Think List

Subscribe / Follow / Shop / Email


April 11, 2020

A Funny Sadness

I burned a lot of calories writing emails this week. The exhaustion of that is still with me now, but there's also the sense that I've progressed slightly in my efforts to be a better human. It's a moving target, being better, and even being human, but I feel I made it through one particular darkness that's been with me for a while, and emerged somewhere closer to what being better means to me right now, and I'm grateful to have had the exchanges I did.

Still, something about having a long and not-to-be-taken-lightly email ahead of me (either to read or to write) fills me with a great anxiety. It can be painful, staying open to all the new information, allowing it to pass through you with as little resistance as possible and perform a kind of excavation. It might even force you to change, assuming you're able to stay open and honest and willing to accept the raw hurt and effort required. The same can be said for any sincere act of writing. It forces you to face your true thoughts and feelings, scrutinize them, and maybe even follow them down the ladder of betterment in yourself to fix some things before following them back up again. But if you're lucky, they will eventually guide you to that sacred place where the words and sentences seem about right. (Never mind that very few people will ever read them.) That is where the good stuff lies. On the other side of that struggle. But one must dig to get there. Even when "one," after all these years, still does not really know what he's digging for or why.

There's a lot of sadness going around lately, enough for everyone to share. Sadness plus isolation will equal different things for different people. For some, these conditions are perhaps not ones they enter into often. For others, things will feel more familiar. Whichever group you're in, I think it's fair to say that we are as a whole experiencing more than our usual share of sadness and isolation right now. I imagine the planet as the same huge and intricate sphere it's always been, but glowing now with the rare light of our collective introspection. It's like the Earth went on a late-night drive alone (together) with just its thoughts and a mix of its favorite sad Springsteen songs. I don't mean to trivialize the damage already done and still now proceeding, but I do find solace in all the basic beauty and humor people still seem to be finding aboard our thoroughly wounded ship.

That's enough out of me for this week. I hope you find some comfort and joy in the words below, and whatever else comes your way.

Brian Leli, April 2020

The Late John Garfield Blues

Midnight fell on Franklin Street
And the lamppost bulbs were broke
For the life of me, I could not see
But I heard a brand new joke
Two men were standing upon a bridge
One jumped and screamed you lose
And just left the odd man holding
Those late John Garfield blues

John Prine, "The Late John Garfield Blues"

The Late Sunday, Early Monday Morning Blues

What I was writing about was how late Sunday night going into Monday morning was always a weird period of time. Whether you were apprehensive about work or school, it was like the twilight zone. At first, the song was called "The Late Sunday, Early Monday Morning Blues." I finally decided to make it like the kind of movie that would be on TV at that hour, a John Garfield movie. It's not so much about him, the actor; I used this character to get into something else.
When Kris Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge got together, they moved into this house on Franklin Avenue in Los Angeles. They had an acetate of the record, and when they played that song, the electricity went out in the house. The next day, they found out that John Garfield used to own the place. It's a good thing it wasn't a song about John Garfield, or he'd have been turning my lights out.

John Prine,

A Letter to My Students as We Face the Pandemic

Jeez, what a hard and depressing and scary time. So much suffering and anxiety everywhere. (I saw this bee happily buzzing around a flower yesterday and felt like, Moron! If you only knew!) But it also occurs to me that this is when the world needs our eyes and ears and minds. This has never happened before here (at least not since 1918). We are (and especially you are) the generation that is going to have to help us make sense of this and recover afterward. What new forms might you invent, to fictionalize an event like this, where all of the drama is happening in private, essentially? Are you keeping records of the e-mails and texts you’re getting, the thoughts you’re having, the way your hearts and minds are reacting to this strange new way of living? It’s all important. Fifty years from now, people the age you are now won’t believe this ever happened (or will do the sort of eye roll we all do when someone tells us something about some crazy thing that happened in 1970.) What will convince that future kid is what you are able to write about this, and what you’re able to write about it will depend on how much sharp attention you are paying now, and what records you keep.

George Saunders, The New Yorker, April 2020

Larry David, Master of His Quarantine

When I ask if he is hoarding anything, he is outraged. “Not a hoarder,” he said. “In fact, in a few months, if I walk into someone’s house and stumble onto 50 rolls of toilet paper in a closet somewhere, I will end the friendship. It’s tantamount to being a horse thief in the Old West.”
“I never could have lived in the Old West,” he added parenthetically. “I would have been completely paranoid about someone stealing my horse. No locks. You tie them to a post! How could you go into a saloon and enjoy yourself knowing your horse could get taken any moment? I would be so distracted. Constantly checking to see if he was still there.”

By Maureen Dowd, The New York Times, April 2020

If Your Doctor Spoke Like Trump

So you’re positive for Corona. And usually “positive” is a positive word—it’s a very good word, frankly. Everybody thinks it’s good, apart from what you hear on the news—which is fake. It’s largely fake. But in medicine, “positive” is not so good. So it’s very confusing. And I’ve always been very clear about that. Some say “positive” is always good, but I’ve never agreed with that.

Sam Harris, March 2020

December 2014 Remarks by Then President Barack Obama on Research for Potential Ebola Vaccines

There may and likely will come a time in which we have both an airborne disease that is deadly. And in order for us to deal with that effectively, we have to put in place an infrastructure—not just here at home, but globally—that allows us to see it quickly, isolate it quickly, respond to it quickly. And it also requires us to continue the same path of basic research that is being done here at NIH that Nancy is a great example of. So that if and when a new strain of flu, like the Spanish flu, crops up five years from now or a decade from now, we’ve made the investment and we’re further along to be able to catch it. It is a smart investment for us to make. It’s not just insurance; it is knowing that down the road we’re going to continue to have problems like this—particularly in a globalized world where you move from one side of the world to the other in a day.

Barack Obama, December 2014

Love Letter

Seen in retrospect, yes: I have regrets. There was a certain critical period. I see that now. During that period, your grandmother and I were doing, every night, a jigsaw puzzle each, at that dining-room table I know you know well, we were planning to have the kitchen redone, were in the midst of having the walls out in the yard rebuilt at great expense, I was experiencing the first intimations of the dental issues I know you have heard so much (too much?) about. Every night, as we sat across from each other, doing those puzzles, from the TV in the next room blared this litany of things that had never before happened, that we could never have imagined happening, that were now happening, and the only response from the TV pundits was a wry, satirical smugness that assumed, as we assumed, that those things could and would soon be undone and that all would return to normal—that some adult or adults would arrive, as they had always arrived in the past, to set things right. It did not seem (and please destroy this letter after you have read it) that someone so clownish could disrupt something so noble and time-tested and seemingly strong, that had been with us literally every day of our lives. We had taken, in other words, a profound gift for granted. Did not know the gift was a fluke, a chimera, a wonderful accident of consensus and mutual understanding.

George Saunders, "Love Letter," The New Yorker, April 6, 2020 Issue

Altogether Elsewhere, Vast Herds of Reindeer

Mom then thinks to me of the glory days of Manhattan, when it teemed with humanity in the flesh and consumed energy like a black hole. People lived one or two to a vast room all their own, and had machines that carried them around, cooled or warmed them, and made food and cleaned clothes and performed other wonders, all while spewing carbon and poisons into the air at an unimaginable rate. Each person wasted the energy that could support a million consciousnesses without physical needs.
Then came the Singularity, and as the last generation of humans in the flesh departed, carried away by death or into the Data Center, the great city fell silent. Rainwater seeped into the cracks and seams of walls and foundations, froze and thawed, pried them open ever wider, until the buildings toppled like trees in the ancient horror of logging. Asphalt cracked, spewing forth seedlings and vines, and the dead city gradually yielded to the green force of life.

Ken Liu, "Altogether Elsewhere, Vast Herds of Reindeer," The Hidden Girl and Other Stories

A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy

Seneca describes the negative visualization technique in the consolation he wrote to Marcia, a woman who, three years after the death of her son, was as grief-stricken as on the day she buried him. In this consolation, besides telling Marcia how to overcome her current grief, Seneca offers advice on how she can avoid falling victim to such grief in the future: What she needs to do is anticipate the events that can cause her to grieve. In particular, he says, she should remember that all we have is “on loan” from Fortune, which can reclaim it without our permission—indeed, without even advance notice. Thus, “we should love all of our dear ones …, but always with the thought that we have no promise that we may keep them forever—nay, no promise even that we may keep them for long.” While enjoying the companionship of loved ones, then, we should periodically stop to reflect on the possibility that this enjoyment will come to an end. If nothing else, our own death will end it.

William B. Irvine, A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy