Archive for January, 2017

Wondering what to do next

January 30, 2017

Philip Martin Article published in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette 1/29/17

If you are wondering what to do next, start with something blank: a clean white sheet of paper or a fresh browser window. Or a stretched canvas. Or the fraught still air of a quiet moment.

Gather whatever tools you have. Your paint pots, your pencils, your coffee, your guitar. Your nerve. The flick of hubris you try to keep tamped down during social interactions. That part of you that imagines your expression worth the attention of others. The inarticulate furiousness and dissatisfaction that troubles your sleep. Your conscience. Your truth.

Now begin.

Begin in humility, knowing the point is not to make any display of acumen or effort but simply to try. The point is to do, to fill up a lifetime with doing. To push out fear with busyness. To discover your limits and bloody your nails scraping against them.

Do not imagine an anonymous audience; speak to your ideal intimate. Do not condescend or explain or worry about what they will not understand. For if you are fortunate enough to be heard, you will be misunderstood and willfully misconstrued. If you are noticed, you will be ungenerously appraised.

Still, receive whatever criticism you are lucky enough to get. And remember that this is not therapy. You should not expect to be healed through endeavor. Do not expect any reward beyond that which is inherent in making the thing. Do not expect that you can please those who will not be pleased; do not expect that you can win friends or influence people.

This is just what you do next, what you do to keep sane. What you do to hold onto your self-respect.

Above all, you should not pretend. Do not hedge your efforts, but try to strike it flush. And when you miss, try again. Do not worry about the misses. Misses are inevitable and necessary. They are your education and experience. Your exercise.

If you are wondering what to do next, you need to avoid collapsing into whatever comfort is available. You need to be suspicious of easy habits that lure you into physical and mental lassitude. Comfort can be a trap. There are always those who would prefer you soothed and placated, hypnotized by shiny spinning things. We are liable to trade much away for the illusion that all is well.

You are an adult, so you know that all is never as well as it might be. The world is no accident; it is what we have made it. It is as much the product of our unreliability and our folly as of any thoughtfulness and foresight. Our society is an expression of our collective will.

But the world was never a blank–it was rife with creatures before we got here. We inherited a planet precariously balanced between extremes, verdant and blue and hospitable to soft flesh and warm blood. However you look at it, it took a squaring of miracles to bring us here, to deliver us to the top of a food chain, to invent our superstitions and our science.

Climbs are hard. Falls are easy, though they seem unimaginable until they happen. But they happen. All the time. Things fall apart. What we make is unmade.

It is possible that you will one day be powerless. That your voice won’t matter. But now is not that time.

Someday you may worry that your neighbor will report on you. It is easy to think that cannot happen here, but it could. It has. If you read history you know this, you know how people can imagine themselves good people even as they permit (or suborn) evil.

Consider that one of the lucky things about living in this country, in this age, is that up to now most of us have never really had to make a hard choice about which side we’re on. Most of us have been able to take for granted that–no matter how heated the rhetoric becomes–most of what we argue about amounts to very little.

There are petty inequalities: Someone pays a little more, someone else a little less. Someone is allowed access, someone else waits in the hallway. We are used to being insulated from the consequences of our choices. We can cheer for blue or red; someone will win and someone will lose and they will line up again in a year or two or four and play the game again.

Nobody goes to prison. Nobody gets tossed from an airplane in the middle of the night. (Not yet. Not that we know of, at least.)

But this can change. We might believe we have made something more resilient than what people in other parts of the world have made–a better machine into which we plug the egos and delusions of needy people who imagine themselves great, and who imagine that they might somehow “lead” us to greatness (or maybe just want to secure the spoils of office)– but nothing lasts forever.

You know how people behave. Why do you imagine yourself immune to the forces of history? Why do you imagine your nation more durable than the empires of the past? Is it because we have better Wi-Fi?

Is it because you believe that God looks on us with special favor? That He loves us more than the others?

If so, why is that? Because we are so much better at loving our neighbors as ourselves? Because we care so much for the poor and the sick?

If you are wondering what to do, turn it over in your mind. Start from zero. Imagine what might be, and try to make it so. Distrust what feels easy, the careworn cliches and the analgesic homilies. Question it all.

If you are wondering what to do next, imagine the world you want. And get to work.



Philip Martin’s January 1 Column

January 1, 2017

Welcome to the everlasting now
By Philip Martin

This article was published in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette 1/1/17 at 1:50 a.m.

It’s an arbitrary line we’ve just crossed, from one year to the next. The wind doesn’t know it’s a new year. Calendars are artificial as hash marks on AstroTurf, just another way human beings keep track. Another way we can pretend our rituals and mythologies matter, that the stack we’ve piled up that’s maybe bigger than our neighbors’ means something. But it’s just an odometer; it rolls over and sometimes the numbers line up in ways we find interesting or significant.

I get why some people have no interest in participating. What use will all our trophies be in the cool and coming night?

But I also get why some of us are waking up with aching heads this morning. I try to watch myself these days, but I might even be one of those sorehead romantics. Engagement, at least for now, seems more interesting than the alternative. I understand that it’s all just dragon chasing, but the desperation with which we poor humans can play is touching; the wanting is always more important than the getting.

I realize that’s a dangerous sentiment, that it wanders through the neighborhood of Gordon Gekko and Ayn Rand. But I don’t think greed is good, or that the mindless pursuit of self-interest is somehow noble or natural. I only think a lot of people like to hear things like that because it provides them with cover for doing what they want to do, for leveraging every small advantage they can find. I think it’s all right to give a sucker an even break, to share your cookie with the dirty kid in the Toughskins dungarees. And I don’t worry if that makes me a Christian or a Communist because I know I’m doing it for my own selfish reasons, so I might sleep a little better.

At this point waking up in paradise would be a nice lagniappe.

Not that I have to worry too much about that; I pass up opportunities to be a better person all the time. There are homeless folks I don’t give money to, there are stricken and sad people to whom I don’t provide comforting words. When I donate something, I ask for a receipt. Mostly I try not to make anything worse for anyone if I can help it.

Anyway, it’s no longer the year in which David Bowie and Carrie Fisher and millions of other people I never met died; it’s a fresh sheet of paper in the typewriter. And as such it’s terrifying. For like they say, the future is unwritten, but look at all the hands grasping pens, looking to scrawl their names big in the book. That sort of ambition ought to scare those of us cognizant of history and the limitations of our arts and sciences, but it’s the way the world has always worked. We’ve never been led by our wisest or most humane, we’ve mostly been led by charismatic monomaniacs who had the foresight to be born in fortunate circumstances.

Some of them we make heroes because there is a part of us that requires heroes, just as we require an apparently ordered universe. (Just as we require a repeating calendar, and the very concept of time. We need ideas that we can sink into our minds to tether us to the reality we’ve agreed to observe.) We imbue the people who capture the attention of the cameras and the sycophants with magic. We imagine that they might know things we don’t–that we can’t–and that they might, by force of personality or magic, deliver us into a world that’s different from the one we’ve always known.

Yet while our gimmicks and toys have become more elaborate and efficient, human nature is the gravity that drags us back into the mire. We can expect to live longer than people used to, to hang around the bar for a few more auld lang synes than our great-grandparents did. But these imagined gains are undercut by the fact we can kill each other deader now, at a faster rate, from a greater distance.

We’ve traded our libraries for a cybernetic consciousness that’s proving no more reliable or disciplined than our individual brains. We’ve traded our books for touchscreens, our rituals for affection for apps. You can argue the advantages of the old over the new or vice-versa; you can be nostalgic for the glowing warm distortion of the analog or unsentimental about the inevitable triumph of the digital, it’s all part of the same drive for diversion.

Whatever the stakes, we will find ways of preoccupying and forgetting ourselves. That’s why some people care so much for football. Why some people care so much for politics. It’s not because they really think the outcomes of the contests will have a major effect on their lives, but because they know they won’t. Most people are too concerned with those problems that are particular and immediate to them–they worry about their jobs, their kids, their marriages, whether they’ll be able to ever retire–to put much effort into finding out about and analyzing arcane policy proposals. Mostly we just vote for people we think we’d like were we to meet them. Or for people we think we’d like to be.

It’s really that simple. You like the way someone looks, you feel assured by their persona, you’ll find a way to justify your feelings, even if you’re not stirred enough to actually vote for them. That’s why candidates are sold like other products. An appeal to the buyer’s aspiration beats an appeal to reason, but the most effective method is to activate one’s fear.

And as important as newspapers and other newsgathering organizations pretend it is, it isn’t as important as one’s private life. People like to use high-minded words like “liberty” and “freedom” but the truth is most of us would trade those in for a guaranteed level of personal and economic security. There are no guarantees. No one can keep you safe. No one can ensure your prosperity in a complex world where things so erratic as the phobias and foibles of men influence the market.

All we can do is stay alert–“woke,” as the kids say–and understand that the future belongs to those who seize it. And that, in the long run, there is no long run. It’s the moment, the everlasting now, that matters.

Editorial on 01/01/2017