In Session

There’s no harm
Looking at her
Boots in session

But my
Cognitive
Behavioral
Therapist

Reserves the right
To charge me extra
For staring

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A Leap And A Precipice

When I became the lead opinion writer for my college newspaper, my father suggested I call my column “The Road Not Taken” after one of his favorite Robert Frost poems. I thought about it but went in a different direction, choosing a title of my own: “Free Association.”

Recently I came across an article by David Orr, author of The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong. According to Orr, Frost wrote “The Road Not Taken” with his friend Edward Thomas in mind. After an initial reading, Thomas thought that Frost, through the speaker in the poem, was lamenting the uncertain nature of making choices, suggesting his life would have played out differently if he had traveled a different road.

Frost, it turns out, was mocking Thomas, who frequently complained about the routes they took on walks through the woods. Unaware of this backstory, readers assume that Frost is arguing in favor of the road not taken, praising independent spirits for forging their own paths.

We can’t experience a life we didn’t lead—we only know the path we’ve taken, the one we’re on right now.

Wherever he went, my father didn’t travel lightly. A heavy smoker for over fifty years, he carried in his chest the weight of a thousand ghosts. He was depressed but never diagnosed because a doctor might have the audacity to suggest he quit smoking.

My father died at age seventy in the hospital where I was born. Doctors assumed he had lung cancer, but we never found out because he refused any tests.

Naturally, I inherited his nerves. Three years prior to his death, I was hurting so much I decided one day to disappear. Medicine works best in small doses, but it’s easy—when you think about it—to fit a bottle in your mouth.

There were signs we missed, being caught up in our moods. I shared a poem with him once about my life being an arduous climb up a mountain that extends higher and higher with each step, death a slip within reach.

Our only hope is to keep climbing, he said, without looking down.

“This is how you’re feeling now. The pain won’t last forever.”

He spoke from experience, having survived as a young man what doctors called a “break from reality.” In the days leading up to his hospitalization, he had visited different churches, determined to find his calling into ministry.

I don’t know if my father found God, but he did take solace in the poetry of Frost, Tennyson, Keats, Byron and Blake. A student of language, he conducted his ministry as a high school English teacher for thirty-two years.

He looks human to me now, but as a child I saw him as a larger-than-life figure of strength. I remember disagreeing with him many times about my choice of friends, but I also remember how hard he fought for me, like the time my bike was stolen. Acting on a tip from a neighbor, he confronted the kid’s parents and threatened to call the police. The kid confessed, apologized and never messed with me again.

These are the pictures I paint of him in poems and stories. There’s an art to reproducing one’s father—retracing his steps, repeating his sins.

Fate is genetic; it comes before and after us. One of my favorite philosophers, Jean-Paul Sartre, didn’t believe in fate. He argued that we must create our lives every day out of nothing. Without being consulted first, each of us was thrown into the world, and this thrownness throws us for a loop. Even suicide, Sartre reminds us, is an act of being in the world.

No stranger to mental illness, German poet Friedrich Hölderlin wrote: “But where the danger is, also grows the saving power.”

To create my life out of nothing, I must, at every turn, risk my life. Faith—in myself, in my father, in God—requires both a leap and a precipice.

This is how you’re feeling now. The pain won’t last forever.

Whether or not we recognize our path, it’s easy to get lost in the woods.

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Inter-Coarse

If you write
About doing it
All the time

You’re probably
Not doing it
Right now

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Language Games

Poetry is
Everywhere
Today except
In Poetry

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Breakup Song

Tell me everything is alright.
Tell me everything is all right.
Tell me everything is alt-right.
Tell me I don’t look fat in these jeans.
Tell me I’m the one that got away.

Tell me I was your thirst.
Tell me you think of me when you hum.
Tell me I sweat the small stuff.
Tell me to grow a pair.
Tell me we are never ever getting back together.

Tell me you bought my book and the shipping was free.
Tell me I’m a white boy from the suburbs what do I know about “suffering.”
Tell me everything will be OK.
Tell me everything will be okay.
Tell me size more or less matters.

Tell me God is binge-watching us.
Tell me you never faked the news.
Tell me I’m more than a hound dog.
Tell me my poem is lovelier than a tree.
Tell me no man is a peninsula.

Tell me the meaning of strife.
Tell me everybody dies in the end.
Tell me there’s someone for everyone to disappoint.
Tell me it’s “lie down” not “lay down.”
Tell me nice guys let the girl finish first.

Tell me what will be will be no more.
Tell me if I liked it then I should’ve put a ring on it.
Tell me he doesn’t taste like me.
Tell me your name.
Again.

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Democratic Nihilism

In one of his final books, Telemorphosis, Jean Baudrillard discusses the spectacle of reality TV. He sets his sights on Loft Story, the French adaptation of the popular American show Big Brother. Baudrillard argues that fans of Loft Story value the show’s contestants not for their talents, but for their lack of any talent at all. He draws parallels between reality TV and democracy:

The democratic illusion is thus elevated to the highest degree: the maximal exaltation for a minimal qualification. And, while the traditional principle merely insured a partial recognition for merit, the operation of the Loft insures a virtual glory to everyone in terms of the absence of merit itself. On one hand, it is the end of democracy, by the extinction of any qualification of merit whatsoever, but on the other hand, it is the result of an even more radical democracy [based on] the beatification of the man without qualities. It is a great step towards democratic nihilism. (25-26)

Everyone in the Loft is destined for “virtual glory.” The opposite of the best and the brightest, the cast is governed by the rule of the lowest common denominator. Inspired by “democratic nihilism,” viewers get the cheap entertainment they’re looking for, and Baudrillard condemns them for it.

“The society which permits itself to enjoy the enthusiastic spectacle of this masquerade deserves exactly what it gets. Loft Story is both the mirror and the disaster of an entire society caught up in the race towards meaninglessness and swooning in front of its own banality” (27-28).

We can extend Baudrillard’s pop culture analysis to the state of American politics today. Citizens who vote incompetent people into office get the government they deserve. In 2016, millions of Americans voted against a former senator and secretary of state in favor of a reality TV host whose resume includes filing for bankruptcy four times and appearing as himself in the classic American film Home Alone 2: Lost in New York.

Earlier this week, Trump’s origin story became a news event once again. In an interview with FOX Business Network reporter Maria Bartiromo, Trump spoke fondly of social media.

“I doubt I’d be here without social media, to be honest with you, because there is a fake media out there, I get treated very unfairly by the media, and I have a tremendous platform,” Trump said.

Twitter—a tremendous platform for petty people the world over—helps Trump govern via intimidation.

“So, when somebody says something about me, I’m able to go ‘bing, bing, bing,’ and I take care of it. The other way I’d never be able to get the word out.”

Perhaps this is the way the world ends—with a bing, bing, bing rather than a bang or whimper.

Marshall McLuhan said long ago that the medium is the message. Today the medium is the spectacle, and Twitter is the spectacle writ large. Twitter invites users to an orgy of information in which the reliability of hard news is faked like an orgasm in a collective sigh of disbelief.

Believe it or not, the president, according to the president, is the master of his Twitter domain.

“You know, they’re well crafted, I was always a good student, like a person who does well with that kind of thing,” Trump said eloquently about his posts.

The Society of the Selfie deserves President Trump, a man of “lights, camera, action” serving his own business interests at the expense of those he deems beneath him. Trump is the villain in a bad foreign relations film with no subtitles and no substance. And we’re on the edge of his tweets, hanging on every misspelled word.

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Possibilities For Communion

Matthew Ratcliffe’s Experiences of Depression: A Study in Phenomenology contains the most accurate description of depression I’ve ever read. For the depressed person:

The practical significance of things is somehow diminished; they no longer offer up the usual possibilities for activity. Associated with this, there may be a sense of impossibility; possibilities appear as ‘there but impossible to actualize.’ There can also be a sense of estrangement, as possibilities that are inaccessible to self appear as ‘accessible to others with little effort.’ Other people might continue to offer possibilities for communion, but these possibilities appear at the same time as ‘impossible for me to take up.’ Together, these alterations in the possibility space constitute a feeling of isolation, which is experienced as irrevocable because depression does not include a sense of its own contingency. The resultant estrangement from the world amounts to a change in the sense of reality and belonging—things no longer appear available; they are strangely distant, not quite ‘there’ anymore. Certain kinds of possibility may also be heightened. A world that no longer offers up invitations to act can at the same time take the form of an all-enveloping threat, before which one is passive, helpless and alone. Hope, practical significance and interpersonal connection are not just gone. Their loss is very much part of the experience; it is felt. (71)

Ratcliffe argues that most people see the world (without thinking about it) as a possibility space open to practical actions and meaningful projects. The depressed person inhabits a different world altogether, even as she stands before us in the same room. Her depression precedes her experience of being present in the world.

It’s not a matter of losing one’s hopes; the depressed person lacks a capacity to hope for any meaningful life at all. She is estranged from the world of non-depressed people for whom possibilities appear “accessible with little effort.” The possibility of believing in possibility itself feels impossible.

Hers is an altered world marked by inhibition and indecision in which she feels trapped. Her future is not her own, and she is “passive, helpless and alone” before it. Good things won’t happen for her; only bad things will happen to her.

While Ratcliffe’s detailed analysis of depression helps me understand my illness, I wrote this post for people who don’t know how awful depression feels. I hope my blog offers possibilities for communion regarding an illness millions of people across the world know all too well but often lack the words to describe.

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Filed under Meta-Blog, Philosophy