My dog reminds me of this whole world

19 01 2015

Death sucks.

I mean, I don’t what, if anything, it’s like for the dead, but for those who live past the dead, it sucks.

Two and a-half weeks ago, Jon Katz announced on his blog, Bedlam Farm, that his charming and ornery mule, Simon, had died.

Shortly thereafter, he noted that Lenore, the “Love Dog”, was out of sorts; she died less than a week after Simon.

Then, this morning, I popped over to Love & Hisses and found Robyn Anderson’s obit for her beautiful 5-year-old tabby, Corbie.

I cried for each of these creatures.

Yes, these are animals, not people, and these are not my animals—I had never met nor expected to meet any of them—but they were familiar to me, a presence, and now they are absent.

Such absence, of course, puts me in mind of my own critters—Chelsea and Bean, Jazz before them, and the family pets before them—and made me sad all over again.

While Katz doesn’t believe in the Rainbow Bridge, as Robyn does, he does believe that his animals will have a life beyond this life. I have no such belief in life beyond life—tho’, as an agnostic, I can’t/won’t completely rule it out—but understand the desire to believe that those who were here are not gone forever, but simply moved on to another place.

As a general matter, I consider death simply a part of our condition as living creatures: we are born into life and leave it at death, or, more succinctly, everything living, dies. For some it may come too soon, others, too late, and for some, as a relief.

I would like to live a while longer, but not everlastingly longer, and to have some sense of my death, when it does finally come. It will be my end, and I will be no more—a closing, not a loss.

No, the loss is for the living, when others are no more.


We might as well try: You make the best of what’s still around

15 07 2012

We’re a mess.

You want to know why social scientists like models and abstractions and formalisms? It’s because we’re a mess, and it’s tough to know where and how to begin in a mess; impose order, and all of a sudden those messes reveal a clean kind of meaning, shorn of stray bits of paper and belly lint and someone suddenly slamming on the brakes for no apparent reason.

This isn’t a knock on modeling, and I’m a big fan of models precisely because they bring clarity, allow us to see patterns where, before, there was only mess. But when using models you can never forget that they are, in fact, models, a cleaned-up and edited version of reality, not reality itself.* Models are great for understanding a particular thing about a general phenomenon or a number of things about a particular phenomenon, but they can be both stretched out of shape trying to explain too much or so stingy in what they take in they explain nothing at all.**

Anyway, I don’t want to get too bogged down*** in measurement or even conscious interpretation, especially since I’m trying to figure out what comes before said measurement or conscious interpretation.

Which is to say, the mess.

If I don’t have a theory or a model for this mess, I do have a direction—find damned-near-indisputably necessary bits to human being.

Damned-near-indisputably-necessary bit 1: We are mortal beings.

We’re born, we live, we die. No one enters life without having been born****, and no one stays forever. Whether there is something before or after life is disputed, as is the significance of that extra-life existence, but, today, every yesterday, and for the foreseeable future, our mortality is sufficiently indisputable as to be called a fact.

D-n-i-n bit 2: We are biological beings.

This goes along with our mortality: as far as is known, everything biological is of necessity mortal. But this has a particular meaning beyond our mortality, since as biological beings we have particular needs required to keep that biology working. We need food and water and protection from both the elements and predators. We can become ill, get better; we break, we mend; we live as physical beings within a particular environment and if we are not able to meet our biological needs within that environment, we either move or die.

D-n-i-n bit 3: We are social beings.

Some people dispute this; those people should be ignored.

This is not about a kumbaya vision of cooperative harmony, but a recognition that we are all helpless at the beginning of life (and many at the end); if we are not cared for during that extended period of helplessness, we die.

Furthermore, given that that period is so extended—ten years, minimum—the process of said care results in the child learning the basics of species-being, that is, language, which in turn allows one to interact with others of our kind.

I want to say more about the centrality of language to human sociality, but that would take me into less-than-indisputably-necessary bits, and the point in this post, at least, is to try to nail down something about us which any model or theory has to take into account if it is worth considering at all.

Do you remember my bit on epistemology-ontology-the practical? Of course you do! Well, I’ve hopped over the epistemological and landed us in the ontological, or, er, the proto-ontological(?!): If I won’t rely on FOUNDATIONS, then I have to at least tack a few boards together before we swing out over the abyss or float down the river or whatever metaphor doesn’t give you vertigo or make you seasick.

Where was I? Yes, the basics: We’re mortal, we’re biological, we’re social.

We’re also other things—important other things, which I’ll tack on in later posts—but I wanted to reiterate those basics on which I not only build my interpretations and theories, but upon which all interpretations and theories about human being should be built. Other people will legitimately tack on other things (that mess gives us a LOT to choose from) and swing or float in different directions, but if they start with such nonsense as “assume a can opener”, well, then they’re engaging in social-science fiction.

I got nothin’ against science fiction—I’m a fan, actually—but if you want to claim you’re saying something “real” about the world, then you better damned well deal with the damned-near-indisputable realities of this world, and our being human in it.


*Well, okay, this gets epistemologically tricky, insofar as the view through which one views a phenomenon affects the phenomenon itself. Reality is never just “there”; it’s always and unavoidably worked on. But there is a distinction between unavoidable oft-unconscious interpretation and the conscious imposition of a schema, which is what I’m trying get at, here. The distinction itself matters, and deserves further investigation—but not in this post.

**This goes for theory, as well, although theory tends to err on the side of trying to do too much than too little; a theory which does too little tends to lose its status as ‘theory’.

***That’s why this stuff is in the notes rather than the body. I’m one of those who thinks you ought to be able to skip the footnotes without missing anything important—notes are for sources and elaborations on basic points, not the introduction of novel material—so imma gonna just drop the whole shebang for now.

****What if we ever manage to figure out how to hatch a person or otherwise build one in a lab? What if we figure out how to live forever? Well, then the conditions of existence would have changed and we’d have to figure out what those new conditions mean. But we ain’t there yet.

And the walls come tumbling down

20 01 2011

I may have mentioned once or twice or fourteen time before my fascination with ruins.

Well, check out the amazing series of photos displayed over at The Kingston Lounge of buildings of the now-abandoned Riverside Hospital on North Brother Island in the East River.

The site, which is dedicated to “guerrilla preservation and urban archaeology”, also contains shots of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Creedmore State Hospital, and others, contains both amazing shots and commentary on the history of these sites.

This is the “interior of the coal house, facing east”:

This is beautiful, peaceful even.

This next shot, however, disturbs me:

According to the commentary, the hospital was re-purposed a number of times, the last, as a drug-rehab facility and school; this is from the small auditorium.

Why does this image, out of the many, many displayed on the site, disturb me?

I think it’s the flip side of the fascination: ruins imply both absence and presence, remind us that something was there—that people were there—and now they’re gone. I’ve been in wilderness areas where it is tough to find any sign of human presence; I know I’m not the first person in these places, but it’s also clear that these forests and deserts exist quite outside of us, that they are immune to our existence.

But ruins, ruins are about us. We wouldn’t, couldn’t hang on, we had to abandon what we had claimed; the ruins, standing in rebuke, outlast us.

Okay, okay, they are signs of our mortality—why does this shot dismay?

Perhaps because, unlike those photos of the nurses quarters or examination rooms, this is clearly a place of gathering; its devastation calls out allll gone.

All. Gone.


Someone on WNYC recently referred to “ruin porn” (this in regard to a book on an abandoned Detroit factory), and I guess I’m guilty of that indulgence.

It moves me, to see what we leave behind.

And, in the end, it soothes me that all we leave behind will, someday, join us in the ground.

Doesn’t anyone stay in one place, anymore (pt I)

6 04 2009

‘Not all social networking stuff is bad, you know.’

C. may have even raised her eyebrows as she said it.

‘I know,’ I mumbled. ‘Hey, I blog, don’t I?’


Two things lead me to this point. One was this post by Meghan O’Rourke at XX Factor, how those of us old enough to have a past can be thrown off by the jumbling of time when one is friended by a memory. Sometimes I find it reassuring; at other times, extremely destabilizing, a vortex forcing me to contemplate years gone by, loves lost, friends I let go of without fully intending to. Sure, there are class reunions and gossip through whatever thin vines are left connecting one back to the old days, but reunions are fixed in time, recognizable as the artifacts they are.

But a poke from the past? As cool as I find quantum mechanics (what I can understand of it, I mean), I am utterly turned-off by the wormhole aspect of Facebook. It’s not that I hate everyone, or even anyone, from my past; it is that I am content for the past to remain so.

Yes, I rootch around in it, and sometimes memories come, unbidden, but I am ever aware of that distance between then and now—and of the panoply of feelings around that distance. Sometimes I am sad, sometimes relieved, or confused, or embarassed, remorseful, and sometimes I feel nothing other than I am not who I was.

There can be a poignance to this recognition. I am mortal, and will lose and gain and change as I move through this life, until there is nothing left of me at all. I can’t gather all my life in, live simultaneously as the happy third-grader or shattered teenager or tentative new adult. There are people I knew then who I don’t know now; what would it be to have them here, with me, now?

It’s not that there must have been a Reason for us to have parted; time and physical distance are as good an explanation as anything. We simply lost touch with one another, that’s all.

So why not get back in touch? I am, after all, still friends with two women who I’ve known since kindergarten, some others from high school, college, grad school, post-grad. . . if I can hang on to these people, why not throw another knotted rope to the past, in hopes of enticing the others to grab on?

I don’t know, really, that I have a good answer to that; I think it’s a why/why not choice, that is, one made less through reason than a shrug.

Perhaps I can only justify my choice after-the-fact, to say that this is what seems appropriate to me, what works for me. I need to have a sense of time, and to remind myself of the inevitability of loss inherent in time. It’s not about despair—some of what was lost deserved to be shed, and I am the stronger and saner for it—but about understanding, making sense of the trajectory of my life.

Would friending someone I knew in, say, 10th grade foul up that sense? I do wonder about some people, about KB and CM and SP and how and who they are, today, and have even thought about trying to get in touch with them.

But then what? We were tight then, and now we’re not. I am curious, but do I miss them? I miss what we had, but would we have it again? I don’t think so.

So why not take the chance, track down the old running buddies and confidants to see if there is still something there?  Am I afraid?

Again, I don’t think so. It’s more that my life is here, today, in New York City in 2009, and I need to make my life stick here, today, in New York City in 2009. Time spent with those I’ve lost is time not spent with those I’ve hung on to (and who’ve hung on to me), and those I’ve found.

And the people here matter. I like them and getting to know them, and letting them getting to know me. We can’t take anything for granted, can’t call up a shared past or a ‘remember when’ as we huddle over our beers. I have that with some people, but with these new friends, there is the frisson of wondering what to reveal and what will be revealed, of risk and anxiety and the delight in discovering that, yes, there is more than mere proximity to our relationships, that we are, in fact, friends.

O’Rourke noted that Sometimes I have an almost physical need to touch the screen and get past the pixels. I understand that longing, I do. I also understand the necessity of bearing such longing, and remembering that not all can be reconciled.