Two friends of mine were driving on the Grapevine, which is a braided ribbon of highway climbing over the hills one hour north of Los Angeles. They were high school sweethearts, they had just gotten engaged, and they were in the middle of a knock-down-drag-out fight over something neither of them can now remember.
At one point, the bride-to-be had had it, she rolled down the window, and she chucked her engagement ring as far as she could.
As soon as she did, they stopped fighting. They forgot all about their squabble, and they yanked the car to the shoulder to find it.
But after hours, they couldn’t. Dusk fell and they had to give up.
They tried to laugh it off and told themselves they didn’t like that ring anyway.
But over the years that followed, on separate occasions unbeknownst to the other, they each rented metal detectors and headed back up the Grapevine in the hopes of remembering the spot and striking gold. But they both failed.
On their fifth anniversary, they once again happened to be driving up the grapevine. They laughingly confessed to each other they’d both been back with metal detectors. Then they tried to remember the spot. And they began to argue once again about exactly where it was.
Now heated, they pulled over, got out and started walking.
And there was the fucking ring…
Haecceity (hex-AY-idee) is our impulse to assign uniqueness to something despite the existence of identical copies.
It is the this-ness of things.
We gradually replace every cell in our bodies every seven years—each of us is quite literally a different person than the one we were when Obama was elected—and yet we have the sense that we are still uniquely us.
The Sistene Chapel might be restored over the centuries, but it remains in our minds the work of Michelangelo.
Despite a world where everything is duplicating itself all the time, where the very basest urge operating within every living thing is to simply procreate a copy of itself, we nevertheless have the insatiable desire for the genuine article.
“It succinctly captures most people’s intuitions about authenticity that are increasingly threatened by the development of new technologies,” says Bruce Hood, chair of psychology at the University of Bristol.
But every day I watch my son grow attached to sticks and pieces of litter he brings home, and then devastate him when it’s time for the litter to go in the trash. Totaled cars, phones in puddles, and moving days demand these micro-funerals in our minds at the weigh stations of life’s relentless march forward.
Attachment to things we value, said the Buddha, and I’m paraphrasing, is an unending pain in the ass. The brutality of loss, or even loss through change, is a constant source of anxiety when we choose to assign meaning to things. But we cannot seem to stop doing it.
In my first month of grad school, I passed the dean on the street and he said, “hey Brendan, come meet Fiona Shaw with me.” Fiona Shaw is a powerhouse Irish actress of stage and screen and I leapt at the chance. At the talk, she spoke among other things about mastering accents for her screen roles, and specifically about the differences between English, Irish and American accents.
“It makes perfect sense that the British invented iambic pentameter,” she said, “because they are AB-so-LUTE-ly SURE that THEY are RIGHT.” We laughed hard. “The Irish, meanwhile, speak in D minor… wouldyoulikeacupoftea?” her voice trailed of into the distance so we could barely hear the word tea. “Americans,” she said, “emphasize possessions,” and she began pointing at imaginary things around the room, “house… car… boat…”
As Americans, nouns are our sickness. John Steinbeck explained why socialism never took root here by pointing out that we see ourselves “not as an exploited proletariat, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” We are cursed with a compulsion to assign meaning to things, but in so doing exclude the reality that everything will change. Time, the element that allows us to recognize change, is against us.
Everything we care about is in the very urgent process of rotting into the earth.
“In the end,” writes Alan Lightman, “you cannot defeat the odds. You might beat the house for a while, but the Universe has an infinite supply of time and can outlast any player.” That thing you love, temporarily held together on a molecular level by bubble gum and prayer, has an impending appointment with atomization.
So what the fuck do we do? We can’t all become Buddhists, we’re dyed-in-the-wool capitalist pigs whether we like it or not. So if we must assign meaning to nouns, the odd verb, and maybe a quality or two, I’ve tabled out how it might go down…
The challenge, therefore, seems to be welcoming the inevitability of change into the picture. Starting from the temporary nature of all things, and assigning meaning from there, seems to be the only sane way to have a shoebox of keepsakes.
We have to eliminate our notion of time as the enemy.
This thing I’m holding is future dust, and I know that now, before I’ve committed any emotion to it, but it will be here for precisely 100% of the duration that it will. And in that window, I will love it. After that window, I will fondly remember it and know that this time that it’s gone was always on the way. And that it would arrive too soon, as it always does.
As it always does.
On the morning of October 15, 1908, Italian poet Filippo Tomasso Marinetti was speeding down Via Dormodossola in Milan. Rounding a sharp corner, two cyclists on penny-farthings blocked his way and he had no option but to veer into a ditch. His Runabout flipped twice and he was briefly knocked unconscious. When he awoke and was pulled to safety by the cyclists, he announced to them that having been a step away from death, he now knew we had nothing to fear from speed, that speed was the greatest thing to happen to man, and he resolved right there that his next move would be to launch an artistic movement.
Filippo Tomasso Marinetti was a nutcase.
Attending the wedding of some friends a few years prior, his toast took the form of an epic poem he’d composed for the occasion, entitled The Bleeding Mummy, which recounted, to the stupefied guests, the story of a pharaoh’s daughter waking each night to beg the moon for her dead lover’s body to be restored, so they could get it on in their crypt.
Prior to 46 BC, no one in Rome knew what day it was. The calendar was tightly controlled by the priest class. They based it on cycles of the moon, and some years would have fifteen months, others would have eleven. Sometimes different priests would tell you it was a different day depending on how it might serve them. The first of the month would roll around a little more often for landlord priests, and priests in the senate always seemed to meet their deadlines.
Finally, Julius Caesar had had enough. He named 46 BC Annus Ultimatum Confusiosis, the final year of confusion. He took the calendar away from the corrupted priest class, tasked some astronomers to create a new system, and then placed all the information into the hands of the common man.
Suddenly Joeius Blowius on the Appian Way didn’t need to curry favor with a cleric just to find out what day it was. Meetings could be planned far in advance. Annual events became commonplace.
Caesar took what was seen as a massive risk disseminating power over information to the populace, but the Roman economy exploded in the century that followed. Ice cores in Greenland show that lead production would nearly double by 50 AD. It’s difficult to know if the calendar had anything to do with this burst of industry, but the difference between giving a man a fish and teaching him how to Filofax is quite clear.
The Federal Housing Act of 1949 allowed, finally, for the eradication of tenement slums. Until then, generations of underprivileged Americans would memorize the annual date and time of the sun’s only brief appearance in their cramped, basement homes. Children would stay home from school to see it, and watch as the family pet stretched in the yearly rectangle of brilliance on their broken, chipped floors. Leaky tin roofs, dark passageways and rampant garbage-born illness had melted even the most conservative congressional hearts into legislating a chance for a new post-war life for the poorest Americans.
As these tenements were torn down, the wooden windowsills would often be found with two smooth depressions which had come from generations of women’s elbows leaning out to enjoy the passing street life, exchange gossip across the way, and mete out verbal justice to the children below.
Now, federal money created the opportunity for new forms of urban housing that would bring prosperity to all levels of society.
Enter the Congrès Internationale d’Architecture Moderne.
Leopold and Anna Maria Mozart were determined to have family, with a daughter named Maria and a son named Johann.
It took them seven tries.
Johann Leopold was born in August of 1748 and lived almost six months. Maria Cordula was born the following June but lived less than a week. Maria Nepomucena was born the next May, and lived two-and-a-half months. One year later Maria Anna was born, became known as Nannerl, and emerged from the biological gauntlet of 18th century childhood to live to 78 years old. A son, Johann Karl, and a daughter named Maria Crescentia followed, but neither would live beyond three months. Their seventh child and final child was born on January 27, 1756 and they named him Johann Chrysostomus Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. He would live 35 years.
Leopold and Maria determined themselves to push past the world’s most unimaginable pain five times to finish the family they started. The Mozarts were finishers. The Mozarts could close the deal.
Maria was irrepressible and funny. She encouraged little Johann Chrysostomus’s love of scatological humor. So much so that when he composed his 1788 canon Difficile Lectu in F Major, he included the quasi-Latin lyric “lectu mihi mars,” which, when perceived phonetically in German, became “Leck du mich im Arsch,” or lick my ass.
On our honeymoon in Oaxaca, Emily and I rode the bus with an Australian pharmacist.
She told us of a shellshocked young couple that came to her shop early one Saturday asking for a morning after pill.
The dosage required two different pills to be taken at the same time.
“Take both of these right now,” she told them.
They nodded, looked at each other… and each took one.
Concatenation is the order in which we experience events through linear time.
Simultaneity is the relationship between events that we perceive are happening at the same time.
Our anal retentive left brains organize time in a linear fashion to fit it through the keyhole of our consciousness.
Our tripping balls hippie right brains, meanwhile, seem to know that every event in history is still happening right now, somewhere in the universe.
I can’t say for sure that I wouldn’t have done the same thing as the stricken couple in the Australian pharmacy. Two pills. Take ’em now. Divide them up. Down the hatch. The past: erased.
When I’ve watched a glass spill, my brain has revved to 5,000 frames a second, watching the teeter the tip and the splash of every drop I had planned to enjoy. And I have felt, in the same moment, the sudden funeral for my next ten minutes that now will be spent cleaning it up.
It’s as if the more you don’t want something to be true, the less you perceive the concatenation of time. Or perhaps the more emotional you are, the more simultaneous life feels.
Great movies whizz by. Funerals and burials are a rich mind cocktail of an un-had future and a bygone past, and go by in kind of a blur. A morning at the DMV takes weeks.
Breathing hard, desperate for a solution to last night’s youthful indiscretion, relieved at the clear instructions of an authoritative pharmacist, I think I too would have taken that pill.
Down the hatch. The past: erased.
The massacre and death that so marked World War Two
Left Americans racked with bad shell shock and sorrow.
But progress in the sciences and especially in flight
Led all of them to believe in a much brighter tomorrow.
The problem was that airplanes just could not break Mach One,
Or the invisible barrier known as the speed of sound.
The Aircrafts combusted the closer they got
And put pilot upon pilot in a burial mound.
The PhDs warned of an infinite drag
As molecules stacked up in front of the plane
And test pilots would faint as G-force moved their blood,
So to approach the sound barrier was deemed flat-out insane.
But one captain among the brand new air force ranks
Beheld not a wall, just a steep hill to climb.
If bullwhips and bullets could pass through the drag
Then for man and machine it was a matter of time.