went by between heavy, asthmatic breaths and calm, contemplation by a lake without even thinking about it. And so I figured, these were the two modes of living; stagnancy and momentum. Stagnancy is easy to execute but slow. Momentum is hard to maintain but quick. Stagnancy has been a huge part of my life due to surgeries and setbacks, but I’m moving toward a momentous one.
Today, I drove to Great Brook Farm State Park. I have been since the fall just to take a walk, grab a coffee afterward, and write. As I was driving, I thought about topics I could write about, as I normally do. I thought about David Foster Wallace’s sentiments on worship:
“The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things — if they are where you tap real meaning in life — then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already — it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power — you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.” – David Foster Wallace (This is Water)
Which immediately made me think about John Rochester’s remarks on thinking beyond what is directly in front of us is “thinking like an ass,”:
“But thoughts are given for action’s government;
Where action ceases, thought’s impertinent:
Our sphere of action is life’s happiness,
And he that thinks beyond, thinks like an ass.”
which is the importance of being present (not thinking like an ass). Also, this is what I think David Foster Wallace meant when he said, “The trick is keeping the truth upfront in daily consciousness,” as he later indicates that one of the hardest things to do is to always beware of the most obvious realities in our life and how hard it really is to do.
Then, I thought about Walter Pater’s thoughts in his Conclusion to the Renaissance on success in life,
“To burn always with this hard gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life. Failure is to form habits; for habit is relative to a stereotyped world; meantime it is only the roughness of the eye that makes any two persons, things, situations, seem alike.”
I parked my car, got out, and began the trek. I looked at the fluffy, freezing snow covering the ground and thought about the pros and cons of the walk. My boots and socks would be wet and uncomfortable. However, I’d be energized and introspective during the walk and that’d carry over while sipping coffee at the local cafe. I was planning on writing and I needed the energy and introspection, so the pros outweighed the cons. I began walking and admiring how the sun danced and illuminated miniature diamond mirrors on the snow-laden path. I listened closely to the chickens peeping in their roost and the calm crinkling of snow beneath my feet. Up ahead, I saw two women cross country skiing, “What geniuses…” I thought. Then, I saw another guy skiing around a bend that was perfectly groomed so that you could see as much nature and have the best route around the State Park as possible. I thought of how ridiculous I must have looked walking around while everybody was skiing. I couldn’t believe how everybody had the same idea — to come here and cross country ski during the winter. I’d never skied before but the idea of it now seemed greater than ever. Why walk? Skiing was a faster mode of travel and it allowed you to see the trails with such a different perspective. All of my thinking about the sounds, sights, and prospect of skiing was abruptly interrupted when a skier fell in front of me.
“You distracted me! I’m blaming you…” she said.
Still caught up in thought about how bright everybody was for skiing, I laughed, “You guys are geniuses for skiing!” referring to her and her mother.
I kept walking and noticed off into the distance a male skier sort of hovering around and constantly looking at me (or so I thought). Unsure why or what he would be doing, I dismissed the thought. Suddenly, though, he stopped on the trail ahead of me. Just stopped and stared directly at me. I again diverted the thought and instead figured he might be waiting for somebody. I kept walking and veered toward the side of the path and as I approached him I greeted.
“Hello,” I said.
“Look, I just have to let you know that you can’t be walking on these trails. These are skiing trails only,” the skier said. “You know, he pays money, this park is a State-run, State-funded park. He pays money to groom the trails and I pay money for a season long pass,” he continued. He went on about how I shouldn’t be on the trails and if I want to ski or snowshoe there is a rental center.
I apologized, thanked him, and asked the quickest way back. I felt stupid. We talked for a moment about the cost of skiing and my obliviousness. I walked on the unpaved portion of powdery snow back to my car. Upon reaching the parking lot, I saw a yellow and black caution sign, “GROOMED SKI TRAILS. CLOSED TO WALKING”
Then another… and another… three signs. Three signs were directly in front of me as I drove in that I completely missed while caught up in all of the abstract thought about presence and the importance of obvious realities by David Foster Wallace, John Rochester, and Walter Pater. Ironic.
Back in 2006, a close family friend who was a 29 year old male at the time and a hardworking blue collar plumber got caught up in some harder drugs and decided that his life needed more excitement. So, he robbed a convenient store, stole a car, and crashed that car into a police cruiser upon which he tackled the police officer. In the midst of wrestling the cop, the report says he grabbed his holster and fired off a shot from his pistol, hitting the cop in the leg. He claimed that it went off just due to the wrestling, the cop claimed otherwise, but alas his word is worth nothing due to his previous actions and impairment during the encounter and thus: 11 years with 4 years of probation.
He was just released and allowed back into society. I happened to encounter him as he came by the house just to “see if we lived there anymore.” We talked about all the people who had died while he was in prison. He talked about the shame he’d feel if he requested to go to their funerals in cuffs. I asked him what he did in prison, “I’d lift and fight,” he laughed, “and lift and fight, I gained 80 pounds.” That’s what he did for 11 years: lifted and fought. I asked him about probation. He told me his parole officer said something along the lines of, “Look, your record is this big, I don’t want you out. I want you locked up. So, try me, do anything and I’ll have you back in there immediately.”
My uncle has been a career petty criminal his entire life. He got caught up in hard drugs as well. He has been in and out of prison his entire life. I remember one time, unsure of the date and one of the few encounters with him, I asked him if he was going to stay out of prison. He snarled and explained that he didn’t really want to stay out of prison. He wanted to go back. The outside world didn’t care about him. In prison, he got meals, he could lift, and he had a place to sleep. Outside, he had nothing and nobody wanted to hire him. He was an outcast.
When I was in middle school, I was a trouble maker. I would do stupid things purposely to annoy. I used to drop my books in classes merely to distract from the lesson. I used to sleep during most classes. I threw stink bombs on occasions. However, whenever I got in trouble, if I was supposed to get an in-school suspension, I’d do anything to push it to an out-of-school suspension.
The point of the comparison of a middle school derelict to a career criminal is to illustrate that they are both rebellious to the system. They both would prefer to be in a society that utterly doesn’t try to restrict them (my house and their prison) than to be in a society that pretends to care about them through reform (school and society). In both cases, the perceptibly best avenue of comfort is to be a repeat offender. When you couple this kind of mindset with the innate pre-disposition to criminals or derelicts, it’s a slippery slope that the outcasts take joy in sliding down. It’s a spiral of carelessness and rebellion.
In 2013, 2,220,300 adults were incarcerated in US federal and state prisons according to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics. The cost of a used The Republic by Plato on Amazon.com is $0.09. Therefore, to equip the entire US incarcerated population with one would cost $199,827. This is excluding the possibility of the amount of unused philosophical texts in colleges and otherwise that could be up for donation. Relatively, though, under $200,000 to allot a population of almost 2.5 million Americans with a book is chump change.
The idea is this: we employ a system where prison populations are broken into groups of roughly the size of a college class (20-25). Each group gets a different philosophical text (which would just rotate between groups so eventually every prisoner would’ve read some large amount of philosophical texts). Prison guards become teachers and mentors. Each week, the prisoners are required to read some reasonable amount of pages (20-30) of whichever text they are assigned. Each group will meet a different day of the week and discuss the reading they were assigned. Every individual prisoner will be required to write and turn in a one page paper (but are encouraged to write more) on their thoughts (and maybe prompts from the prison guards) while reading the excerpt and one page of words that they didn’t understand with the definition of the word. Every week after the first week of their incarceration, they will be required to use at least one of the newfound words in their paper discussing their thoughts on the excerpt. They are given a dictionary, a pencil, and paper to write on. If they fail to turn in a one page paper with their thoughts and a sheet of definitions, then they are not allowed to go outside (recess) until they turn in next week’s paper. Also, as an extra reward, maybe prisoners would be allowed to help do a job around the prison if, for example, they completed a month of turning in papers. Maybe, even, if they complete a year of continuous papers their sentence could be re-negotiated.
Many philosophers and most philosophical texts have themes of rebellion, critiques on society, and lots of introspection. I think the prisoners would find resonance with the philosophers and get the mental wheels turning in the right direction. After a 4 year sentence, they’d have something relatively equivalent to a Bachelors in Philosophy (just without the degree). Rather than vituperative vandals that we cultivate in confinement, we’d have thoughtful, virtuous logophiles of society. This way, we’d have hirable, reformed people rather than the wayward, faithless people that the system currently produces.
Every year, this time is peaked with anxiety. Everybody has a different reason but it usually has to do with people being present or not. Or too many or too few. Whatever the reason may be, it’s important to step back and see that, few or many, we’re here.
We’re sitting on the couch, eating too much, and drinking excessive alcohol. We’re indulging in gifts, people’s smiles, and their newest deep insight. We’re here. That’s the most important part of this time of year.
It’s a beautiful thing to step back in your mind just so far to see what’s in front of you. It’s sometimes so easy to slip into cynical comatose and derange yourself into an absurdist’s paradise of abstraction. Instead, sip your coffee more slowly, love your significant others more deeply, and recognize your thoughts inside as much as you recognize the floor below your feet. Take your time. Cheers!