Sunday, October 31
epoch / trailing edge of a prologue
The point precisely is that, to an Athenian audience, it was useful and pertinent, as supplying just what they needed to make the succeeding scenes intelligible. But it is difficult to accept the view that Euripides invented the plan of producing a god out of a machine to justify the action of deity upon man, because it is plain that he himself disliked this interference of the supernatural and did not believe in it. He seems, in such a typical prologue as that to the Hippolytus, to be accepting a conventional formula, and employing it, almost perversely, as a medium for his ironic rationalism.
— "Prologue", the 1911 Britannica
I make a living as a hopeless nerd. That's the background noise, or part of it.
On the computer I use at work, I run a mildly esoteric piece of software called xmonad. It's a window manager, and if you don't know what that means, well, I promise you that it will never matter. As with most any desktop computer you've used in the last 15 to 20 years, part of my screen is devoted to displaying the status of various things. In my case, it looks like this:
The large, orange number towards the right is slowly ticking upwards, counting the number of seconds since midnight of January 1, 19701, which is the point in time that a handful of nerds once arbitrarily decided would define the Epoch. Since the nerds in question were working on an operating system that eventually sort of took over the world, this has turned out to be a decision with some consequences.
The idea of 1970 as a kind of Year Zero resonates for me these days, but there's nothing very-human readable about representing the date as a single 10-digit number. I've been keeping it in view not for any practical reason but because it's a kind of constant, low-level reminder of the tiny increments in which my life is ending, a sort of index to the magnitude of time. These are probably ridiculous ideas, but at least it's a little less garish than the skull-on-the-desk approach.
Last night, as this Halloween party at Casey's wound down, I found myself entirely sober and patiently explaining basic facets of reality to apologetic drunk people.2 I know it's undesirable to be the least intoxicated man in a group, but I never quite remember why until it happens.3 The drunken mind fixates and circles back on itself constantly. Checks and balances evaporate.
"I think I'm starting to understand why sober people quit hanging out," I said to Erik, who's been living in a van in the driveway since he came back from Europe. "Ah," he said in the tones of a man who probably knew the futility of explaining a thing before you were born, "slowly, a light begins to dawn."
Some years ago, shortly before tearing down Pearl naked with a carved pumpkin on my head for the first time, I realized in a sudden panic that I was nowhere near drunk enough to go through with the run. A friend found a bottle of Jim Beam and filled a coffee cup. I chugged it — it was too much to shoot, per se — and stepped out into the yard for a moment to decide whether I might black out or vomit into the gutter. The moment passed. I went back inside and found my pumpkin. We marched down the street and did the whole bit. All of the relationships that moment represents are probably dead, but I still remember it as one of the minor, absurd highlights of my existence.
Or here: It's Saturday at Harvest Moon. We've just finished playing a couple of the best — and most gruelling — games of ultimate I'll ever participate in. The sun is going down and we're sitting on the fields with beers in our hands. There are drinking games starting near the keg. Everyone is wearing the battered, essential remnants of thrift-stored costumes — makeshift kilts and random belts. My skin is covered in dried sweat, my knees are the color of crushed grass and crusted blood. These girls with long hair and long flowing skirts are throwing a disc back and forth in the fading light. I feel more perfectly in and of the world than I know how to express. I'm going to do this every year, I tell Dave and Alan.
Or again, maybe four years ago: A month and a half before Halloween, a weekend night at Winfield, wandering from jam to jam, dancing in the dust in front of the grandstand, a little stoned, passing a good bottle around, rolling smokes and drinking coffee at midnight, half a dozen of the people I love most in the world standing around the fire, for a few days nothing compromised and nothing broken that can't be lived above, below, or around.
At the time it all seemed like part and parcel of the life I was going to live until I died. But that's hardly ever the case at all. Often enough it's not exactly mortality that gets you — not your own, at least — but the way that you can so easily become a short-notice exile from what you think of as your own life. Friendships, relationships, families, marriages, jobs, disciplines, drug habits, religions, a given home, a town, a country, and easily enough your own mind... It's all subject to any loss or reversal you can imagine. Between what just kind of falls away and what goes straight to hell, there is not a whole lot of reasonable expectation of security in any of this.
Or I suppose it could be that the thing you believe yourself to be living out, the person you believe yourself to be — it's almost always temporary and illusory. Maybe there's some underlying arc to some essential story. A lot of people struggle to convict themselves of that idea constantly. I'm not sure I can buy in.
1 Yeah, it's actually more complicated than that, but if you're worried about the technical rather than the poetic details, a) you already know, and b) Wikipedia is right there. There's also this, this, and this.
2 "Your tire is flat" basic, not "the universe is almost entirely indifferent to your existence" basic.
3 And it hasn't happened to me much in a long time.