Essays About

Curiously, I enjoy the same music more at a live show than on a home stereo. Why should this be? Objectively, the concert music is no better, only louder. My enjoyment is more intense because my attention is more intense. At home, I am a skimmer of sensory experience, the music playing in the background as I read the mail. At a concert, the world recedes, and I am simplified into a consciousness of sound. I hear riffs and instruments never heard in the deafness of my distraction. Inner simplification lets in the music's complexity.

The blind hear best because their ears lack competition; the deaf see best. Lovers close their eyes to concentrate on touch. Like wind through a narrow pass, the world enters us more forcefully when it must squeeze through a single sense.

A reader's days would seem dull to someone watching from outside. I read, think about my reading, and write about my thinking. I spend hours in chairs, staring at pages or screens, not speaking, hardly moving. The audience would wonder if I were alive. The life is inside: a reader's outward calm belies a mind in motion. We are wrong to think of readers as introverts. Readers are secret extroverts who crave constant society, only they crave it with novelists, philosophers, and poets, not their neighbors. They traverse distant worlds and interview the dead, while the so-called socialites never leave the local scene, homebodies of the here and now.

Watching an airplane gain altitude after takeoff, I marvel at the feat of flight. But on second thought I correct myself: my marveling depends on taking gravity for granted. Would it not be equally reasonable to marvel that a broken plane plummets to earth? If I strip my thoughts of custom, cutting my brain to the bone of ratiocination, I find no first principle of logic dictating that objects must fall.

We call facts like flight extraordinary because they violate ordinary facts like gravity. But ordinary facts are only extraordinary facts we have grown used to.

If we took nothing for granted, there would be no dullness to highlight the wonderful. Wonder rests on lack of wonder.

A part of me hates to see my one year old cry. But given that she cries over trivialities like falling ten inches from a standing to sitting position, a part of me loves to see her cry, because when her lips wrinkle and tears flow my love for her wells up. There is a disturbing paradox in love: we take pleasure in loving; the beloved's pain intensifies our love; therefore, we take pleasure in the beloved's pain.

Though I loved my daughter before she was born and very soon afterward, surprise, not love, was my chief emotion as the doctor pulled her from the birth canal. She entered life a rough-looking creature: her skin was covered with a white film, her wet black hair was matted to her head, and her right ear, the first feature I saw, was so crumpled from delivery that I briefly thought she had cauliflower ear. Looking past her disheveled condition at her face, I saw no resemblance to my wife or me. Though I had no real expectation of what she would look like, her unfamiliar appearance startled me by reminding me that I did not know her yet. I had loved my mental idea of her, talking to her through my wife's skin during pregnancy, but now her reality and particularity said to me, slow down with your love, I am not made in your mental image. How could this be my daughter, my dearest, the flesh of my flesh, when I could not have told her apart from a total stranger?

I've sometimes felt a milder version of this estrangement from expectation when arriving at a vacation rental that I had visualized incorrectly based on photographs. Imagine, too, the soul's alienation when, the veil of mortality lifted, it beholds God and discovers that the God it loved in life was only a fantasy, and it must now learn to love all over again.

I travel not only to see the world, but to see home. Every trip is two trips, because being abroad makes home a foreign land when I return. I choose destinations for their contrast with my origin: tropical instead of temperate vegetation, large instead of small cities, warm beaches in winter and alpine lodges in summer. I stay as long as I can, to weaken my memory of home. Then, at trip's end, as the airplane descends toward my old patch of earth, I get a newcomer's view of where I live. As I open my front door, my house is a hotel, where with a lodger's senses I notice the odor of my wood floors for the first time in months. For a day or two, I am a tourist of my own life.

By pleasure rather than labor, by release rather than exertion, we create life. Meanwhile, in all our other endeavors, we work much harder to produce a far less impressive result. It takes me months to write an essay; it took minutes to create my daughter.

True, my wife had to carry our child for nine months, and together we must guide and raise her for eighteen years, but these are outward and trivial aids. My wife in pregnancy, though I honor her suffering, was more acted upon than acting, a Petri dish for our fused cells to grow in. I am installing gates to keep our daughter from tumbling down the stairs, but she is mysteriously engineering her own ability to crawl. We parents are mere managers, facilitating rather than performing the critical work. We provide milk and play mats and cribs for naps, and out of these raw materials our babies assemble brains, speech, movement, emotions, and consciousness.

Why pore through parenting books as if a child's development hinged chiefly on our methods? Overzealous parents are like software managers who don't know how to program yet think projects will fail unless they tinker with the few superficial details they understand.

At parties, relocating from acquaintance to acquaintance, I exchange updates on work, family, or upcoming travel plans, repeating the same conversation five times an hour. To stave off boredom, I listen more than talk. I have a learner's nature, not a teacher's: I am more interested in what I do not know than in what I know. Thus I regard as a bore not the person who only speaks about himself but the person who only asks about me, a topic I already know. I seek out egotistical people who expand my knowledge of the world with detailed narratives of their fly-fishing excursions or their child's violin concerts, people who are as little interested in asking polite questions about me as I am in answering them. I want to hear the opinions of experts, and everyone is an expert about his own life.

I used to come home every night to a childless house, and I was happy. But since my daughter's birth, if I come home and she is away for the night at a grandparent's house, my evening goes poorly. I check the video monitor of the nursery and feel empty to see an empty crib. My evening walk, without her in a carrier against my chest, is exercise without pleasure. How can I be dependent on a being who, six months ago, did not exist? I did not need her when I did not have her. But she has entered my life as a nail enters a block of wood, simultaneously creating a hole and filling it. Remove the nail, and the hole remains. Love completes unhappy people, but uncompletes happy people, because love means we can no longer be happy alone.

Who would not be fascinated to know what his life will be like in 15 years? Yet time will satisfy our curiosity about the future so slowly that we will never gain much pleasure from learning the outcome. To quench my curiosity now, I travel back in time instead of forward. My present life is the future secret that some self of a prior decade longed to look into, and now I know the outcome and need only recall the curiosity. I imagine myself in high school wondering whom I would marry, where I would live after college, and what my job would be, so that I can pull the curtain of time and flood my remembered ignorance with insight. My accurate and failed predictions equally fascinate me: I am, and am not, who I planned to be.

The mind is a phasic receptor, only noticing a sudden stimulus. We are unconscious of who we've become because we became who we are too gradually. Forgetting is a trick for remembering.

I am more adventurous in a small than a large city. In a large city, the hassle of getting anywhere imprisons me within a few square blocks of my hotel. Intimidated by complex subway routes and the cost of parking, I favor not the best restaurant but the nearest, so I can walk. I venture afield in the daytime but skip the nightlife, for I hate to be exhausted at evening's end and need a conquistador's will to get back to my bed. In a small city, I can park where I like and make reservations last minute, and thus I never abandon a plan for dread of logistics. In a large city there is more to do, but in a small city I do more.

When a hurricane strikes a coastline, and I follow its onset and aftermath on the news, I am struck by the brevity of the event. Floodwaters rise to the second stories of buildings, and cars float in the street, but a day or two later, the ground is dry, the sun is out, and the world is as it was. Impressive as storms are, they cannot match the staying power of pleasant weather. They muster all they have and blow themselves out in twenty-four hours, like panting sprinters doubled over after fifty meters. The blue sky pushes their fury aside and re-asserts its casual sovereignty. With unsinkable buoyancy, normalcy resurfaces.

This return to normalcy sets me up for surprise when I read reports that people are dead. Though the waters no sooner rose than receded, the victims they briefly drowned did not revive with the next day's sunrise. The world before and after the storm was livable, and deadliness only encroached upon life for a moment, but life, a featherweight, once knocked down stays down. Surely the victims' lives, like the electricity, should only have been interrupted, not ended. The cause was fleeting: shouldn't the effect be?

negotiation_curve.jpgNegotiators—whether politicians or homebuyers—begin with bold concessions which rapidly shrink the gulf between opposing sides. But like curves approaching an asymptote in geometry, as they near an agreement they level off and struggle to bridge the final, though trivial, gap. The effect of their ongoing quarreling is that, by the end, their motivating goal is not so much to strike a deal or make a sale as to make the other side yield, on no matter how minor a point. The fact of winning a concession matters more than the concession's substance. Not who yields most, but who yields last, appears to lose. The negotiation grows more bitter, the less remains at stake.

I doubt the phrase "The Great Recession," as applied to the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, is destined for future history books. The word "recession," by reminding us of the weightier word "depression," undercuts the adjective "great." How can it have been great if it was not great enough to be a depression? It is only great in a lesser class, a superstar of the minor league.

The phrase's makers and repeaters commit the error of overestimating the magnitude of events they happen to live through. They judge from within, like farmers in tornados who, because the sky turns black and the wind blows the roof off their house, declare the apocalypse come, though at the moment of their prophecy most of the globe basks in sunlight.

When a parent says, "time to come in," the playing child protests, "must I?" Parents therefore declare children to be willful. But to children, parents must seem willful, for children grasp the rules but not the reasons. For adults, the reasons make the rules tolerable. We go to work because we know we must earn money. But children go kicking to school because going to school is the inscrutable dictate of their superiors. Adults live in an orderly cosmos of law and consequence, but children live in a Homeric world of fickle gods and arbitrary fate.

At concerts, moved by a beautiful song, we are drawn to the songmaker's soul, the wellspring of the song's beauty. If the glow she gives off in melody and words is so wonderful, how luminous it must be in the inner chamber of her being! Most likely, though, her soul's hearth is cold, for she has sung this song nightly to audiences for six months straight. Habit has deadened her to every feeling except loathing for another repetition. She was moved once, when she wrote the song, when she was the surprised and admiring audience of her own inspiration. But now she is only another instrument she herself plays, a flute deaf to its own sound.

Packing up my belongings when I move always causes me a small existential crisis. Suddenly, the walls are bare. Nail holes rather than photographs line the hallways. My feet, accustomed to the soft pile and bright pattern of an Oriental rug, touch a hard, cold floor. My empty bookshelves no longer cloak me in an aura of culture and history. My speakers are boxed up, and the quiet disquiets me. I have, in preparing to move, already moved into a house devoid of color, warmth, and resonance. Is this the same place I was living all along? Seeing my familiar home stripped and emaciated feels like seeing the skeletal figure of a friend on his death bed. The bare, unsignifying walls seem like a hidden truth I had papered over with my belongings. I worry, was the old life and color a lie? Is human meaning a poster on the white plaster wall of nature?

Cops and robbers would score the same on personality tests. Children who love guns and action, when they grow up, may act out their instincts on either side of the law. They may shoot people, or shoot people who shoot people. What we call brazenness in a criminal we call courage in a police officer.

Planning layoffs feels akin to planning a murder. Managers call secret meetings to identify which employees to eliminate. They observe the targeted workers' morning arrival times to plan the best hour to strike, forming teams of hit men to deliver the news.

Being privy to the plans places you in the morally questionable position of knowing your co-worker's fate but concealing it from him, like concealing from a friend that a car is about to hit him. You exchange pleasantries with him the day before his doom, discussing upcoming projects that you know do not concern him.

As the unlucky employees are called one by one to the boss's office, a contagion of rumors spreads through the building. Every heart thumps in fear of being called next, as medieval villagers trembled that the plague would jump from their neighbor's house to theirs, or as a panicked crowd scatters beneath the unpredictable aim of a rooftop sniper.

After the layoffs, survivor guilt blends with relief in those left behind. The names of the departed are taboo and spoken only in whispers. We say the fired employees were "let go," as if the company merely allowed rather than forced them to leave.

Soon, the daily collegiality of the workplace lulls everyone back into a sense of familial belonging, and we forget that we are instruments of profit whose continued employment depends on earning the company more money than we are paid.

The one who first states a case seems right, until the other comes and cross-examines. -Proverbs 18:17

In politics, everyone has a reasonable point. And because everyone is right, everyone is wrong-headed.

We assert the need for spending cuts while condemning cuts to programs that affect us. Our convictions rest on sound arguments applied inconsistently. We do not so much only care about our favorite programs as only know about our favorite programs. Thus we apply a specific logic in defense of them—the good they do—while applying a general logic against unknown programs—the overall need to trim deficits.

In abortion debates, opposing sides do not so much disagree on an answer as compellingly answer different questions. Pro-life advocates depict a battle between a woman and a fetus, in which no human has a right to decide if another should live. Pro-choice advocates depict a battle between a woman and the government, in which no senator has a right over a woman's reproduction.

The rich protest the estate tax unfair because it taxes the same wealth twice. The poor protest it unfair that they have no estate to tax.

Nothing hinders a fair hearing for truth like cogent arguments. No sooner are we convinced of the merit of our logic than we close our minds to the merit of other logics. In college, I wondered how great thinkers, reading the same map of world facts, could reach such contradictory conclusions.

Skeptics are right to doubt the dogmas of the convinced, but for the wrong reason. Truth eludes us not because there are no certainties in life, but because there are too many.

When I plan my budget each January, I lose whatever excitement I once felt for money, for I see how little goes to pleasure and how much to mere administration. Mortgage payments, car repair, insurance premiums, taxes, prescriptions, utilities—for these we stain our souls with the sin of greed? The money I earn from continuously working does not accumulate into wealth but dissipates into bills. I am a conduit of the economy, funneling money from the company that pays me to the companies I pay. It is not so much pleasurable to have money as unpleasurable not to have it.

A regrettable paradox of human aspiration is that, because we desire and strive for excellence, we have no time to relish it. Broken things rather than working things demand our attention. Nothing is more pleasant in writing than an inspired sentence that drops full-formed onto the page, but such sentences, by their very effortlessness, only provide a moment's pleasure. A writer's hours are spent bending and hammering the tough, unmalleable sentences that will not take shape. A jeweler delights in a polished stone, but the instant he has chiseled it, he sets it aside and picks up another rough rock. Work is not accidentally unpleasant but essentially so, for we work on what we wish to change, that is, on what we do not like. A company calls long meetings not to discuss strategies that are succeeding but that are failing. Our love of solutions forces us to keep company with problems.

Watching Olympic swimmers paddling through the water with gangly legs and arms, heaving their heads up for air, unequipped with fins or gills, I question the pride of the champions. Goldfish in an aquarium move more gracefully. Is not a contest of humans swimming like a contest of fish running? If animals competed in the Olympics, few humans would win medals. An elephant or rhinoceros would hurl our strongest wrestlers from the mat like plastic dolls. Our fastest sprinters would lose the 50-meter dash to their cats. Schools of sardines would dominate synchronized swimming.

Feats of intellect should be accorded more honor than feats of athleticism. To be an Einstein is to comprehend more of physics than any other mind in the known universe. But to win a gold medal in the Olympics is merely to stand atop one's narrow class of competitors, human beings, who share the same evolutionary handicaps. The Olympics are really the Special Olympics.

The less sympathy I feel toward an opinion, the warier I am of dismissing it. If the opinion seemed as ridiculous to others as to me, no one would assent to it. Therefore, others must see something I do not. I risk a false victory in scorning it, like a man who easily triumphs over his opponents in dreams because they are only his brain's emaciated inventions. Instead, if I cast my imagination beyond the circumference of my experience, I invariably find the odious viewpoint's flattering angle. Understanding grants the right, and removes the desire, to condemn.

Throughout history, solutions have led to more solutions. The invention of the wheel gave rise to the cart, the paddleboat, and hydropower. Mendelian genetics led to DNA forensics. But progress stalls as it nears its goal of the good life. The internal combustion engine produced the automobile, but the automobile produced global warming. Special Relativity made nuclear fission possible, which made Hiroshima possible. Because our grandfathers discovered how to amplify crop yields with pesticides, we must discover how to unpoison rivers and nurse dying species. Scientists seek cures for cancer, AIDS, Alzheimer's, diabetes, and multiple sclerosis, but if they succeed, our grandchildren will seek cures for overpopulation. In the beginning, humanity solves the problems nature made; in the end, the problems our own ingenuity made.

Were I just arrived in the world and forming my picture of humanity, the Geneva Conventions would perplex me. If nations can ratify treaties for humane conduct in war, why, inhumanely, do they go to war? The Geneva Conventions prescribe that the wounded must be cared for. But they may be wounded? Soldiers are to be evil toward the healthy but charitable toward the injured. Try to kill people, but if you miss, nurse them. Can there be laws of war when war is the breakdown of law, the free-for-all nations resort to when they cannot agree? The human blend of civility and brutality is like a murderer who wipes his shoes on the mat before entering your house to kill you.

The poverty line has risen throughout history. The tenants of modern trailer parks live in more luxury than early Sumerian aristocrats, whose mansions were reed huts with dirt floors. The motor scooters of unemployed college students travel faster than the horses of medieval lords. Civil War generals communicated by courier, but now every private has a mobile phone. Progress impoverishes the past. Complaints lose power when you think of your ancestors. We decry the cost of health insurance, but a century ago, there existed neither health insurance nor cures for it to pay for. I grumble when my air conditioning breaks in summer, but in ancient Egypt even Pharaohs had to sweat.

I reject condemnations of homosexuality in part because the condemners are always heterosexuals, who, like foremen of the good, command others to change without having to change themselves. The test of a moral assertion is where its burden falls. The morality of the saints makes life harder for oneself. The morality of social conservatives makes life harder for others.

My wife and I settle our arguments by deciding whom an adverse outcome would bother more. Better that one of us be slightly annoyed than the other be greatly annoyed. Rather than cajole each other or come to shouts, we weigh our would-be grievances. This leads to a policy of laissez-faire: if she wishes to attend a reunion and I do not, she goes alone, though she would rather I went with her and I would rather she stay home with me. Dragging me along would bring her less pleasure than me annoyance; vice versa if I stood in her way.

I apply this principle to the issue of gay rights. Discrimination hurts gays more than equality for gays hurts their opponents. At stake for gay people are their own lives; at stake for their opponents, merely others' lives. The effect on gays is material, direct, and daily; the effect on their opponents, abstract, remote, and occasional, concerning only the conformity of society to their moral beliefs. My neighbor, not me, gets to choose how to decorate his living room because he lives in it while I merely glimpse it through his window. Our rights extend only to the property line of our own life.

Traditional values are unjustly said to be under attack by the gay rights movement. An attack entails crossing the border into another's territory. Therefore no one can be an attacker who is merely defending his right to a share of the common happiness available to mortals. Gay rights is an issue of self-defense, which only looks like an attack because traditional values have so long forced a portion of humanity to suffer in silence.

Opposition to gay rights is commonly based on religion, which the United States Constitution forbids as the basis of law. That gays nevertheless lack equal rights under law is a reminder that, though laws govern nations, nations make and govern the laws. Therefore, if the ruling majority desires a society in which all are equal but whites can own blacks as slaves, or where church and state are separate but the state forbids gay marriage because the church says so, there is no external, independent, governing thing called Law to prevent such contradictions, nothing outside the lawmakers' own imperfect desire for moral consistency. The world is not governed by law but by power, expressed through law. Accordingly, the only way to change the world is to wield power, which in a democracy means the power to change minds.

dow.jpgLooking at a long-term stock chart of the Dow Jones Industrial Average, I gain a sense of continuity across change. Decades of chaotic current events are condensed into an oscillating line. My finger follows the Great Crash of 1929, ascends with the post-war boom, zigzags through the recessions and oil crises of the 1970s, soars with the technology bubble then dives with the housing bust. Events that, in the moment, felt infinite because they took up all the space of the present, are in hindsight tick marks in the giant patterns of history. The traders who made the line rise and fall on the left of the chart have all lost their fortunes and entered the poorhouse of death. But greed and fear persist eternally, and now new traders move the line. Buying and selling for self, they plot a collaborative graph, as medieval masons added stones to cathedrals their ancestors started.

The narrative of history we write with our lives forgets us, recording only our aggregate effect on the world. Perishable individuals collectively shape world trends as drops of water, each bursting inaudibly on pavement, create the rhythmic sound of rain.

Reading history can feel like reading fiction in that the historian depicts a world that does not exist for us beyond the page. From the modern world of aircraft carriers, skyscrapers, oil refineries, and the United Nations, the ancient world of Roman Emperors, Visigoths, chariot races, and polytheism seems separated not merely by chronological distance but by an ontological rupture. The past feels like an alternate universe, connected to the present only by the accident of a common setting, as fiction is linked to life by taking place in factual locations, though no path leads from our world to the novelist's.

Looking at my high school yearbook gives the lie to this conception. There I am as I was, living in another and now lost world, yet the fifteen years' journey from there to here did not require crossing any chasms nor tunneling through wormholes, but only the steady arrival of tomorrows. With this realization, I gain a line of sight back to the time of togas. The distant past became the present via the smooth, paved path of days. Epochal change is the work of the small, familiar quantities of time our clocks tick off. Knowing how minutes pass, we know how millennia pass.

I instinctively envy celebrities with their adoring crowds until I remember how little I like to socialize, altering my route on walks to avoid passing long-winded neighbors. I would only have wanted to be a celebrity before cameras and television, when admirers knew your name but not your face, and you could pass among them incognito. Today's celebrities enjoy every luxury except solitude. Like fugitives, they cannot visit the grocery store without hiding in hats and sunglasses. Their fame grants them access to privileged places but bars them from common places. To know yourself seems impossible when everyone knows you. The true self is the unrehearsed self, but spontaneity hides from an audience. I pity presidents who must issue official responses immediately after tragedies, unable like laymen to have a private reaction. They cannot attend to how they feel on account of planning what they must say. Even on private retreats where the press are barred, the protagonists of future history books are seldom alone, for they violate their solitude with the thought of their posthumous biographers. In fixating on how their fans and critics see them, they evict themselves from the private residence of their soul, giving up inner knowledge for a stranger's view of the exterior.

Privacy is life's consolation prize for worldly insignificance. Whomever the public does not ignore, it enslaves. Fame is like a spice: a little flavors life, but a lot ruins it.

Before my first visit to Rome, I bought a book surveying the sculptures and paintings of the Vatican Museums. I studied the reproductions, read the commentaries and artist biographies, and learned the history of the museums—readied my mind to enter the holy of holies of Western culture. My actual visit was more productive as a study of crowds than of art. I went in the sweltering heat of mid-July, with Rome under a barbarian invasion of tourists. Unlike my leisurely review of the photographs at home, I had two hours to gulp down the originals amid a standing-room-only crush of twenty thousand visitors. Viewing art in tourist season is like visiting Mount Fuji under low clouds. Thick walls of fellow visitors' heads obscured the bottom halves of statues. Packed tour groups, like colonies of penguins, waddled, not walked, through the halls of tapestries. In the Sistine Chapel, cloaked in a miasma of human body odor, I craned my neck to see on the high ceiling the famous frescoes that at home I had held in my lap. The originals seemed faint copies of their reproductions.

Mobs of humanity consecrate a football game but desecrate an art museum. Besides getting in our way, loud families in matching T-shirts deflate our sense of sophistication as art connoisseurs. As one of the tourists, I had to acknowledge myself a contributor to the annoyed expressions of tour guides and security guards. I noted with displeasure that two of the armpits I smelled were my own. On my pilgrimage to culture, I felt like a philistine.

Some nights my wife is late getting home, and, bypassing the innocent explanation that she is running errands or had a meeting after work, my mind flies to the thought it dreads: she has wrecked her car, she is never coming home. I permit these morbid hypotheses because they renew my love with miraculous potency. In the midst of my anticipatory mourning, I hear a key turning in the lock: the door opens: she is resurrected from the dead! I kiss her and thank fate, and she kisses back, perplexed by my excess affection. For a happy marriage, the only counseling couples need is an occasional fear that each other has died.

Gossip consists of two people bonding with each other at someone else's expense. Over drinks after work, new friends speak ill of a co-worker. They do not mean to be mean. Rather, their unkind words are an offering of kindness to each other, as if to say, See how much more I like you than I do him.

We appreciate similarity by contrast with difference. Amid the foreign speech and customs of other cultures, we make instant friends with a fellow countryman, chattering like old companions, though on streets at home we would pass each other by as strangers. We exchange phone numbers but never call, because once home among friends, a shared homeland is an unremarkable bond.

A common enemy makes former enemies friends. Political parties battle each other in times of peace, while national unity is rarely so strong as in time of war. Widening the logic, if a hostile race of extraterrestrials arrived to annihilate earth, Iran and Israel would hold hands for the good of humanity.

Parents who boast of their child's developmental progress mistake a general miracle for a particular miracle. They do not so much overestimate the progress but the uniqueness of their child. Watching a being who was recently nonexistent learn to walk, speak, and socialize, they rightly marvel, but because their sample size is one, they assume they birthed a prodigy. Their judgment suffers from a deficiency not of accuracy but of scope. Could they watch other children grow up, they would discover them to be prodigies too. Their praise would spread from their family to humanity, their pride change to wonder.

Success, by way of ambition, leads to failure. The more we achieve, the more we think we can achieve; our hopes rise exponentially in relation to our skill. Talented drama students, heartened by the cheers of local audiences, journey to Hollywood after high school, where everyone was a talented drama student, and there are only jobs as extras. The best baseball players in the minor league go to the major league, where they are the worst players. As air bubbles rise through water and dissolve in the atmosphere, the above average rise until they are average. As we ascend the ranks, our status falls.

I travel to taste life in another place, but what I primarily taste, wherever I go, is the life of travel. In the taxonomy of experience, traveling occupies a single genus regardless of destination: a life of looking at things. I walk down streets, tour buildings, photograph statues, stand at scenic overlooks. The sights change, but the flavor of sightseeing stays the same. We over-associate travel with adventure and growth. Traveling can be as repetitive as any activity. Reliving the same vacation in destinations around the world, one discovers the cosmopolitan life to be oddly provincial. Traveling is an experience rather than an avenue to experience.

We want to get to the place where history happened. We feel nearer antiquity when we stand in the Roman Forum, though we have only moved nearer in space, not in time. We are moved by an empty field of grass because a Civil War battle was fought there once. We travel great distances to museums to see original paintings that we have seen as clearly and without the crowds in reproductions, because our eyes must rest on the canvas the master's hand touched.

But does the body of history lie in the shrines where we seek it? Space is as restless as time. After one hundred fifty summers of new growth, the grass in the Civil War field is not the grass the soldiers stood on. The museum's famous paintings glow with oil pigments from the restorer's, not the artist's, brush. In the Roman Forum, we walk upon the dust from prior visitors' shoes and breathe the air that they, not the ancients, exhaled. Caesar's dust has likely disappeared from Rome, but we may find it in our garden when we get home, if the winds of two millennia have blown it there.

I never work so hard as on vacation. For weeks before my departure, I cannot relax on weekends because I must research and plan. Hail to the free spirits and gypsies who can find their way as they go. I have learned that any decision I neglect to make in advance, I will have to make in the moment, when time is scarcer, stress higher, and strangers waiting for my answer. My task—from a starting point of zero knowledge, to determine what to do, how long, and in what order—appears conquerable from a distance, but the more I learn, the more complexities emerge. The restaurant and theater I have chosen for Wednesday night are not in walking distance. The museum for Saturday is closed weekends. Research, before it yields solutions, multiplies problems.

On arriving, I tighten into a state of poise and tension: heightened alertness must compensate for heightened ignorance. Hailing a taxi, ordering food, and talking with a hotel receptionist follow rules and conventions I am oblivious of. I am reborn into childhood, my decades of education and social instruction made irrelevant. I revert to feelings of self-consciousness not felt since adolescence.

Finally, my vacation is over, and I can go back to work and rest.

The worst part of travel is the traveling. The destination is my goal, the journey the unfortunate cost. I lose two days of a precious week's vacation to airplanes, car rental counters, and waiting in traffic on freeways. The chore of changing locations compels me, against my wish, to do my traveling all at once: to cram four cities into five days, to rise earlier on vacation than I do at home, to choose exhaustion over the regret of slowing down. I wish I could travel like I eat, in small regular meals, not once-a-year binges. I daydream of a network of machines that would atomize my body at my origin and reassemble it from other atoms at my destination, so I could visit Russia over my lunch hour or take my evening walk in Rio. Absent an atomizer, give me the bullet train of books, which whisk me across continents in an instant without suitcases or jet lag. I want to see too many places to wait for matter to tag along. A traveler packs too heavy if he takes his body with him.

Visiting foreign countries, I can never suppress a sense of the inefficiency of humanity speaking multiple languages. Each language repeats with slight variation what every other language already says, like people in group discussions who, to assert themselves, restate in their own words and examples every comment anyone makes. The redundancy of languages suggests the lack of a world supervisor. Earth's societies are like children playing without an adult, each making its own rules which no one else abides by.

Abroad, I experience life like a deaf person, interpreting faces instead of phrases. Watching old Greek women make small talk by a storefront or Italian cab drivers hurl angry sounds at other drivers, like cab drivers at home, I feel falsely divided from my fellow humans. Beneath their opaque words are recognizable actions and emotions. Nature gave them and me the same brain, but culture divided us with different sounds for getting our thoughts out.

I grant that linguistic diversity adds color to the world, and that I will never know Dante truly if I read him in translation, but the bar of cosmopolitanism is too high. I tend to give up learning languages after a few months, for it is odious to regress from a mastery of English to a second-grade knowledge of French or German—from deciphering Melville to deciphering menus.

I sympathize with religions that see language as God's gift and diversity of language as God's curse. Humanity has over-solved the problem of communication. Once, we were isolated from each other by lack of speech. Now, by excess.

Could I be any kind of celebrity, I would not be a politician. No celebrity can be admired by everyone, but most celebrities are merely ignored by non-admirers. A famous scientist bores and confuses the masses, who therefore pay no thought to famous scientists. Teenagers who do not like a pop star simply do not buy her albums. But whoever does not like a politician is likely to hate him, because what he produces are not albums but laws. Few can be indifferent toward someone whose actions reach into their lives. Political fame must send confusing signals to self-esteem. Does a president toast his ego that he was elected, or despair that polls show half the nation hates him?

Europe's cathedrals sublimely evoke the absence of God. They are temples that have decayed into museums. Tourists, not worshippers, fill their naves, driven by curiosity, not faith. One does not pay alms anymore but admission fees. The altar is roped off, not because it is sacred, but fragile. The silence of emptiness has replaced the silence of holiness.

Wandering past vacant pews and pulpits among guidebook-toting spectators, I become briefly nostalgic for the cathedrals' sacred past, until, opening my guidebook, I study that past and find nothing sacred. The glittering walls and shrines are decorated with ill-gotten gold, stolen relics, and war booty. The soaring domes and spires were raised to heaven not from piety but ambition, to outdo nearby cathedrals and show that Florence was better than Pisa, as modern Malaysian and Shanghai architects compete to build the tallest skyscraper. The niches are filled with the tombs of the rich, not because rich men were holy then but because they wanted to buy the best salvation for themselves, as today's rich use their millions to nuzzle up to power and buy the best laws and policies for themselves. In the cathedrals' history as opposed to their aura, I recognize the same political machinations, class inequality, greed, and immorality that rule the world today—the trademark signs of man curiously grafted onto religion. Life has left Europe's cathedrals, but God was never there.

A secular and a religious society are equally profane, for a secular society banishes the sacred, while a religious society defiles it with the human.

Comedy is the most unforgiving genre. For a novelist, poet, or scholar, an admixture of mediocrity need not be damning. An occasional prosaic thought can pass unnoticed amid the greater thoughts around it, just as no one notices the mulch in a bed dense with flowers. Even Milton writes dull verses sometimes, which we enjoy reading because they let us rest from interpretation.

But for a comedian alone among writers, anything that does not hit, misses. A joke that falls flat cannot fall back to being filler; no lower purpose redeems it. A poor punch line in a stand-up act, instead of fading in the surrounding laughter, creates the awkward silence that everyone in the audience remembers. Every comedic utterance that is not a triumph is a failure.

A comedian needs courage besides humor.

Boredom for a subject does not reflect a defect in the subject, but in our understanding of it. In the ears of the ignorant, a foreign language is a monotonous barrage of meaningless intonations, but knowledge of its grammar transforms sound into speech, capable of conveying Shakespeare's or Plato's meaning. The surface of Mars seems to me a tiresome landscape of red dirt, but to an astrophysicist who speaks the obscure language of rocks, it is a crossword puzzle written by the Big Bang. We protest to the passionate not to bore us with details, not realizing that lack of details is precisely what bores us, for details reveal the richness and inner coherence that are invisible from a distance, as a microscope reveals teeming life in a drop of muddy pond water.

Paging through an accounting textbook, walking past a wig shop, or listening to a lecture on early American basket-making, I never say "that is uninteresting" but rather "I am uninterested", for it is always more reasonable to assume that I fail to see what is there than that devotees see what is not there. I love to hear of people devoting their lives to pursuits that sound dull to me, for I know that their enthusiasm is right and my boredom is wrong, and I am happy for the rebuke. I convert my specific boredoms into general fascination with passion's possibilities, reflecting that, under altered alignments of choice and chance, I might have given my days to different causes. There is more worth loving than we have strength to love.

A foolish trope of modernity is that experience leads to disenchantment and ennui. Boredom with life does not result from exhausting life's riches, but from skimming them. Nothing is boring, except people who are bored.

I write by trial and error. I move words around until I happen to like their arrangement. In the labor and details of bringing a thought into being, I lose my way and half-forget what I wanted to say. I do not find my way but keep trying sentences until, in the words before me, I recognize and remember my original thought.

The secret of writing is not so much vision or inspiration but the mundane ability to stop tinkering when we realize we've written something worth keeping. By an unmysterious formula, one accumulates good sentences by discarding bad ones. Creativity is the source of writing, but selectivity is the source of good writing. A writer is a prospector panning for gold in the stream of his own thoughts. He picks out the gems and nuggets and presents only them to the world, so that the world thinks his mind produces gold, though it mainly produces mud.

Supposedly, a monkey on a typewriter, through sheer luck, could eventually type out Hamlet. But a monkey would keep typing, ignorant of his achievement, while a writer who stumbles on truth or beauty seizes his luck and sends his manuscript to the publisher.

We live in slavery to our ambitions. We complain of doing what no one makes us do. In the workplace, companies strain to meet the stratospheric goals naively conceived in the zeal of a board meeting. Executives restructure divisions, employees work weekends, managers cut costs and strain nerves to meet deadlines, overlooking the simpler solution of swapping their original fantasy for realism. For the pride of being president, the successful politician endures public ridicule, early gray hair, and a daily bread of crisis. At home, we plan parties meant to be fun then wither and growl under the stress of baking dessert and cleaning the house. Many nights I hate to sit down and write, but long ago some former self decided to do it, and, like a child raised under strict religion, backsliding afflicts me with guilt.

We groan under the law and forget that our own hands carved the tablets. Why not smash them instead of obey them?

Observing teenagers—their self-doubt and theatricality, the earnestness of their flirting, their bleeding desire to be seen, to be loved, to be in love—I envy adolescence. Granted, I am far happier in my early thirties than I was at seventeen, and would not trade places. My teenage years were at sea, which is to say were typical, but in the decade since, I have made landfall, gotten a wife, a career, a home; I have set my lands in order. I have attained much of what I then felt sick with desire to have. But though happy, I am happy within the limits of possibility, whereas my teenage imagination was ignorant of limits. Adolescence attracts me not for the happiness I had, but for the happiness I believed I could have. Desire, not happiness, tastes of the infinite. I felt most alive in those years I would least relive.

When I look at my wedding photo, I am amazed that such an important decision as who to spend my life with was made by someone so young. The life I live now, albeit happily, is not the life that I, but this baby face, chose. With age we get wiser, but our green and innocent selves have already made life's great decisions. A doctor labors for forty years at a career he chose as a college sophomore. A fifty-year old smokes because a fifteen-year old wanted to try it. Decision is brief, and consequence long. Five minutes of pleasure leads to parenthood. Moments determine decades.

By a confused instinct, depressed people often overeat. Their mind is empty and hungry, but the only food they have is for the body. The body gets fat because the soul is suffering a famine.

The word "death" is a strong and solid word that does not blush or flinch, calling life's terminus by its first name, without apology. But most people euphemize death with the softer phrase "passed away". To pass away suggests a gentle and painless transition from one state to another, like chilled water passing imperceptibly into ice. Thereby words conceal from thoughts the horrors of violent accidents and the wracking agonies of terminal illness, as if everyone, instead of only a lucky few, died peacefully in his sleep. And where we peacefully pass is "away", a nebulous word that does not suggest a termination, but neither specifies a destination. It is a kind of leaving off, a gesture of open-endedness, an ellipsis at sentence's end. It is, accordingly, the perfect word for the skeptical yet sentimental modern mind, which cannot accept annihilation, nor easily believe in immortality. "Passed away" allows vague hope without dogma, as if to say, "He has gone somewhere else, please don't ask for details."

I am naturally reserved and slow to join in anything requiring abandon or hinting of folly. Adding to nature, I have inherited from reading philosophy a tendency to regard society as a factory of absurd conventions. But through observing others like me, I have come to feel disdain for this disdain. In a room of people clapping and dancing to music, the person who doesn't participate, thinking it foolish, is the one who looks most foolish. Intellectual snobbery has an adolescent quality. A thirteen year old scoffs to play a childish game, because he must distinguish himself from a child, but a grown-up crawls on the floor with the children. Sometimes, being mature requires acting ridiculous.

Consumers live by the fads that marketers make up in the shower. Every consumer must have, as essential to his being, what until recently did not exist. Advertisers portray the new as indispensable, and consumers mistake their greed for need. Nothing can be a need that most of humanity lived without. Nor unless you think of it by yourself, without the aid of advertisements.

Christmas is not so much the season of giving but of trading. Commerce is nearer our nature than charity, so we strive to exchange gifts of precisely equal value. We resent the friend whose gift is unexpected, forcing a late run to the mall to reciprocate. Like accountants, we must settle the books and rid our balance sheet of debt.

Often, lest we surprise each other with unwanted gifts, we tell each other what we would like: in brief, we run each other's errands.

Since, in exchanging presents, everyone's net gain is null, I prefer the more efficient gift of not giving.

I admire the seacoast for many qualities—the unobstructed immensity, the thundering surf, the hint of peril, the brisk and blowing vitality. However, I admire other elements merely because they are part of the seacoast, such as shipping and fishing. Why should these industries interest me more than, say, hunting and logging? Only because they occur upon the already interesting ocean.

There is a tipping point where love spills over to things otherwise not lovable. The ugly feet of a beautiful woman are made desirable by the body they are attached to. A loud laugh that annoys us in a co-worker cheers us in a brother, because our opinions are pinned to different contexts.

We come to love the whole on account of a few parts, then come to love the remaining parts on account of the whole.

Perversely, gift-giving has a bias toward the useless. Specialty electronics, imported bath oils, and time-saving tools that require more effort to operate than they save have an air of extravagance and luxury, while useful gifts like bread or cereal or coins for parking meters seem thoughtlessly uninspired. Thus we clutter our friends' attics with products no one would purchase for himself. We give our most useful gift, money, to corporations.

At holidays we make donations to the economy in each other's honor.

The glue of a happy marriage is shared time. My wife knows my mind, and I hers, not from deep, late-night conversations, but by the osmosis of being together year after year. As grains of sand form massive dunes, small forgettable revelations of our personalities, accumulating daily, have grown into a detailed knowledge that makes all other relationships seem shallow. We share life's major experiences with a wide circle of family and friends, but the whims of mood, fleeting thoughts verbalized, and countless incidents too trivial to bother repeating to anyone else are our private possession and form the filaments of our intimacy.

Love is not an exact fit. Ours was not the instant connection of soul mates, the I delightedly encountering its mirror image in another. We were not two puzzle pieces, for our edges bumped and gapped and overlapped. But our edges were fluid like the walls of two amoebas, and over time each spread and grew into the contour of the other.

Most of our successes are so modest as to better resemble failures. The ripples we make in society are detectable only by ourselves. Happily, we are masters at making the most of little. Our small feats appear huge through the microscope of our vanity. We plaster plaques and diplomas on our home office walls, a private shrine to self with one worshipper. We re-read to infinity newspaper clippings that quote us. We slip references to our latest achievements into conversations, as others are otherwise destined to ignorance of them. An internet search gets us giddy that five web pages—out of five hundred billion—mention our name.

The mind's hunger is not like the stomach's. The hungrier the stomach, the more it needs. The hungrier the mind, the less.

We remember the dead only as they were at life's end. Obituary photographs are nearly always recent, though the deceased was eighteen for as long as she was eighty. Through windows, you glimpse a home's inhabitants and from yard signs guess their opinions, but the marble cottages of the dead tell you nothing but a name and date of death. Is it not odd to remember each other by when cancer or car wreck carried us off—an accidental fact that formed no part of our chosen identity? Our lifelong passions and carefully planned profession are forgotten; the unplanned date our plans were halted is engraved in granite. As with the residents of Pompeii, buried under pumice while washing dishes, death fixes us forever in the amber of our final identity. Thus the ancient Greeks favored an early death, that posterity remember their youth and beauty, not their age and decrepitude.

Bias for the final frame of time's moving picture pervades all of life. Politicians are remembered by the scandals that end their careers. A game is won not by the team who leads most, but leads last. Catholics go to heaven or hell for the state of their soul on their death bed, one unforgiven mortal sin trumping a life of virtue.

Never mind first impressions, let us make good last impressions.

A graveyard has no electricity, no bus routes, little traffic, an abundance of grass and trees, and drains no watershed. The dead downsize from downtown lofts and suburban tract mansions into modest one-room coffins. Consumers who never recycled their bottles recycle their bodies. Oil barons who plundered Alaska's tundras, over millions of years dissolve into oil themselves. We can do nothing as good for the earth as relocate from on it to under it.

The problem with visiting historic cities is that we can only go in the present. Drawn by a magnificent past, we arrive to the deflating realization that this place that was once a stage is now a backwater. What greatness has issued from Florence in the last four centuries? I do not so much want to visit Florence, but to visit the Renaissance; I do not want to see Michelangelo's paintings, but Michelangelo painting. I would like to pick a century as well as a country when I travel.

Having felt letdown visiting history's has-beens, I prefer places whose moment is now. One travels to Hong Kong or San Francisco not for what they were, but what they are. San Francisco was a sand dune when Brunelleschi was building his dome and the Medici ousted Machiavelli, but now history ships from Silicon Valley while storied Florence is reduced to reminiscence. The best place to look for life is in the present, and in imagination of the past. Thus I read books about Florence, and book flights to California.

I temper my temper with laughter. Hurriedly washing dishes and breaking a glass, I swing a fist at the air for the extra work of cleaning it up, while a volley of profanity bursts like bad poetry from my lips. Turning, I glimpse my face in the hallway mirror, and the red of my fury cedes place to the red of my shame. Feeling my rational judgment stare down my charade, squirming under my own rebuke, I lighten the moment with a laugh. Thus my tantrums do not so much release my anger as embarrass me into being more patient. Could the cantankerous world likewise hold a mirror up to war, humanity would be shamed into peace.

  1. Origins of criticism in vanity. Birth of the critic in the undergraduate classroom, where truth is the podium on which pretentious youth elevates itself above the masses. Criticism as self-congratulation: the critic knows better, is the chosen one who will rid the world of error.

  2. The noble mission of criticism. Maturity and immersion in the cause bring self-forgetfulness out of a genuine desire for a changed society. Passion for the world's potential supplants self-aggrandizement as the critic's motivation.

  3. Self-corrosion. Love of what ought to be, gradually, becomes contempt of what is. The slowness of society to change disillusions the once idealist into a misanthrope, seeing only the world's worst. As acid eats its container, years of acrid words corrode the speaker's humanity.

Criticism seldom changes society for the better, but often changes the critic for the worse.

Poets exhort us to savor life by forgetting the past and future and living wholly in the present. Yet I find that living in the present is precisely what hinders appreciation. During the week, I live solely in the present. I eat, work, eat, sleep, repeat. My world is circumscribed by my commute; my mind's range is limited by my body's. Do not animals live wholly in the present?

In the weekend's pause, I read a Balzac novel and emigrate to history for an afternoon. I think of the great populace of the dead, see my life in the context of Life, gain depth of emotion through breadth of imagination.

As travelers in foreign countries think fondly of home, we must be conscious of other times to love our home, the moment. Living fully in the present requires living partly in the past.

People who advocate cutting car emissions, installing solar panels, and cleaning up watersheds to "help the environment" speak naively. They frame conservation as a moral issue—humanity restraining itself for the good of vulnerable creatures and defenseless habitats. Rather, the point of conservation is to keep humanity off the endangered species list. Can GDP flourish when, oil gone, we are back to burning candles? In four hundred years, the future may look prehistoric. In Europe, twenty-fifth century cavemen will scavenge among the ruins of the Uffizi.

Environmentalism is not about saving nature, but saving civilization.

My mornings begin with fifteen minutes of depression. Startled from slumber's nothingness by my alarm, I see what I must do today, but not why I must do it. My mind is as calm as a Buddha's, examining my planned activities with passionless clarity, surveying life without yet quite belonging to it. All my business has an air of empty busyness. Toasting breakfast, commuting to work, responding to emails—all normalcy seems a costume of the preposterous.

By the time I step from my shower, my philosophic why? has given way to what order should I run my morning errands? Practicality clouds my clairvoyance, curing my depression not with hope, but a to-do list. Small thoughts rescue me from large thoughts.

From the delivery room to the morgue is a short walk down the hallway of life. Obstetricians keep undertakers in business.

Human nature needs both fellowship and freedom, but usually we must choose. The more we encircle ourselves with others, the more we handcuff our will. Ask for help on a project at work, and it will not be done exactly how you want. Marry, and your holidays will be spent at in-laws'. Have children, and you will listen to their music in the car instead of yours. But worship your freedom, and you will be an empty temple. A bachelor's life resembles a widower's. Write, sing, or paint the way you please, disregarding the market's demands, and you will be your own and only audience. Travel wherever you want, whenever you want, and you will go alone.

Fellowship imprisons us, freedom exiles us.

There is a paradox in venerating traditions, namely that traditions were not, in their time, traditional. All religious founders were progressive innovators, yet their followers are often conservatives. Politicians look reverently back to the founding fathers, but the founding fathers looked experimentally forward, irreverent toward their own traditions. The historic houses that preservationists praise, disparaging modern construction, were brand new when they were built, their gingerbread trim and bay windows breakthroughs and their architects avant-garde. To worship the past is a misunderstanding, for the past has never existed, only a history of previous presents.

The idea of the sea whets our imagination. The ocean's complexity mirrors the mind's own depths. Just as consciousness conceals the unconscious, the sea's sunlit, glittering surface masks an underworld of mysteries and monsters. How flat and fathomable solid land seems, compared to the murky world beneath the waves. Thus land-dwellers pile onto boats in search of mystical, primordial encounters with earth's liquid wilderness. Instead, many spend the trip puking their lunch over the rail, their stomach in mutiny against their mind's romanticism.

Our souls get sick for, our bodies sick from, the sea.

I prefer for no one else to want what I want. In high school I loved discovering the flaws of attractive girls, because flaws made them more attainable, without making them less desirable. I hoped the competition would be turned off, leaving the uncontested prize to me. Similarly, in traveling, I place a premium on obscurity, favoring second-rate scenery with solitude over first-rate scenery with hordes of tourists. Picking a career, a restaurant, or a neighborhood to live in, I try to follow not my strongest but my strangest desire, the longing that leads to the least crowded enjoyment. The easiest odds of happiness lie not with what we love most, but with what we love most uniquely.

To know someone truly, look at what he does when no one is paying him. My wife makes jewelry, my father gardens, I write, my grandfather cleared brush from the woods by his house. Seeking the common core of varied hobbies, I notice in all a devotion of effort toward a self-imposed goal. To accomplish something is every hobby's purpose, but what is the purpose of the accomplishment? We are less interested in the accomplishment than the accomplishing. Hobbies express an entrenched urge to create, to add patches of order to the universe. In our hobbies as in our careers, we stack the world's raw scraps into meaningful shapes—arranging dirt into flower beds, stones into necklaces, words into paragraphs. We curse a Saturday that sees no progress on our projects, not because anyone needs what we produce, but because we need to produce. At work we long for leisure; in leisure we keep working.

Despite their good manners, I dislike when Mormons knock at my door to sign me up for salvation. Whether the product is heaven or a vacuum cleaner, I am not much for salesmen. Can they know what's best for me, who do not know me? At least Mormons wear starched shirts and neckties to warn me I am the object of their calling. More cunning were the undercover missionaries I knew in college, who befriended people in order to convert them. Friendship and proselytizing are incompatible, for the latter requires molding others into your image, while the former requires leaving them as they are. Genuine friendship means respecting your friends enough to let them be damned.

I am a better reader now than when I was in graduate school, because I read with less enthusiasm. I can stay with a book from cover to cover, whereas in graduate school I could scarcely finish anything, because I wanted to read everything. Ten pages in, I was craving the next book. My patience was insufficient for novels, so I mostly read poems and essays. To visit libraries paralyzed me with my options. I sampled tables of contents endlessly, but an excess of hunger prevented me from eating.

I knew a friend in college who behaved similarly toward people at gatherings. Spotting you from across the room, he would curtail his conversation and weave through crowds to greet you, but as he shook your hand, his eyes were already scanning for the next friend he craved talking to. His hand and eyes, his having and wanting, were always out of sync. He liked so many people that he scarcely knew anyone beyond hello.

Too much desire is self-defeating, wildly overrunning the thing it wants. Passions need a pinch of apathy to slow them down to the pace of enjoyment.

A paradox of philosophy is that, having originated as the pursuit of knowledge, it has mainly led to skepticism. Aristotle sought rational meaning in nature and humanity, but philosophers since him have steadily given up, culminating in the twentieth-century existentialists who deny the meaning of life, and deconstructionists who deny any meanings beyond the mere wizardry of words.

Yet what do philosophers accomplish by their denials of meaning? They gain for themselves professorship and authorship; they define an idea they can embrace and base their life upon.

Humans are so needful of meaning, we find it even through denying it.

The more that models nip and tuck toward perfection, the more boring their beauty becomes. Have we not seen blond hair, spotless skin, implanted breasts, and a 24-inch waist before? Like Plato's eternal Forms, perfection has only one mold from which all copies are cast. Beauty is more alluring with a blemish, because imperfections add uniqueness. A beautiful face with an off-centered smile or oddly-dimpled chin says to the eye, there is only one me. Though beauty ought not to have warts, it ought to have texture. Polished beauty has a quality of mass production, while blemishes provide a patch of particularity to which desire attaches more firmly. No wonder Zeus, the Greeks' most amorous god, preferred mortal girls to goddesses.

Everyone seeks their soul's good, even in seeking their body's pleasure. Hedonists hope their material enjoyment will reach inside and touch the marrow of their being. Is this not what saints are seeking, by alternate experiments? A middle-aged rich man in a red convertible, cruising the Amalfi coast with a model half his age, is merely another kind of monk, whose spiritual discipline is indulgence. Every mall is a monastery where the initiates seek beatitude, not by selling everything before they enter, but by buying everything before they leave.

Playing my music albums in my car, I hum half-indifferently, too familiar with the melody to be intrigued by it. Why then, if I hear the same song played by a sidewalk musician or coming through department store speakers, do I instantly wake with admiration for it, my ears strangely gaining a new delicacy to feel the contours of every note? Similarly, why do concert-goers scream at the start of every song they recognize, when they never screamed at home? Is this our vanity saying to the world, behold me, I know this? The song we snubbed in solitude is now being honored, and we wish to assert our association, like a man who never desired his wife until his neighbor paid her interest. Our complacency as owners is replaced by our longing as outsiders.

At the funerals of the young, grief is raw and chaotic. Young people being the limbs and liveliness of the world, the death of the young amputates the world, and the mourners' grief is like the howling of an amputee. In contrast, the funerals of the old are more solemn than horrific. Why beat one's breast at the inevitable? On closer inspection, this solemnity for the old is a muted grieving for the young, that is, for the young of fifty years ago, on whose world the barely cracked door claps shut when the elderly die. Fifty years ago, the hunched and white-haired hobblers of the present were in their prime, making laws and making loans and making love, when today's movers and makers were still asleep in the lampless anteroom of the future. The sun shone on a world that, with the elderly's death, no one left living now remembers except through lifeless books and black-and-white photographs. As the coffin is lowered, not so much a person as an era is laid to rest.

We think of childhood as a time of stability, and adulthood as changing and uncertain. But whenever I visit my niece and nephew, this attitude is revealed as false nostalgia. Every visit, my niece and nephew walk differently, pronounce "R"s differently, attend a new school, are taller, play with different toys, have new wardrobes, converse with me at a higher level of consciousness. I must enjoy any likable phrasing or mannerism quickly, since next visit my niece and nephew will be new versions. What do adults know of mutability? Occasionally we switch gyms or jobs or towns, but children change their whole costume of body and mind on a regular schedule, cycling through identities faster than birthdays. Our unit of aging is the decade, theirs is the month. Humans age faster, the younger they are.

My religion cannot decide whether paradise is a party or a nap. In the New Testament, Jesus compares heaven to a marriage feast, while St. Paul refers to the dead having fallen asleep. The Requiem Mass begins with the paradoxical lines:

Rest eternal grant to them, O Lord,
And let light perpetual shine upon them.

Are we to rest forever, or be shined on forever? Surely we are not to sleep with the lights on—God's glory as the lamp with no off-switch? Perhaps these conflicting metaphors are proper, for on earth we crave both waking and sleeping in turn, adventure and unconsciousness; why not in heaven? An infinity of repose would bore us for half of infinity. Likewise, an everlasting banquet would weary us with very bliss and make us wish our souls were in the coffin with our bodies. Eternal life needs respites of death to be a heaven.

For a few days after we die, more people think of us simultaneously than ever did while we were living. Friends not seen for seven years drive seven hours for our funeral. Neighbors remember us to each other while raking their yards. Church ladies compliment our common qualities as rare virtues. Reading our name in newspapers, the whole town sighs for us over breakfast. In a week, the talk is moving on to other topics, and, being dead, we are powerless ever to call attention back to ourselves again.

Our names burn out like light bulbs, briefly flashing before going black.

A mere ankle used to arouse a man, but now midriffs, thongs, and cleavage barely wake men's sluggish lust—free appetizers shoveled upon the plates of the sated.

Despite our condescension toward Victorian prudery, repression bred a more intriguing sexual world than modern looseness and liberation. Scorned by morality, desire crept beneath gentility. Sexuality, like the proper name of God in Judaism, was never spoken of yet permeated the mind. A Victorian bachelor, bursting with decades of pent passion, fought the daily inner war of being a gentleman with genitals. Contrast the silly stars of modern television, quenching their lust as mindlessly as mounted monkeys. Promiscuity blunts their pleasure's edge, just as drunkards taste their liquor least. What do rock stars sampling women's bodies nightly know of the sex drive? Fasters, not feasters, feel hunger's ferocity.

Similarly, high school sexuality is more interesting than college sexuality because the colossal urges and instincts of adolescence are checked and impeded by the lingering authorities of parents, teachers, and principals. High school sex is secrets and sneaking out and dark back seats, while in college the reins are clipped and the goat of instinct rushes headlong into debauchery. Sexuality loses its tension and, with it, its worthiness of attention.

Great forces are best revealed against their opposites. Sex needs repression as a storm wave needs a sea wall.

Doctors recommend physical activity as a treatment for depression. Souls are like airplanes, they must keep moving in order not to crash.

The busier I get, the more barren my life seems of meaning, but the less time I have to worry about it. Galloping to keep up with my calendar, tripping over appointments, occasionally I glimpse the absurdity of the frantic life. The only purpose of today is to check off yesterday's to-do list, and create tomorrow's. My overscheduled mind scarcely stops to let me sleep, yet my thoughts add up to mindlessness, since I never pause to notice I am living. Am I only a machine for labor, a thinking version of an ox?

Luckily, my vision of existential futility is cut short by my next approaching deadline. Busyness is the cause, and cure, of a pointless life.

It must grieve dead composers that their symphonies and concertos are regarded by the masses as perfectly suited for background music. The compositions worthiest of analysis go not only unanalyzed but almost unheard, merely filling awkward silence in elevators and waiting rooms, or setting a mood for sipping cocktails or making love. Subtlety and complexity in art sadly tend to undermine themselves. They cost more labor with less effect. They are hard to notice, in proportion as they are hard to create.

To do what one likes requires free time, money, and health. Children have health and free time but no money. Adults have health and money but no free time. The old have money and free time but no health.

Today while reading a book by Santayana, acquired from my late grandfather's library, I found an old hotel receipt folded in fourths.

Park Royal Hotel
23 W 73rd Street
New York, NY
Mr. O.E. Stimpson
Apartment 1214
July 21, 1961

I imagine my grandfather, not much older than I am now, reading Santayana by his hotel window, above the muffled shouts and beeping of New York streets. He marks his place with his receipt, but fifty years later, I, not he, resume his reading.

A crumbling receipt is a durable memento precisely through not intending to be. Posed photographs of my grandfather merely link me to his generic representation, but a dated scrap of paper captures the real man, caught unawares in a moment of casual existence.

Likewise, antiquity's great monuments are not as touching as the hair combs, spoons, and wash basins dug up from buried villages by archaeologists. By recalling the dead in their ordinary lives, the least significant objects make the most significant memorials. The present's routines become the future's relics.

The light of stars must travel so far and takes so long to reach us that we see the cosmos not as it is, but as it was eons ago when the light now arriving first left its source. Thus, we have no idea what is happening out there right now. All astronomical discoveries are stale reportage. Stars die as scientists witness their birth. For all we know, doomsday has already come to the far side of space, and it will be ten billion years before news of it crosses the wires. We are like generals in old wars, who had to wait for updates to travel hundreds of miles by courier to army headquarters. Often, by the time the message came that the ranks were holding strong, luck had turned and the fort lay in enemy hands.

On a recent day trip to Chicago, I observed a pervasive mood of impatience and anger. Weary of the wastelands of cornfields I had driven through, at first I relished the city's crush of cars and humanity. Yet, parsing the cacophony, I noticed horn-blowing was constant to the point of absurdity. Any driver's minor mistake was met by ruthless honking from ten directions. Impatient taxis seemed to demand the death of pedestrians, honking at cars who refused to run over them at crosswalks. Meanwhile, the sidewalks were turbulent rivers of humans in hurries, all of whom looked annoyed at having to dodge the rocks and rapids of each other. Annoyed myself, by day's end I regarded rudeness not as a trait of Chicagoans but as the inevitable result of living in cities, where everyone is always in your way.

We cannot live happily apart from our fellow men nor among them. We perish of boredom in the country and of fury in the city.

If I could be dead without having to die, fetched in sleep to my new home of nothingness, I would not mind mortality as much. Conversely, could I die without ending up dead, I would bear my disease or drowning bravely, swabbing my pain with my plans for tomorrow. But to exit life via life's most wretched experience is a poor favor fate has paid us. Getting dead and being dead, like gang members or annoying couples, are more tolerable individually. The problem with each is the other.

Politics is the complex process by which leaders don't make decisions.

Most of every day is not spent living, but maintaining the machine of life. Merely to make our motors run, we must power them down eight hours every night. We lose another eight hours in cubicles, working to earn money to eat, eating to get energy to go back to work. In the evenings, we all keep second jobs as janitors, clipping and scrubbing the ever-emerging chaos of shabby beards, shabby lawns, browning teeth, and sprawling toenails. Finally, for one blessed hour before bed, we get a book or guitar and do what we want instead of what we must. One hour of the day is the raison d'être of the other twenty-three. Who would buy a car that needed twenty-three hours in the shop for each hour's drive?

To the hazards all wars hold, World War II in the Pacific added the ocean's instability. A foot soldier in France, though fired at, felt the solace of solid ground. A bomber shot down over Belgium could parachute into a cornfield. War and water are two chaoses combined. On the sea's meadow, there is no trench to crouch in, no building to gather thoughts while shots pause. Battling midway between continents, the element is as frightening as the enemy. A fighter pilot sputtering through pierced and cracking air, wings burning, sees only blue below to match the blue above. His terra firma is a speck of ship deck floating on the deep. In modern naval war he glimpses the chaos before creation—air, water, and fire, but no earth.

Although I often yearn for the wide life of travel, traveling is a poor road to go seeking more wealth of experience. As soon as I reach my new coordinates, I feel the inescapable shallowness of travel. I have no friends in this exotic place, no history, no job, am a member of no gardening club or church committee. I do not go to dinner parties but watch them through windows on solitary walks. I have not entered life but left it. Traveler's anomie points my yearning homeward, back to the place where I am a node in society's network, linked to life by the rich rhythms of my routines, where every street and building remind me of something I did once, where my experience, if narrower, is deeper. The same desire to participate in life that led me from home, leads me back home.

The joy of traveling is to be where you haven't been. The joy of home is to be where you have always been. Thus we destroy the joy of traveling by attaining it, since visiting the unknown makes it known, but we deepen the joy of home by being home, since every year adds fibers to our roots.

We love where we live and lust where we don't. Home is our wife, travel is our mistress. We boomerang on brief adulteries to faraway places, seeking their elegance, fleeing their emptiness.

Last night I returned home from vacation. Not having checked the local forecast, and arriving after dark, I could not tell the weather conditions except for the temperature. This morning I woke to a gray, dreary sky, humid air, intermittent rain, and moderate warmth. This waking to unknown weather recalled my experience of weather in childhood, when I had no knowledge of forecasts. Each day was a distinct world divided by the curtain of night, and I never knew what was coming. Reversing unpredictably from dry to drenched or calm to blustery, weather had an arbitrary and absolute character—not part of a causal nexus but a fate handed down. I submitted to the sky utterly, making its mood my mood, imagining life only within its limits.

In adulthood, broadening my knowledge has localized the weather. I anticipate cold or heat waves, recognize this overcast sky as a frontal system exiting the region by tomorrow. In dry weather, I am conscious of the rain falling in places I could drive to. In winter I think of Australia's summer. Great thunderstorms which once rattled the whole world now seem small because my thoughts fly to the storm cell's edge, where the clear sky eastward dwarfs the blackness behind.

There is a comfort in the memory of my childhood acquiescence to weather. I would like, again, to be ignorant of the weather, so I could wake surprised and submissive to each day, believing the here and now were the whole of life. Knowledge of other possibilities has fragmented my adult consciousness. I am nowhere, through being too aware of everywhere.

The more I read old books, the more I discover the source of the thoughts in new books. No writer is absolutely original. Every writer's ideas are mostly recombinations of others' ideas. A novel book is a novel amalgam of previous books. Still, great and mediocre writers differ in how fully they fuse and transform their borrowed materials. A mediocre book has the consistency of vegetable soup. The still-visible chunks of others' thoughts soak in the watery broth of the writer's own voice. The writing follows no recipe except to throw in every desirable dish, which produces an undesirable dish. The book has no identity, through having too many. Great books are like vegetable juice. The blender of genius liquefies the ingredients of prior reading into a uniform drink, with a texture and taste no single part possessed. Out of many flavors comes only one, the author's. Lesser writers emulate what they read, great writers assimilate it—merging masterpieces into a masterpiece.

I never knew how vast the sky was till I drove across the Great Plains. On the East Coast, the sky is an irregular blue shape between rooftops and oak branches; in Kansas it is half the world. Beneath the sky are 360 degrees of ways to go, without so much as a hedge to hinder your progress. Yet instead of feeling free, I felt trapped by such boundless acreage. Surveying the fields, there is nowhere to go, because there is nowhere different to go. Drive a mile, and you find yourself in exactly the same location. Where do locals go to enjoy a picnic? How could they possibly choose? There are no clearings in the woods or pleasant overlooks to make you want to park your wagons here instead of there, only an infinity of equivalent spots. Mountains, coastlines, cities, and forests, which elsewhere create borders that turn land into locales, are missing from America's middle. Equidistant from the Atlantic and Pacific, the Appalachians and Rockies, New York and California, the Plains are the midpoint of everything, yet a thousand miles from anything.

Oddly, long periods of time go by faster than short ones. From the vantage of Monday morning, Friday evening seems hopelessly distant, yet on turning thirty, eighteen feels like a minute ago. The hours creep but the years fly. Look closer and you find that the years fly because the hours creep. The slow repetition of days and weeks lulls us into thinking time is stationary, then one day we find the days have made a decade. The train left the platform too quietly to notice, and now we glance up to see our hometown gone, new country all around us.

Plato taught that appearances change while underlying reality remains unchanged. It is exactly the opposite. Appearances seem stable, but the ground beneath us is shifting.

Though I hope all humanity will get to paradise, I wonder what single place could be paradise for us all. The peace, light, and love that would please some would make others miserable. Could a fallen Special Forces Marine be happy to wake in a heaven of harps? If he could, then death is life's lobotomy, and what survives after death is not the Marine. He would be happier in hell where he could wage eternal combat against the devil his master. For all to be blessed, some must be damned.

Riding in the caravan of the dead, a peculiar sight: cell-phone-talking teenage drivers, soccer moms in SUVs, and bankers in BMWs all pulling to the road's shoulder. Why this wide berth for death? Do they wish to get as far from the leprous corpse as possible? Is their swerving meant as pity, as in sorry for your loss, may I offer my side of the road? Are they startled to see the hearse—the last car they too will ride in?

They themselves do not know why they stop. Customs are a culture's deep thoughts, embodied in the thoughtless actions of its people.

When having my hair cut, I am always startled to see my hair in the trash can. The pile of hair looks familiarly like my head, yet now I am mixed among food scraps and snotty tissues. A part of me which, until today, I washed and combed daily and based my self-esteem on will soon line a rat's nest in a landfill.

Similarly, since seventy-five percent of indoor dust is dead skin cells, cleaning my house is a chore of throwing myself away. When I wipe my desk, I am wiping up my face that fell off. If I breathe too much, I irritate my own lungs and sneeze myself back out.

Whatever dies of us is promptly discarded. Death will be our full and final relegation to rubbish. Alive, we were endowed with sacred, inalienable rights—by our Creator, our courts, our moral codes—but no sooner will we die than the living will stuff us in wooden trash bins and bury us in landfills of human bodies, where they can remember us without the horror of seeing or smelling us. Death transforms the body from earth's most precious to its most repulsive substance.

On a ship there is both more room and less room than on land. We can see to the horizon but cannot walk past the ship's rails; we have wider thoughts but stiffer legs. The mind's very spaciousness exacerbates the body's claustrophobia. On land we accepted working all week in a cubicle, because its walls obscured the world beyond, but now that our eyes extend to earth's edge, a ten-story ship feels as cramped as a clam shell. Our souls would surf the hemisphere of waves, but matter shackles us. At sea I see why Plato cursed the body.

Inlanders going to sea are like shoppers looking at catalogs: we were happy before we knew how much we wanted.

Since people speak of the rights of the unborn, why not the rights of the unconceived? They are a vast and voiceless class in our ovaries and testicles. Their numbers are numberless: every possible combination of every egg and sperm in the world. One needs advanced mathematics to tally the lives that could be. We abort these lives every moment of not having sex. When a couple comes home from work too tired for lovemaking, they are choosing television over a child's existence. When teenagers hold in their hormones to please their preacher, they deprive an unborn soul the chance of heaven. In refusing to fuse their gametes on sidewalks and subways, strangers stunt the progress of humanity, out of mere propriety.

The pro-life movement should insist on our moral duty for unprotected sex, adultery, and promiscuity.

Often the shock of a shooting spree is that we never guessed the inner magnitude of the gunman's despair. Meeting neighbors in public, he would shake their hands and talk of sports or politics. How could such a maelstrom be swirling beneath so placid a surface?

A desperate man moves through society like a wave through deep water, its power hidden till, suddenly rising, it bursts against the rocks.

Stargazing is a boring hobby unless one supplements gazing with thinking. Visually, the night sky is among nature's plainest paintings—a black canvas speckled with dim white dots. Its most interesting dimension is its depth, a dimension wholly undetectable to mere sight. No wonder the ancients, having only eyes for instruments, conceived of a rotating dome embedded with fixed lights, a short distance above earth.

Only a mind to match the sky can make the stars worth looking at. If outer space inspires us, it is because we soar through the inner infinity of imagination.

Given the chicanery of politicians and the complexity of politics, how can one be an informed voter? Clear information about the candidates is inaccurate, while accurate information is unclear. The candidates lecture more of each other than themselves, which is like learning from cats about dogs. Experts disagree as fiercely as rally-goers. Examining the issues for oneself deepens rather than dispels confusion. Will tax breaks boost or bankrupt the economy? Will a calm or threatening voice quell rowdy nations? Minus doctorates in economics, health policy, international relations, sociology, education, and military history, most voting is mere guessing. We pick leaders without knowing what the leaders say they will do, or if they will do what they say, or if what they do (whatever they do) will work.

If voters reined their opinions within their knowledge, ballot boxes would be empty and bumper sticker makers would go bankrupt. Fortunately for the continued functioning of government, few people need facts to feel conviction.

The right to vote gives democratic societies a sense of autonomy over the future. But democracies differ from the monarchies they replaced only as drawing a card in black jack differs from being dealt one. We choose our fate but do not know which fate we are choosing.

The pursuit of happiness is doomed to fail, not because no one can be happy, but because no one can be happy by trying to be. Each new land that Alexander the Great conquered, instead of satisfying him, merely widened the circumference of his desires. Meanwhile in Macedon, his servants kept the stables, made love to their wives, and never dreamt of Persia's riches. Happiness is the pursuit of nothing.

A conundrum of lovers is who will die first. Though the masses sweat and diet to live longer, in love dying first is lucky, because living longer means living on alone. Therefore both lovers wish the other to be lucky and die first, since worse than grieving is to think of the beloved grieving. Yet equally, both wish first exit for themselves, preferring not living to outliving living's meaning.

The only suitable death is simultaneous death, neither to leave behind nor be left. Happy is the widower who follows his cooling wife into the ground within a week. Happy are the honeymooners whose car careens from the cliff, smashing their atoms into everlasting union.

We seldom catch the transition from sleeping to waking. Gently we dawn into consciousness, but because so gently, we do not notice the metamorphosis until it's complete, when we discover ourselves lying fully awake in our bed. It is like the change into life itself. Having clambered up the steps of infantile cognizance, one day in childhood it first occurs to us that we exist, already many years after the fact. Looking back for our beginning, the past is a fog, and we find we cannot remember a time when we did not exist. No wonder in youth we feel immortal. How could we die when it seems we have always lived?

Each stage of life greatly pleases us, but unfortunately not while we are in it. The young are eager to be adults, adults look forward to being retired, the retired envy youth. Daters crave marital stability, the married miss the thrill of dating. College students and graduates would swap places. We possess the pieces of a happy life, too bad we cherish them out of sequence.

When I see nature bulldozed to build subdivisions, I feel anger toward the developers. But when I drive by later and see the new homes filled with families, my anger goes flaccid. Must not the families live somewhere? True, they had homes before, but those homes now house others, and the others' old homes house others too. Trace the trail of new construction back to its origin, and you arrive at a hospital maternity ward humming like a factory day and night, sending endless swaddled shipments of future homebuyers into the world. Developers build because parents beget. Suburbs sprawl because lovers do.

Missionary work and genocide are founded upon a common premise. Only the conclusion from that premise differs. The syllogism of genocide: we are good, you are bad, therefore we will kill you. The syllogism of missionaries: we are good, you are bad, therefore we will convert you.

If, as missionaries believe, people must hear the true religion or be damned, it is poorly planned that God sets tribes in the middle of jungles where they will certainly never hear it, and then, as if scrambling to correct this oversight, commissions the chosen to search through the vines and provide them the code to heaven God forgot to. Missionaries are like God's software patch to fix a faulty program.

Organ donation is being buried in someone else's body. It is orphaning our insides. In our absence, a foster heart will nourish our kidney. Our liver will snuggle up to a stranger's spleen. In death we will partner with people we were nothing like in life. A vegetarian's intestine will land in the gut of a meat-eater. With an old lady's eyes, a young bachelor will gaze with lust on his neighbor's wife.

Much of the awe and natural horror we feel upon seeing the cremated remains of a loved one is due to their slight volume—a mere urn of ash. Is that you in there, grandmother? Not only have all her complex features been standardized to dust, she has somehow become a midget. As a child I sat in her ample lap, now I can hold her in one hand. A miraculous weight loss!

How does a 150-pound adult body become an urnful of dust? Where do we go? According to industry literature, cremation is not primarily a process of combustion (like logs on a fire) but simple evaporation. Our bodies being made of mostly water, in the oven we go the way of sweat beads on summer pavement. This strange realization makes me think that an urnful of ash better represents our true size than a living body, which is only big with bloating. Drain the pond in the skin's shore, and we would shrivel like grapes into raisins. Our children would mistake us for their dolls.

Theologically, outer space presents a riddle. Why did God leave creation so uncreated? The vast empty regions separating the faint stars suggests not so much creation from nothing, but creation of nothing—the calling into being of nonbeing. God is said to have made the world through his word's omnipotence, but I have never heard explained why the great phrase of Genesis, "Let there be light!" should have come to so little fruition.

Many past philosophers taught that the cosmos is a thought in the mind of God. If so, how strangely blank is the all-encompassing brain! Is the divine mind still in infancy, formed but not yet filled? Conversely, has some tremendous disease eaten away the aging network of neurons until we alone are left, a last synapse firing off in the dying omniscience?

For the young, music is an intimation of life. Each sonata or concerto cracks, but does not fully open, the door to worlds not yet experienced. The violin, singing of unknown desires, stirs desire. The cymbals' crescendo resounds with heights of elation not yet relished. The bass drum booms a cryptic proclamation of great events—happening where? For the old, music is a memoir of life. The buried strata of past experience, loosened by the mysterious psychoanalysis of sound, erupt into consciousness. Sorrows and joys which played singly through time now harmonize into a grand symphonic impression of the tremendousness of living. Must not the brittle self shatter to have been poured so full of experiences?

In a concert hall, the girl in bloom closes her eyes and imagines all she may be, while beside her the wrinkled widow closes her eyes and remembers all she has been.

A book I am reading notes that the idea of being "modern" originated in the Middle Ages. It is odd to think of flagellating monks and Canterbury pilgrims regarding themselves as modern. Even odder to think how, like them, we moderns will one day seem medieval. In a few hundred years, today's books will appear silly with their solemn talk of the modern world. A book about recent trends in capitalism will sound as contemporary as a book about recent trends in feudalism. "The War on Terrorism" will have the ring of "the War of the Roses." Solar energy will be as cutting edge as firewood.

During the fireworks finale on the Fourth of July, when the slow parade of booms accelerates to a brief orgasm of explosions, people swell in pride for their country and clap and yell and madly wave flags. Observing this sudden groundburst of nationalism, I wonder what intrinsic link is there between fireworks and flag waving? I miss a step somewhere in the syllogism: explosions are exciting, therefore America is great. Gunpowder and oxidized metal rouse our adrenaline, but Uncle Sam takes credit. The fireworks sow, patriotism reaps. If it were New Year's Eve, our resolutions rather than our patriotism would inherit the force of our festivity. If we were Hitler Youth at our first parade, our awe would prove the glory of the Führer.

1.6 million people live within the 60 square kilometers of Manhattan Island—the densest population center in the United States. Compared to such congestion, nature is supposed to be slow and uncrowded. Yet a single square meter of soil in the boondocks—less than a billionth the area of Manhattan—holds a thousand times more animals than all Manhattan holds humans. Earthworms, beetles, mites, ants, nematodes, springtails, and protozoa bump cell walls and brush antennae as they cram the intricate grids of dark dirt streets. Unlike our human cities which end at rivers or peter into suburbs, this great clay underground metropolis spreads vastly across every continent of earth, diminished only by deserts and ice caps. There is nothing rural about nature.

Our actions can change the world, but unfortunately we cannot anticipate how. Every intended change leads to a cascade of unintended changes. The world is a vast uncomprehended hydraulic system: push something in and something unexpectedly pops out on the other side.

Industrializing to lift ourselves from the poverty of agrarian life, we unintentionally opened the spigots of pollution now drowning us. Punishing the Germans for starting World War I, the Allies made them desperate enough to start World War II. Helping Afghanistan defeat the Soviets in the 1980s, the United States armed turbaned zealots with the weapons they now attack us with.

Neither the ancient pessimists who saw humans as pawns of destiny, nor modern picketers who think all problems are problems of willpower, are correct. We possess the power of gods but we administer it with the ignorance of mortals. Electing politicians is like electing which passenger should take the controls of a plummeting airplane. Everything depends on who is chosen and which buttons he pushes, but which buttons he pushes depends more on luck than skill.

The self-importance of politicians is therefore comical. For an accurate idea of political power, picture a peace summit where a world leader, grandly gesturing about his peace plan, knocks down his foreign counterpart and kills him, thereby starting a war.

When I need to think, I think out loud. Silent reflection is a lonely interior affair, whereas saying one's thoughts audibly splits the self into speaker and listener and turns monologue into dialogue. Nor is any dialogue quite so enjoyable as a dialogue with oneself. This is not a matter of vanity but compatibility. Who else besides me always and unfailingly desires to discuss exactly the same subjects I do? We start from shared premises, hold equivalent interests with equivalent passion, get bored at just the same moment and, without the awkwardness of hinting, simultaneously move on to another topic.

Each of us is our own perfect match.

   ...every mother's son
Travails with a skeleton.
-A.E. Housman

Poets, painters, and philosophers of the Renaissance used to set skulls on their desk to remind them of their mortality. I have no idea where to buy a skull nowadays, but sometimes while propping my cheek against my hand in thought, I become aware that I am touching the contours of my own skull. I run a finger around my eye sockets, feel the hinge of my jaw, and picture myself as I will one day look, minus everything soft—a bald globe of calcium. The only shared feature of that face and my present one are my teeth—the one place where my skeleton already pokes through my skin.

We are the clothing of our skeletons, but since our skeletons never undress until the prom of life ends, we forget what we look like beneath this tuxedo of flesh. The evolution of the endoskeleton was a key contributor to the denial of death. How could we forget our mortality if, like molting cicadas, we wore our skeletons outside and periodically had to crawl from a now lifeless replica of ourselves?

Instead, self-knowledge depends on imagination. Some lustful teenage boys mentally undress attractive women to see them naked. We should go further and mentally strip them of their skin to see the ribs and femurs that keep their beauty upright. When we shake hands with businessmen, we should squeeze hard enough to feel their metacarpals, which will stock next century's graveyards.

Cruising the fjords of Alaska last summer and trying to imagine I was Captain Cook seeking the Northwest Passage, the thought kept intruding into my mind that on this same earth, only a few thousand miles away, were New York City, Tokyo, and Dubai, where at this moment people were talking on cell phones, riding subways, and checking stock quotes. This reflection pruned the wilderness of its power, for instead of the dangerous place our ancestors walled their cities against, it was now the walled enclave amid a wilderness of civilization, no longer threatening, but threatened.

Our contemporary experience of wilderness often seems more simulated than real. We designate wildernesses instead of discover them. We put a fence around the wilderness, not for our sake but for its: a cage to keep it wild. A protected wilderness is an oxymoron.

Most people daydream of wealth as a marble staircase to happiness, but on a recent tour of the Biltmore House in Asheville, North Carolina, I was disappointed to discover that money does not buy a different life, but a larger portion of the same life—a somewhat roomier finitude. Instead of two or three bedrooms like most homes, the mansion has thirty five. Yet still, what can one do in them but sleep? By the time I had seen the fifth sitting room, each with innumerable chairs and sofas of countless shapes and upholsteries, I realized that wealth gives no help for ennui except a choice of which chair to be bored in.

Every day, strangers look at our face—our brows, cheeks, lips, and lashes—but all we have ever seen of ourselves, while closing one eye, is the blurry lump of our nose. Were it not for mirrors and photographs, we could not tell if we had Cleopatra's looks or Socrates'. Oddly, we know others better than ourselves, for we observe their reality, but only copies of ourselves.

Faces are like assumptions: we see with them, we do not see them.

All books about death are written by the living.

A man ejaculates around 300 million sperm in sexual intercourse. That means on the night each of us was conceived, 299,999,999 other sperm were vying for the finish line with the one sperm that became us. A wrong turn down the fallopian tube, a faulty flip of the tail, and one of the hordes of barreling competitors would have outswum us, won the trophy of our mother's egg, and would now be living our life instead of us. How easily this planet might have been home to a completely different set of inhabitants!

Nothing we will ever accomplish in life—not if we win a Heisman trophy, a Nobel Prize, or the presidency—can compare to the improbable victory we achieved to get here.

I marvel at the body's pickiness. Below 68 Fahrenheit, we shiver. Above 75, we sweat. From the near absolute zero of deep space to the sun's fiery core, the universe spans 30 million degrees, and our comfort range is seven degrees? Philosophers complain that the cosmos is harsh and inhospitable, but are we not astonishingly particular in our demands? We are like a beggar pleading to be fed with any of seven specialty foods.

Amazingly, the earth obliges us with a tolerable if not ideal climate—provided we do not venture five miles above or below this planet's surface, our narrow safe zone. At a picnic on a perfect spring day, there is boiling magma beneath the thin dirt floor we stand on. Meanwhile the air overhead, where planes are flying, would frostbite our skin and kill us with hypothermia.

Space is the dimension of human greatness, time of human nothingness. Space is a dimension under constant conquest. The wheel, ship, chariot, train, truck, and space shuttle are humanity's inventory of ever-improving weapons. Born on a clump of grass in the African savannah, we quickly spread out from Spain to Siberia. When we reached the edge of Australia, undeterred, we rafted to Hawaii. When there were no more oceans to cross, we made the moon our mission. Today, with television and the internet, rather than travel we command the world into our living rooms. Yet, to complement these conquests of distance, what single victory have we scored against time? Though technology can get us to New York by lunch, it cannot slow one tick of the clock's countdown to death. Our freedom in space is like a bottle's freedom to roll side to side on a conveyor belt carrying it toward a trash heap.

A notable fact about the Gold Rush is that, except for a few lucky firstcomers, no one got rich from mining gold, but many got rich from selling supplies to the miners. One sees this pattern repeated constantly. People are never so foolishly willing to part with money as in the hope of making money. In any bookstore, countless bestsellers advertise the secrets to instant riches. Did any such book ever make its readers rich? Rather, its readers make its author rich. Most financial advisors fail to beat a simple buy-and-hold investment strategy, but by charging hefty fees to their clients, they ensure outstanding returns for themselves in bull and bear markets alike. States with lotteries fill their treasuries with the last pennies of the poor. (Those who can least afford to gamble are, for just that reason, most tempted to.)

Someone should write the first legitimate get-rich-quick bestseller: the easy road to riches is by preying on others' hopes of easy riches.

I always laugh at football games to see the cheerleaders, ostensibly the team's official and most fervent fans, standing with their backs to the field the entire game. One would suppose that cheering for a game presupposes an awareness of the game, as evidenced by looking in its direction. But each group in the stadium has an assigned role to play. You have the announcers distributing information, the concessionaires distributing peanuts, and the security guards standing sternly amid the frivolity. You have the marching band, which borrows the field at half time to show off its talent of walking while blowing horns. You have the mascot, sweating in a bear suit. You have the players who train year-round to run an oblong ball into a colored rectangle more times than their opponents. You have the coaches, trainers, and water boys who act as the supporting paraphernalia of the players. You have the referees who are the governmental body, ruling with flags and whistles. You have the red-faced fans in constant mutiny against any rulings of these governors, however just, which hinder the home team—that is, which hinder the local players whom the fans no more know than the visiting players, but who wear the color of jersey symbolizing "us". And finally you have the cheerleaders gesturing at the fans who are quite oblivious of them, being intent on the game. Sports are a delightful absurdity.

"I apologize for any inconvenience." That is, "I regret (out of prudence rather than contrition) if your excessive sensitivity falsely found fault with my innocent actions."

At a wedding last weekend, a girl was present whom my wife had not seen since high school and did not recognize at first. Apparently in high school she was rather plain and unremarkable, whereas now, at 26 or 27, she is all elegance and glamour. She is living in Boston as a shoe designer. She wore a black, backless dress with a low, V-shaped front. Her hair was no longer straight and brown but blond and wavy, and she wore it half-up. She had a tan without being too tan. She smiled and talked to her friends and drank a beer and danced often.

The next day, reviewing her old appearance in my wife's high school yearbook, I was surprised by her transformation, for in the old photo it was clearly the same face, and all that seemed to have changed was her hairstyle, her fashion, and her posture (which in the photo was slumped and unconfident). I had trouble deciding whether her high school plainness had masked a beautiful face, or her twenty-something glamour now masks a plain face. I tend to think the former, and if so, it makes me wonder how many other girls may be beautiful incognito.

Had my wife not told me this girl was not always so attractive, I might have guessed it from her demeanor. She acted like someone newly pretty. Girls who have always been pretty strut about like shining goddesses among mortals, aloof and scornful. Woe to the flirtatious male if he is not as gorgeous as she! Woe to any friend who aspires to be more than her mere attendant! The girl at the wedding was too unused to her looks to be arrogant. She evidently retains the fresh memory of her adolescent plainness and is still learning to believe in her new beauty, as if the mirror's reflection and men's attention compete in her self-esteem against the insecurities engrained over years. She hopes, rather than quite believes, in her beauty; her fledging faith craves additional proof. When men smile at her, her sincere and surprised smile seems to say, "then you do find me pretty?"

During campaign seasons, I tire of the candidates' attack ads and mutual rummaging through one another's past sins. Such faultfinding, most of it false or exaggerated, seems not only mean-spirited but also petty and immature, like children too eager to tattle. One expects rudeness from taxi drivers or football fans, but not from men and women seeking the highest offices of government. Are these self-promoting finger-pointers to be the leaders of nations? But then I remember the old days, when would-be kings, backed by armies instead of campaign teams, rode out to bloody battles, took their rival's children captive, and cut off each other's head to gain the crown. From murder and kidnap, to mere lies and slander. Civilization is making progress.

At weddings, when flutes and violins make women's cheeks wet, I often roll my eyes because crying at weddings seems mawkish and predictable, and I could never give in to such a routine. But if I call myself a thinker, I ought instead to envy their tears. While those mascaraed ladies meditate on youth and beauty, loneliness and love, time and till death do us part, I sit stiffly and self-consciously in my pew, thinking not of the human condition but of my own superiority. Nothing is shallower than pride.

If women cry more than men, as they are stereotyped, they are the deeper sex, plumbing life's magnificent sorrow while the sports-watching, business-traveling, engine-fixing men live practically, that is, practically don't live.

Have things taken such a turn that the animal, whose reason gives it a claim to divinity, cannot seem beautiful to itself except by the possession of lifeless trappings? -Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy

A lady wears a diamond around her neck, and because of it she feels beautiful. Yet what would a diamond be without a lady? All matter is uniform and worthless until humans give it value. Consider the life history of that lifeless stone. Forged by earth's forces and inner fires over many millennia, before any human being walked earth's crust, the diamond came to rest in a bed of subterranean rock, covered with meters of dirt, in pitch darkness. Bacteria grew around it. Silent eons passed. Eventually, in these latter days, miners dug a shaft to it and chipped it free, a craftsman carved its edges until it shone, a man spent a month's salary to buy it, and now it hangs on his lover's neck.

Lady, your jewel does not make you beautiful, you make your jewel beautiful.

Young writers are often guilty of contriving passion. They begin their work in earnest, but then they overstep the limits of their real feelings, adorning their hard-won experiences with borrowed ideas in the hope of enhancing the impact, yet actually diminishing it. Nevertheless, this youthful erring toward artifice and overextension is rooted in genuine ardor. Because young writers feel so impassioned, they try too hard to impassion their readers. Should not the reader then forgive this falseness born of authenticity?

Waking today to my twenty-seventh birthday, I caught my first glimpse of middle age. Last year I was twenty-six, which leans against twenty-five, which means scarcely out of college, still hoisting one's sails, all seas untraveled. But twenty-seven tips and falls toward thirty, which is another era entirely, suggesting children and yard work and settled plans and life figured out. In high school I had a recurring dream of taking a test and realizing the time was almost over, though I was still reading the instructions. The dream was prophetic, for though I've only had time to complete an education, which is reading life's instructions, I have already blazed a third of the way to mortality. My future has shrunk from infinite to countable. Whoever can count his money has too little of it.

Today while reading a book outside on my porch, I was about to turn the page when I noticed a miniscule insect crawling across the bottom left-hand paragraph. I gently brushed it off the page, but this made me wonder how many insects' lives I have inadvertently ended turning earlier pages. It must happen quite often on these pleasant days, when the air is abuzz with bugs. Flipping through used books I have purchased, I have often noticed small brown spots, which I guessed were squashed insects, victims of some earlier reader.

For the unlucky insect who lands on an open page, it must seem like a stable enough surface—why not wander around a bit? It is like people who build in earthquake regions. They buy a hilltop plot, erect a mansion, and sip pinot noir on their deck while enjoying the views. Then nature turns the page.

The first time I visited Yosemite Valley, I did not expect to be very impressed, not because I thought the scenery would be shabby, but because I thought the crowds would spoil it. Plus, Yosemite has been so praised by so many people that it seemed to me too clichéd to be impressed by it, and with a certain pride I hoped I would not be.

I enjoy going to wedding receptions more, the fewer people I know there. My own wedding, where I knew everyone, was such a blur of congratulations that, for all the planning I put into the evening, I scarcely got to see how it came off. But at a friend's wedding with whom I share few mutual friends, I can watch the night unfold from a well-chosen table, interrupted only by the waiter who comes occasionally to refill my wine glass. I would rather watch a conversation than listen to one; I prefer observing mirth and merriment to making them myself. A groomsman with too much to drink is flirting badly with a pretty bridesmaid; the sweating photographer is lumbering under his hundred gadgets through the crowd; the disc jockey is trying third-rate jokes on the captive audience. Chatting would interrupt this study of types. A good sociologist must be a recluse.

Modern people have used their sexual liberation to enslave themselves to sex.

Perhaps the more terrifying thought about World War II Germany is not that one might have been a Jew in a death camp, but that one might have been an S.S. soldier, smearing one's soul with the blood of the innocent. The more terrifying thought, in other words, is not that the Jews were ordinary people like us, but that the Nazis were too.