Happy 2020, everyone. For no reason whatsoever I’ve been thinking a lot about war and death and all those other cheerful new year things this week.
It is easy, in the current moment, to assume that all people who have ever been in charge of things in this country have thought only of war—thoughts without foresight or hindsight, products of a ravenous Id that can only consume and destroy. You’d largely be correct. But I was recently made aware of the “Long-time nuclear waste warning messages” that are proposed to adorn repositories of the sludge and detritus from that sprint toward cataclysm we’ve been doing since the 40’s. While the messages themselves will clearly do nothing to prevent acts of war I find a small ray of hope in their existence: a hope that there will be people who heed their warnings, a hope that there will be…people at all.
This place is a message... and part of a system of messages ...pay attention to it!
Sending this message was important to us. We considered ourselves to be a powerful culture.
This place is not a place of honor ... no highly esteemed deed is commemorated here... nothing valued is here.
What is here was dangerous and repulsive to us. This message is a warning about danger.
The danger is in a particular location... it increases towards a center... the center of danger is here... of a particular size and shape, and below us.
The danger is still present, in your time, as it was in ours.
The danger is to the body, and it can kill.
The form of the danger is an emanation of energy.
The danger is unleashed only if you substantially disturb this place physically. This place is best shunned and left uninhabited.
I don’t know how they decided that this was the type of message that would be most intelligible to people in a few thousands years but I also quit linguistics after two years of majoring in it. Too hard to describe language systems as they are currently, much less project what they might look like a few civilizations’ worth of years from now.
But god, what a shiver I get reading that. Maybe more so for the twists in the syntax.
I have frequently shared my thoughts on what must be done to save the world in this newsletter and so, in another twist, I’m not going to do that here. If I haven’t made you all swords-into-ploughshares communists by this point one more issue probably won’t do the trick, anyway.
It is perhaps because things are so bad right now that I feel a commensurate level of frustration with the social media sites I frequent, Instagram in particular. There’s a particular kind of…rot, I guess, to Instagram that has always been there to some degree but makes me especially prickly on weeks like this. An insistence upon gilding things that is all too fitting for our newly-numbered decade.
I think this essay really cuts to the heart of it (emphasis mine).
When we passed around the newest batch of prints, then, we knew better than to look for the “good” pictures. There never were any. Instead, we would point to the particularly egregious ones and shriek, giving voice to feelings that lay somewhere between hilarity and terror.
But the inescapable shoddiness of our amateur photographs served an important purpose, beyond the obvious one of discouraging narcissism, and it was this: Through its very mediocrity, each image told us that the real world was better than the one it depicted. We were made aware of the richness, the vividness, the sheer reality of our actual lives simply in being shown that our virtual lives were wan and insubstantial. Each of our badly framed, overexposed pictures served as an incentive to seek out the real world.
Of course it’s easy enough to point at this paean to keeping things amateurish and say “this is how things ought to be.” It’s quite another to actually apply the general idea in a world that will never be that way again. I’m trying to remind myself of this, having just rescued my high school viola out of a closet when I was home for Christmas after an 11-year hiatus. It took me a couple of days just to get it something like in-tune; forget actually playing anything on it. But still my first instinct is to be frustrated that I can’t just pick back up where I left off in 2008, the last time it was even out of its case. Why?? Why not just revel in messing around and fucking up and occasionally stringing together a few notes or phrases that sound nice?
Which isn’t to say i’m not trying to be better at things in some ways. Right now I’m running every day—not training for anything in particular, just needing to move and to get some endorphins—when I don’t like running and am in fact used to walking everywhere.
In the mornings he would walk…. At the start of a walk, alone or moving, the sun at his back or cold rain down his collar, he was more himself than under any other circumstance, until he had walked so far he was not himself, not a self, but joined to the world. Invisibly joined. Had a religion been founded on this, purely this, he would have converted….. Proof of God? Proof was in the world, and the way you visited the world was on foot…. Your walking was a devotion.
That’s from Elizabeth McCracken’s Bowlaway, which I know nothing about save for this passage but guess that I would probably enjoy.
I remembered I had one more loose thought about the Instagram thing, which is as follows. In early 2003 I was 12 years old. That year, when my grandmother used some of her inheritance money to take my family on a cruise, we stopped off at Labadee, Haiti. If you faced the ocean you could trick yourself into thinking the world was a postcard: white sand, blue water, a breeze in the palms. And if you turned 180 degrees you faced a fence that kept the Haitians off the beach. I wandered close, once. Curious faces pressed up against the slats and I could see the eyes of a boy who was probably my age. I was too embarrassed to hold his gaze.
Everyone was taking pictures of the water and no one was taking pictures of the fence, if you catch my drift.
We’re 40 issues in so I can’t remember if I’ve shared this David Berman poem before, but it feels appropriate for the times we’re in now and it also feels related to the photo set that follows below, of the artificial landscapes of the North Sea oil industry.
This issue has been all over the place—blame it on my first week back teaching after the holiday break, which is always an adventure. I’ve had this hollow, spooky feeling in my chest for a few days and I’m grateful to have this vehicle for sharing it.
Look out for each other. I’ll catch you next week.